Blog / 4 April 2024

If we women don't speak up, no one will speak for us

This February women environmental defenders from around the world met each other in Indonesia. All these defenders face structural violence. GAGGA, the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action, supports these women. This meeting in Indonesia provided a unique space for women, trans-, intersex and non-binary people who are often the subject of conversation but rarely have the opportunity to engage with each other and meet other defenders from around the world. For they are all amazingly knowledgeable, strong and resilient women whom we should take seriously.

“From Sexual and domestic violence to kidnapping and murder. In their efforts to defend their land, territories and natural resources, women and girl environmental defenders (WGEDs) around the world are experiencing various forms of structural violence. The violence they experience ranges from the physical to the spiritual. From dislocation and dispossession, to harassment and defamation. From sexual and domestic violence to kidnapping and murder”  (this is from this report by the global Gagga-alliance from 2021).

Coming together as a follow-up 

As a follow-up to this study around 25 - mostly women - representatives of community-based organisations from 12 countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe met in Indonesia from February 19 to 21 for a mutual sharing and linking gathering. The meeting and the study are the initiative of the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA), an alliance led by the Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM) with Both ENDS and Mama Cash and are supported by the Ford Foundation. Read this blog written by Tamara Mohr and Maaike Hendriks who attended this meeting in February.

Living in safe houses and finding a bullet on your doorstep

One woman representing an indigenous group in her country has received so many death threats and anonymous people staking her house that she had to flee to the capital city. There she is in constant hiding, moving from one safe house to another, continuing as best as she can under the circumstances to fight for indigenous women’s rights and security. She is extremely sad and depressed that she cannot go home to her village and family. She should flee the country to be safer, but could not stand the loneliness, she said. There is no hope under the current regime in her country that her situation will improve.

Another women from Latin America shared how she has already lost 7 family members who were killed by the military and how she found a bullet on her doorstep. She is heavily traumatized. Her village must be evicted for a government-initiated project. No compensation is offered, the community is forced to move. Only asking for justice led to relentless violent actions and threats. 

Safe space to share 

The 25 women shared their experiences, talked about the violence in their contexts as well as the strategies they developed to protect themselves and their communities. Together they formulated advise for funders. Both ENDS in its joint advocacy work with partners is aware of the threats they often face because of their actions. In our conversations with funders, we have identified a growing interest to support these women defenders and the willingness to better understand their situation, their needs and ways to support them directly.

Injustice and colonialism continue 

Listening to the participants in the meeting, what struck me is how they are victims of injustice and colonialism that is still continuing today. Most of these women rightfully defend their territories and livelihoods against the impact of developments conceived by and benefiting others. They face the impact of hydroelectric dams, large scale mining, infrastructure and monoculture plantations. Mostly for products we all consume without wanting to know what harm it caused to others. For these ‘development projects’ communities are evicted from their land or have to accept living with polluted water, air and land, with a detrimental effect on their health, income and living conditions. And climate change, leading to extreme droughts or floods, heat waves and fires is exacerbating their situation.  

Fighting for your rights and being labelled terrorist

When leaders in the communities – the majority of which are women who most directly feel the impact as they are taking care of the family and community – organise themselves and fight for their rights, they are labelled ‘terrorist’ and ‘anti-development’. Instead of listening to them and taking their complaints serious they face harassment, intimidation, criminalisation and even murder. 

Living in constant fear

Most of the participants in the Indonesia meeting live in constant fear, their kin and peers have been killed and they themselves have received death threats on numerous occasions. Some have gone into permanent hiding or live under the constant threat of being arrested and jailed without trial. On top of that conditions are created to weaken them and to silence them, ranging from legislation that makes it impossible to receive funds from abroad to closing down organisations, bank accounts and websites, confiscating computers and even burning down villages or safe houses. 

These women know best

Still, once again and not surprising to me but unfortunately not common knowledge, is that these women know best what needs to be done and how to react. They have developed strategies to survive and to voice their complaints. They can’t continue without solidarity and collective care. They will be more successful when they engage in joint advocacy and if we all invest in alliance- and cross-movement building. At the last day the participants developed concrete recommendations to funders who are interested to support these powerful women, trans-, intersex and non-binary people. They defined what needs most support and how support can be best provided. They provided concrete advice on how current funding practices can be improved or changed. 

Take them seriously

The first thing we should do is take them seriously. Instead of treating defenders as poor, dependent recipients of charity, funders and defenders should become partners who jointly define what works best. We should get rid of any mistrust and endless bureaucratic steps to avoid risks of misuse of money. For the defenders, the funding needs to be flexible, there is no other way. And who are we to mistrust anyone who fights for the rights of their communities, cleaning up the mess of others, risking their health, family and lives. If we are mitigating risks, we should first of all look at the risks faced by these women and make sure they stay safe. We are looking forward to taking all these learnings to future donor spaces. 


Foto credit: Mas Binbin

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