Hina Jilani

BANGKOK, Thailand (WOMENSENEWS)–When 11 military men kicked down the door at a meeting attended by Riza Fanilag and 10 other peace activists in the Philippines’ Mindanao province and dragged away her friend and colleague, Angelina Ipong, they didn’t just slam the prison door behind Ipong.

They tortured and sexually abused Ipong first, said Fanilag, an assertion backed by international human rights groups including Amnesty International.

That was over two years ago, in March 2004.

Today Ipong, 62, sits in prison, still awaiting trial for 14 charges that the government has brought against her, including murder, arson and robbery. It says she is a senior member of the Communist Party of the Philippines and was wanted on outstanding criminal charges but Fanilag and international human rights organizations say Ipong is simply a vocal opponent of government policy toward the rural poor. When she was arrested she was taking part in a delegation that hoped to launch peace negotiations between the Philippines government and Muslim insurgents in their war-torn province.

Right now, the Philippines can be a dangerous place for human rights defenders. Since 2001, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power, 319 activists have been killed by suspected military or police personnel and pro-government death squads and another 185 political activists have disappeared, according to a report issued to the United Nations in September by five activist groups in the Philippines. Many of these activists are women who end up victims of gender-specific forms of torture and harassment.

“Many women are raped, sometimes they can’t speak of it, it’s very shameful,” said Fanilag, a peasant’s rights activist.

Fanilag, 31, took time out for this interview during the first International Women Human Rights Defenders Day in Asia, held Nov. 29 in Bangkok. The event was held as part of an international United Nations effort to honor and bring together human rights defenders during the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign from Nov. 25 through Dec. 10.

Women Singled Out

While male and female human rights defenders–including grassroots activists, lawyers and community leaders–face violence, torture, murder and harassment in the course of their work, women are often singled out for special forms of punishment, said women attending last week’s conference. They are sexually harassed, raped, or accused of being prostitutes, lesbians or “loose women” by opponents in socially conservative societies where such labels can doom. Sometimes their own families attack and ostracize them for transgressing traditional women’s roles.

“The very fact that we undertake certain activities is resisted because we are stepping outside our role,” said Hina Jilani, U.N. special representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders and an activist from Pakistan. “While all human rights defenders are subject to vilification and smear campaigns, women human rights defenders can be discredited with just a word or a look.”

Sunila Abeysekara, a professional human rights organizer, remembers standing on stage with other Sri Lankan political activists during a rally against the ongoing civil war one day in August.

Suddenly, the platform was invaded by a group of men, including Buddhist monks, and the rally abruptly ended. The event was shocking for everyone, but, Abeysekara, the executive director of Inform, an organization based in Colombo that documents human rights violations, says she and the other female activists were singled out in personal attacks by pro-government groups on Web sites, television and in newspapers.

Abeysekara said in an interview that one activist was vilified as having an affair with a married man and she was called a “loose woman” because she is single mother.

Murdered Women Honored

Dozens of participants at the conference took a moment to honor seven female activists murdered since 1989 and dozens of others who have been targeted because of their gender and the work that they do.

One was Sierra Leone’s FannyAnn Eddy, a gay and lesbian rights activist who, in 2004, was repeatedly raped and then brutally murdered in the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association, which she had founded. The association continues to operate under new leadership.

“Usually, as women the first thing that comes to the mind of arresting officials or perpetrators is they are sexual objects,” Edna Aquino, a longstanding human rights activist from the Philippines said in an interview. “Women’s bodies become battlegrounds for control, the most tangible arena.”

Fanilag’s eyes still widen in disbelief when she talks about her friend.

“Angie, when she was arrested she is undressed. She is 60 years old, she is undressed by military and touched” in her private areas, she said. Fanilag is on a local government hit list herself and was forced to flee Mindanao for Manila in 2004 after military intelligence officers accused her of being a member of two insurgent groups. She spends her nights restlessly tossing and turning as she waits for the knock on the door.

“That’s the price of being a woman human rights defender, when they shoot me that’s OK, I want to close my eyes,” Fanilag said.

Counter Terrorism Dangers

Activists say it is difficult to quantify the violence against female human rights defenders since most human rights organizations don’t keep track of attacks against women in particular.

“Very few organizations are making that distinction,” said Lisa Pusey, a program officer for the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, which co-hosted the conference. “There’s specific risks that women human rights defenders face in the course of their work that’s not being brought to light.”

But many say the post-Sept. 11 phase of widespread national “counterterrorism” initiatives has heightened their dangers. Often human rights defenders, including women, are caught in the crossfire between state and non-state actors.

“We have this whole war on terror enacting increasingly repressive laws that are abused by states to repress all forms of dissent,” Pusey said. “So a lot of NGOs are being called terrorist organizations simply because they speak against state policies.”

For example, many rights activists contend that political assassinations in the Philippines have been aggravated by the anti-terrorism campaign launched by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s government earlier this year. Often, the activist groups say, the military and paramilitary groups justify their attacks and arrests by accusing the victims, such as Fanilag and Ipong, of being members of insurgent groups that have been labeled as terrorist groups by the United States and the Philippines.

“It is happening everywhere in the world,” the U.N.’s Jilani said, “and governments are very good at picking up the bad practices of each other.”

The Arroyo government, meanwhile, has set up a government investigative office to look into claims of extra-judicial killings and abductions. Authorities reject claims that the police or military have been involved in the killings.

Megan Cossey is a journalist living in Bangkok, Thailand.

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