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We are honored to share with you here powerful stories of grassroots women leaders tackling environmental challenges in Indonesia and the Philippines. This opportunity to learn from their stories grew out of earlier work in the region.

Photo of women with demonstration signs

In August of 2014, the International Network of Women’s Funds (INWF) and Global Greengrants Fund (GGF) hosted a summit on women and climate change in Indonesia. The summit brought together activists, funders and environmental experts under the banner of the shared recognition that climate change is among the greatest challenges facing humanity and that women are on the cutting-edge of grassroots solutions. Despite their leadership, women are often unrecognized and lack funding for their environmental work. Thus, the summit was designed to create the conditions for a stronger, better supported, and more unified movement for women’s rights and environment sustainability.

The tactic was cross-pollination: creating opportunities for learning, exchange, and collaboration. Over five days, activists, allies, and funders listened to stories of struggles and strategies for environmental and gender justice, charting commonalities as well as differences in our movements. We ate together, went for walks together, and even danced together, always deeply grateful for the natural beauty around us. Ultimately, we forged ties and learned to see our respective work as woven together in a larger tapestry for sustainability.

Urgent Action Fund supports women human rights defenders carrying out frontline activism. Samdhana Institute, a member of the Greengrants Alliance of Funds, nurtures a community of fellows in Asia who, learning alongside farmers and indigenous peoples, are committed to sustaining people, nature and culture. Together, we were both inspired by the summit and catalyzed by the call to develop concrete collaborations.

After a year of dialogue, our organizations jointly convened women leaders from the Philippines and Indonesia who are forging solutions to environmental challenges.  Coming full circle, these activists convened and, in a space dedicated to their voices and experiences, shared with one another their unique challenges and triumphs as women.  The publication that follows tells their stories. May we all learn from them and commit to supporting their incredible work.

In solidarity,


Kate Kroeger
Executive Director, Urgent Action Fund


Nonette Royo
Executive Director, Samdhana Institute


Yes, there is a difference between women’s and men’s experiences in environmental justice activism, because the activism of men is widely accepted, but if you are a women they ask, ‘why you?’

Photo of women demonstrating

The stories shared in this report are not unusual. Throughout Southeast Asia, hundreds of women environmental activists have been jailed, defamed as threats to “national security,” or suffered discrimination and violence.¹ Yet, the experiences of these courageous women too often remain untold.

This report shares their stories. In these pages, you will meet women who have taken a stand for the environment and for the survival of their communities, often at great personal risk. These women are also human rights defenders and work at the intersection of environment, human rights, and gender equality. They advocate to end violence against women and to address climate change. They draw no artificial distinction between working to improve maternal health, challenging discrimination against indigenous peoples, and ending the devastating use of mercury in gold mining.

We choose to tell their stories because intersectional work and activism are often overlooked when they do not fit neatly into preconceived boxes of who a feminist is or what an environmental activist looks like. Their stories offer lessons in achieving a more sustainable, equitable world. Our report closes with recommendations for donors and allies.

“When our ancestral domains are under the threat, women are paramount to defending environmental rights as we are deeply connected to our land.”
— Mary Jane Real, Advisor, Urgent Action Fund

In the Mindanao region of the Philippines, criminalization of environmental and indigenous human rights defenders has reached unprecedented levels. Tactics such as false charges and imprisonment, harassment, and violence are used to deter their work. Such threats occur in the context of an ongoing conflict and are sometimes carried out under the pretext of the government’s campaign against local insurgent groups. In addition, human rights defenders, their families and their communities face displacement by the conflict and are targets of “fake encounters” (extrajudicial killings staged to appear as though they took place because of the military conflict). Women human rights defenders are at particular risk of sexual violence; rape is used to attempt to shame them and to discourage their activism.

