Mesoamerica - Solidarity & Action: Women Defenders

“There’s been an increase in military spending and a rise in femicides. It should be the other way around in theory—more spending, more security. But ‘citizen security’ throughout Central America has meant more death for women.” ~ Suyapa Martinez, CEM-H, Honduras

The safety of women working to protect and advance human rights in Mesoamerica is particularly precarious. Since 2009, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras top the Latin American list of the most reported cases of violence against women human rights defenders and activists. In Guatemala alone, about 600 violent deaths of women were reported in 2009, one of the highest murder rates of women in the continent1; in Honduras, an average of one woman is murdered per day2.  

Explicit death threats against women human rights defenders are the principal form of violence in the region. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, 2011

Women Defenders

In this context, women have mobilized across the region, leading struggles against impunity and repression. Despite suffering threats, intimidation and even death in reprisal for their work, these women activists, many of whom have never identified themselves as human rights defenders, continue to fight on the frontlines of social justice, democracy and rights battles. Women defenders work in a wide variety of movements and organizations, and are joined together by their common concern for justice. They include community leaders, teachers, mothers, union members and LGBTI activists and indigenous women, feminists, lawyers, journalists, and academics. They work to defend social and economic rights and advance political and civil rights.

Multiple factors, including the growing violence of organized crime, militarized responses to drug trafficking, repression of political opposition and devastating economic policies have deepened the crisis across the region, leaving women defenders largely unprotected and constantly under threat. Governments that invest heavily in reinforcing the power of the military and police and imposing wartime policies, rather than increasing security, have aggravated the risks to women defenders, while ignoring the need for polices and practices that respect women’s rights. Women activists are victims of slander and backlash for speaking out against powerful interests. They also often suffer violence from within their own communities and movements. Doubly at risk, their protection is particularly complex.

Mobilizing Women Activists

JASS Mesoamerica brings together and mobilizes women defenders from a range of movements, countries, and generations. Bridging historical divides and generating new alliances, JASS helps create alternative approaches that respond to the specific forms of violence faced by women who defend rights.

In partnership with five national, regional and international women’s and human rights organizations3, JASS co-founded and co-coordinates the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative (IMD). Since its launch in 2009, this initiative has sparked and strengthened national and regional alliances of defenders, and has generated fresh analysis and thinking on the specific violence faced by women defenders. through regional and national trainings, women activists and organizations are, for the first time, recognizing themselves and being recognized as human rights defenders. By defining themselves as defenders and sharing information, they are better able to access and reform existing protection and safety mechanisms.

Working with over 150 women defenders and their organizations from every country in Mesoamerica, the Initiative aims to:

  • Strengthen the skills and confidence of women defenders through human rights training and the creation of safe spaces and networks to deal with trauma and burnout;
  • Expand and improve research and reporting to inform influential human rights institutions, governments and the media about the unique nature of risks and violence against women defenders and increase pressure to respond to specific cases;
  • Improve mechanisms for immediate and coordinated responses to violations to promote accountability for women’s safety, by building and sustaining agile local to global alliances for solidarity;
  • Raise public awareness about women defenders and their vital contributions to justice, and to end widespread tolerance of violence against women;

Pioneering Research & Training

In April 2010, JASS and our partners published the assessment report, Violence against Women Human Rights Defenders in Mesoamerica. Using a participatory process, the report documented and analyzed the specific violence faced by women defenders in the region. In 2011, the initiative launched a comprehensive training program specifically for women activists, which includes a regional training of trainers program and national workshops on safety, protection and self-care. With key partners, JASS’ team of popular educators and human rights experts developed a curriculum on human rights instruments and tools. This innovative work will be woven into the JASS’ regional Alquimia program.

National Alliances

Starting in 2010, JASS and our partners co-convened meetings with women leaders and activists in MexicoHonduras and Guatemala to share and update the findings from the regional assessment report. These meetings helped establish national defenders’ networks to create alternative lines of protection for activists at risk. JASS Mesoamerica is currently a coordinating member of the National Women Human Rights Defenders Network in Mexico, and supports the national networks in Honduras and Guatemala. 

International Solidarity for Protection

As part of our Solidarity and Urgent Action Program, we draw on our international network – including the JASS teams in Washington DC, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa. Together we activate global solidarity and advocacy, including media attention and support for urgent cases of violence against women.       


[1] Observatorio para la Protección de los Defensores de Derechos Humanos, Guatemala

[2] Center for Women Rights in Honduras

[3] Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos, Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), La Colectiva Feminista (El Salvador), Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad Oaxaca (México),  the Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM) and JASS (Just Associates).

Related Regional Articles

“Protection of women defenders must be based on recognizing their existence, but also their contribution to creating better societies,” said a participant during a forum with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst who visited Central American countries to hear directly from defenders about the challenges and risks they face.

JASS Mesoamerica’s Daysi Flores gives a personal account of the impact of Berta Cáceres’ death on her life and activism: “I spoke to Berta Cáceres the day before she was murdered. We were talking about a workshop we were doing together on collective healing and power. The last thing she said to me was, “Take care, compita.”

JASS joins other human rights organizations in condemning the coordinated campaign gaining greater coverage in the Mexican media against the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI, by its acronym in Spanish) which is providing crucial technical assistance in the investigation of the 43 forcibly disappeared students from Ayotzinapa.