“Advocacy is not only part of our work, it is part of our body, part of our bones, part of our blood, part of our lives.”
The September 2015 Convening of women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs) from Indonesia and the Philippines was a unique opportunity to learn directly from grassroots activists about their approach to policy advocacy. During the convening, participants spoke about what advocacy means to them, and the specific strategies they use. All affirmed that advocacy is the driving force of their work, highlighting their focus on dialogue with government and other stakeholders at all levels to foster transformative change. Activists from the Philippines emphasized, “Of course advocacy is a key part of our work, because we know our rights and we know how to assert them and push the government to implement them to see justice.”
WHRDs reported accessing a range of advocacy venues, which they targeted strategically and selectively, depending on the issues they focused on, as well as their location, capacity, and the funds available. All of the activists used local and national mechanisms as well as international United Nations structures. Most had decided to bypass the limited regional systems in Southeast Asia, namely the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), because they found them ineffective and even counterproductive at times. Instead, they focused on building and strengthening their civil society alliances within the Asia Pacific region.
Local and National Mechanisms:
At the local level, they targeted community leaders with direct advocacy and dialogue, and, when these failed, street demonstrations. At the national level, they engaged in both litigation and non-litigation advocacy efforts. Sometimes, litigation was not successful, or positive judicial decisions were received but not implemented. When this happened, they shifted their approach from litigation to other strategies, such as sensitizing key allies in relevant ministries or government agencies, organizing online and offline awareness-raising campaigns, and providing paralegal services to educate people about their rights. They also focused on forming networks and coalitions and working with their National Commissions on Human Rights and both houses of their national parliaments. Additionally, WHRDs in the Philippines accessed the Office of the Ombudsman, which they described as useful and responsive.
Regional and International Mechanisms:
The value of building international solidarity was often cited, and WHRDs were eager to engage in actions in support of each other’s national advocacy campaigns. All reported expending a considerable amount of energy on international networks and global advocacy mechanisms. WHRDs from the Philippines highlighted the International People’s Tribunal as one of the key global NGO networks they relied on for their international advocacy.
All also engaged actively with the UN, but they used diverse strategies targeting different instruments and spaces. Their activities ranged from preparing and presenting NGO Shadow Reports to the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and to various treaty monitoring bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to providing testimonies of violations and recommendations to Special Procedures, such as the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders, the rights of indigenous peoples, the human rights of internally displaced persons, and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Among the legal and policy documents they found most useful in their work, they drew attention to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the growing number of business and human rights instruments – in particular those focusing on legally binding obligations rather than voluntary mechanisms.
Strikingly, while WHRDs at the convening targeted a very broad range of UN mechanisms in their international advocacy, most of these were not specifically focused on women. They shared that they used all the mechanisms and strategies they knew of and would appreciate more resources and information to facilitate their engagement with additional spaces and instruments. Some of the WHRDs from Indonesia had engaged with the CEDAW Committee, but WHRDs from the Philippines shared that they had not been able to write a Shadow Report for CEDAW due to a lack of resources, and, as a consequence, there were no civil society recommendations on indigenous women at that CEDAW Committee session. They stressed that funding for these types of activities would be essential to enable them to seize valuable opportunities like this one.
Convening participants shared their frustrations about the difficulties and uneven results of their advocacy initiatives. Even when they succeeded in pushing for positive legal or policy developments, implementation remained too often insufficient. Impunity for human rights abuses as well as backlash against their victories discouraged them and the people whom they had organized. Indigenous WHRDs from both countries described the frequent arguments about “culture” that were raised to oppose their agenda for women’s human rights. All agreed that it remained challenging to push governments to tackle the root causes of the issues they fight for.
Despite these daunting challenges, WHRDs spoke of advocacy with enthusiasm and underscored that the positive impacts of their efforts far outweighed the challenges. They stressed that although setbacks could be discouraging, in their view there was no alternative because, as a WHRD from the Philippines explained, “If we don’t engage in advocacy the situation will be much worse.” Most importantly, they shared that their advocacy actions had given hope to and strengthened the leadership, confidence, and voice of individual WHRDs, along with their organizations, networks, and movements, and the grassroots constituencies they mobilized and activated. The advocacy of these WHRDs also helped build greater recognition of the issues, as well as more support and solidarity.
Finally, their advocacy sometimes brought concrete results, some of which are shared in these case studies. For example, in the Philippines, WHRDs’ advocacy led to visits, investigations, and reports by Special Rapporteurs in Mindanao and other regions. They collectively concluded that advocacy is a long and arduous process that requires patience and resilience but that can produce invaluable results, ranging from bringing about concrete policy or legal changes to more broadly strengthening and sustaining WHRDs and their movements. “My advice?” offered one participant from Indonesia, “Just don’t stop doing advocacy!”