It is with great concern that we at the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) learned of the recent media attacks on La Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local and La Agrupación Ciudadana para la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico, two civil society organizations comprised of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who work to defend the sexual and reproductive rights of women in El Salvador.
As has been noted by several United Nations Special procedures, WHRDs who work on sexual and reproductive rights issues are particularly at risk of grave consequences, as they are often perceived to be “challenging accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, […] and the role and status of women in society.” This is especially the case for WHRDs who work on abortion-related human rights issues in highly restrictive settings, such as El Salvador.
El Salvador has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, with abortion criminalized in all cases, even when the woman’s life or health is at risk, or in cases of rape or incest. One of the most serious consequences of the total ban is the incarceration and wrongful imprisonment of numbers of women who have suffered pregnancy-related complications and miscarriages. The total ban has also fed and perpetuated the widespread proliferation of abortion-related stigma. Produced, reproduced and reinforced at individual, community, institutional, cultural, and legal levels, abortion stigma has particularly grave impacts in restrictive settings, not only on those who may seek an abortion or are suspected of having an abortion, but also on WHRDs who work to defend sexual and reproductive rights.
As a result of the abortion ban and proliferation of abortion stigma in El Salvador, WHRDs who work on sexual and reproductive rights may be subjected to several attacks, such as discrimination, harassment, intimidation, surveillance, digital attacks, and physical and social violence, among others. They may also become the targets of public defamation and misinformation campaigns, hate speeches by public officials, as well as by non-State actors, such as religious and community leaders, or fundamentalist groups and the media, as is the recent case of La Colectiva Feminista and La Agrupación Ciudadana, all of which are intended to impede their work to advance sexual and reproductive rights as human rights.
Attacks on WHRDs and their organisation have devastating consequences; they instigate fear and may discourage WRHDs from continuing their important work on ensuring sexual and reproductive rights, while also violating their own rights to defend human rights; to liberty, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association; and to freedom from violence and discrimination.
Political leaders and government officials are complicit in the perpetuation or even legitimization of the harassment experienced by WRHDs, either by being unresponsive when cases of harassment are brought to light, or by directly harassing WHRD organizations themselves. The protection of WHRDs who work on sexual and reproductive rights in countries where abortion is totally banned entails protection from the kinds of media attacks experienced by La Colectiva Feminista and La Agrupación Ciudadana.
As noted by the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as well as by regional and international Human Rights bodies, States must provide security for WHRDs as well as an enabling environment for them to do their work, as part of State responsibilities to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. When governments permit attacks on WHRDs, they impede human rights. In the specific case of El Salvador, moreover, impeding the work and silencing the voices of WRHDs impedes debate on abortion in the country, which runs against the recommendations by UN experts that El Salvador review its law on abortion and bring an end to the resulting injustices.
We at WGNRR thus urge the government of El Salvador to:
- “Publicly acknowledge the particular and significant role played by women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues in the consolidation and advancement of plural and inclusive societies as a first step to preventing or reducing the risks that they face,” as recommended by United Nations Special procedures;
- Ensure the human rights of WHRDs to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom to defend human rights;
- Take all measures necessary to ensure the effective protection of WHRDs such as La Colectiva Feminista and La Agrupación Ciudadana from harassment, violence and discrimination.
 By “Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs)”, we refer to women activists; men who defend women’s rights; lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) human rights defenders; and groups committed to the advancement of women’s human rights and sexual rights. For more references see Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition.
 Ibid, para. 99. See also UN Report Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Human Rights Defenders, E/CN.4/2001/94, 26 January 2001, para. 89 (g); and “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya,” A/HRC/16/44, paras. 45 and 85, 20 December 2010.
 Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC), et al. (2014) Our Right To Safety: Women Human Rights Defenders’ Holistic Approach to Protection.
 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, A/RES/53/144, 8 March 1999, Art. 2.
 Promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: protecting women human rights defenders, A/RES/68/181, 30 January 2014, para 9.
 See Report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, A/HRC/25/55 December 23 2013, para. 100; See also the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.124, Doc. 5 rev.1, 7 March 2006, paras. 20, 21, 31-34.
 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2015), Guadalupe’s pardon: UN experts urge El Salvador to pardon all women jailed for pregnancy complications and repeal restrictive abortion law.