Women human rights defenders face onslaught of threats online

Net Results: The arts are offering marginalised activists a crucial way of finding a voice

When Rosa Luz, a black, Brazilian trans woman activist and rap artist, released a single critical of President Jair Bolsanaro's regime at the start of summer, she expected some controversy.

Speaking out in such a way is a deliberate act of artistic provocation, using a musical form that has evolved globally as an important voice for many of those society listens to least.

The single was intended to clear a space for discussion, argument and a perspective on gender, race, and politics that is not often heard – in fact it is more often, all across the world, suppressed.

Luz, a woman of quiet bravery, is articulate, engaging and thoughtful. Speaking to me from Brazil earlier this week, through an interpreter, Luz told a harrowing story.


She found that even her past experience as an artist and human rights defender did not fully prepare her for what came next: an onslaught of hate on the internet – much of it clearly co-ordinated by pro-government online militias – targeted her with such an unrelenting stream of vicious personal attacks and terrifying death threats that she had to flee São Paolo. She had to leave behind her friends and supportive community, and close down her social media accounts for weeks.

However, she has returned. São Paolo is where Luz can be who she is, both as an activist and performer. She has reopened her social media accounts and posted a defiant video on Instagram which features some of the bullying and violent threats made against her.

Halfway across the globe, another powerful and compelling woman human rights defender, Emna Mizouni, speaks to me earlier that same day. An activist and journalist who campaigns for an open internet and the rights of Tunisian women and girls, Mizouni tells me that after the Arab Spring she could see the need to broaden understanding of Arab and African communities and history at home and abroad.

She has in particular, focused on developing and supporting a better understanding of Tunisian history and culture through the organisation she co-founded called Carthagina.

Mizouni also recognised the pressing need for better online literacy and access, co-founding the Digital Citizenship organisation. Digital literacy is critically important for women and girls who come under different, and often more extreme, threats online than men and boys, she says.

Online forums

Attackers use online forums and tools to discredit and shame women, to strip them of their voices, and to encourage and organise actual physical attacks. When women are targeted, their children are also often included in the threats, Mizouni says.

This growing tide of harassment and violence against women activists and journalists was highlighted in 2018 by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who issued a statement that included many horrific examples.

The statement noted: “Online campaigns against women human rights defenders and organisations aim to damage their credibility as advocates, to diminish or obliterate the power of their voices, and to restrict the already limited public space in which women’s activists can mobilise and make a difference. The impact can be profound.

“The anxiety and fear suffered by the victims are compounded by a very real possibility of physical harm, as well as damage to livelihoods generated by the dissemination of false and sexually explicit images or other malicious lies.”

In a report, Amnesty International found at least 41 per cent of women who had been abused online feared for their physical safety and 24 per cent feared for their family's safety. It also pointed out that such attacks are, unfortunately,frequent and widespread.

The voices of women human rights defenders need to be listened to – by us, by governments, by international agencies, by the online platforms – not just for what they say as activists, but also to acknowledge the particular threats they face and to find better ways of supporting them.

Especially urgent

This is especially urgent now, as the pandemic has limited ways in which they can campaign, network and receive support, while also restricting many to an online-only presence that forces them into even more of these threatening confrontations.

How can this be achieved? You can hear directly from Luz and Mizouni, who will share their experiences and ideas on October 22nd, when I will moderate a panel on the issue of online defamation and the special risks women HRDsface human rights defenders.

The panel is part of the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival, running from October 16th-25th and presented by Smashing Times and Front Line Defenders in partnership with Amnesty, Fighting Words, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the National Women's Council of Ireland and Trócaire.

The 10-day online festival aims to “showcase and highlight the extraordinary work of human rights defenders in Ireland and around the world, past and present, and the role of the arts and artists in promoting human rights today”.

You can hear from human rights defenders, artists and activists in a wide range of areas. I hope people will come away with a better understanding of how the arts, far from being some separate arena of the privileged, are an intrinsic part of activism – of finding a voice – for so many.