ACTIVISM and defending human rights are challenging and sometimes, dangerous. Due to the nature of the work, many activists find themselves in positions that can cause them genuine harm. It takes passion, commitment, a thick skin and courage to pursue careers in defending human rights.
More so, working in complex geopolitical locations amplifies this risk. Especially – according to a new report – if you’re a woman.
Pranom Somwong has been protecting human rights for over fifteen years. At Protection International, an NGO that offers tools and strategies to people who defend human rights, she knows the importance of safeguarding individuals.
When embracing the watchdog function of human rights defence, she understands her work is not always safe. That’s why she highlights the importance of taking precautions and encouraging protection.
“Since the coup in 2014, women human rights defenders (WHRD) are at an increased risk of violence, discrimination and other violations of human rights. We have collectively suffered from the emerging risks under the militarisation of the government,” Pranom told Asian Correspondent.
“We have very limited resources to respond to the extensive changes WHRDs now face, and with all the risks, it’s difficult for us to create long-term sustainable efforts.”
The new report says women are more susceptible to vulnerabilities while documenting human rights in Thailand. From online intimidation to full on physical attacks, things are riskier for women. In rural areas, specifically, the chances of being assaulted or mistreated is much higher. Even in online spaces, WHRDs are more susceptible to verbal abuse and threats from aggressive perpetrators in hopes to destabilise their productivity.
Through the collaboration of International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Protection International (PI) and Asia Pacific forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), in the report that acknowledges periodic reports under Thailand’s Article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) lays an inconsistency.
The document reviews an apparent contradiction between what is listed under the CEDAW and what is the reality in many locations in Thailand, where women’s rights are often overlooked.
In a recent statement, FIDH vice-president Guissou Jahangiri said:
“The all-male Thai military junta has created an increasingly hostile environment for women human rights defenders.”
“To fulfil Thailand’s obligations under the CEDAW, the junta must take immediate steps towards combating discrimination and protecting women who work to defend human rights.”
Following the military coup in 2014, when the now-ruling National Reform Committee for Peace and Order – the junta – toppled the previous democratic government, security and overall safety for human rights defenders began to shake under the new junta administration.
Since then, women rights defenders are subjected to an increase in violence, discrimination and other violations of their rights. The report also emphasises they have been methodically excluded from public consultations and decision-making processes, especially in areas of land rights and natural resources.
Women in rural areas are particularly susceptible to dangers.
Many rural WHRDs are leading human rights advocacy in various areas regarding the environment, natural resources and land use. An abundance of threats, along with brutal and debilitating attacks have created an atmosphere of fear and alarm for many WHRDs throughout the country.
On Nov 19, 2012, a tragedy shocked the rights communities throughout the country.
In the community of Khlong Sai Pattana, in Surat Thani Province, two women were assassinated in cold blood while on their way to a local market.
The women – Montha Chukaew, 50, and Pranee Boonrat, 54 – were both campaigning for agricultural land rights when they became involved in a deadly dispute. The women were both members of the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand, a group entangled in a long-running quarrel with a powerful palm oil company over land rights.
Not only were the women murdered for their advocacy, but their bodies were also mutilated to intimidate the community.
Shortly after, two perpetrators were arrested. However, to the disbelief of the community, the suspects were released due to a “lack of evidence”, despite multiple eyewitnesses who purportedly identified the alleged killers.
Justice is often elusive in these types of cases. Instead, it is frequently replaced by disregard or indifference from authorities.
This is one of the fundamental issues raised among concerned rights activists: the imperative need for basic protection and support. The report outlines the necessity for adequate police protection from harassment, threats, retaliation and violence – responsibilities that authorities are obligated by law to maintain.
Women like Pranom are all too aware of the risks. For rights defenders like her, safety is essential.
— IWRAW Asia Pacific (@IWRAW_AP) July 5, 2017
She advocates for government empowerment to empower others. She stands by her commitment to uplift human rights defenders who often fall under the threat of stigmatisation, harassment, or other forms of oppression from either the military government or the civilian population.
“Women human rights defenders should be able to work in a safe and enabling environment,” Pranom said.
“We wish for more organisations and groups to support WHRDs in difficult situations and more importantly, we need to support them to carry out their activities with resources and local actions.”