In Indonesia, which has over 17,000 islands in its territory, the situation for women that fight for land rights and environmental justice is equally challenging. Much of the land grabs and environmental degradation take place in remote areas, making it difficult to document violations of human rights and environmental law. Women also struggle against social norms that have traditionally seen only men as leaders. In many cases, as highlighted in our case studies, palm oil production or gold mines are run by the state or managed by local companies (even if contracted by an international corporation), further complicating efforts to ensure legal and environmental compliance.

In both countries, women are at the heart of these struggles. In the following profiles, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) from Indonesia and the Philippines describe what motivated them to break from traditional roles, how they built new networks and alliances for change, and what happened when they took on leadership roles in these efforts.

These profiles are drawn from individual interviews and from group discussions during a convening held by Urgent Action Fund and Samdhana Institute in Indonesia in September of 2015. Interviews were completed by Arimbi Heroepoetri, who used a herstory-inspired methodology. This approach helped us to ensure that the women are speaking in their own voice and at their own pace, placing themselves at the heart of their stories.

At the same time, considerations were made for other experiences that may not be explicitly ‘gendered’ but are equally important, especially in the context of rural and indigenous peoples’ communities. The interview questions were developed in line with the Women Human Rights Defenders Guidelines as published by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) in Indonesia. Nina Jusuf and Judy Pasimio, both Advisors to Urgent Action Fund, provided further contextual guidance and input. The testimonies have been translated into English.

[1] Real, Mary Jane. 2015. Women Human Rights Defenders of Rights to Land in Southeast Asian Countries. OHCHR Forthcoming Publication, pp. 18-27.

Case Studies


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  • Afrida Ngato

    Afrida Erna Ngato is an indigenous activist from the Pagu tribe in North Halmahera, Indonesia. She is a “Sangaji Pagu” – a/the leader of the Pagu and a rare woman tribal leader in Indonesia, a position usually held by men. As an activist, she works closely with the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN) …

  • Eva Susanty Hanafi Bande (Eva Bande)

    Eva is a defender of women’s human rights, land rights, and the environment and a mother of three from the district of Banggai, in Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia. Her activism began in 1998 when, while still a university student, she became an advocate for survivors of sexual violence and for the rights of women and children …

  • Jull Takaliuang

    Jull Takaliuang is an indigenous woman, a legal advocate, and a defender of the environment and human rights from the small village of Menggawa in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Jull founded AMMALTA, an organization that fights for the rights of communities impacted by gold mining. Since 1998, she has led Yayasan Suara Nurani Minaesa (YSNM), an environmental and human rights advocacy organization …

  • Wilfrida Lalian

    Wilfrida is an indigenous activist from Oekopa village, Biboki Tanpah, in North Central Timor District, East Nusa Tenggara. She belongs to the Usatnesi Sonaf K’bat tribe in Oekopa. As one the oldest tribes in the region, they are respected and trusted as leaders in the community. Wilfrida is a part-time teacher in a local junior high school and a weaver. She is the mother of seven children, two of whom have passed away, and one of whom is deaf. Her husband, Kanisius Ceunfin, is a farmer …



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  • Bae Rose Undag-Lumandong

    Rose is a Higaonon from Cagayan de Oro, Misamis Oriental province. The Higaonon people are one of the major tribes of the Lumad (indigenous) peoples of Mindanao. As an indigenous woman activist, she became deeply engaged with protecting her community’s land. Given her engagement with political issues, as a student, and now as part of an indigenous peoples organization, it was not a surprise when Rose was first picked up by the military and detained …

  • Bai Ali Indayla

    Bai Ali Indayla is a Bangsomoro (Moro) activist from the Maguindanaon region, Mindanao, Philippines. Her path to leadership was not an easy one. As a Moro woman growing up in a patriarchal, Muslim society, she always felt “out of the mold” of what a girl was expected to be. She studied mathematics in college, a track dominated by male students. While still a university student, Bai Ali was elected as president of the student body, the first female student to hold this position …

  • Josephine Pagalan

    Josephine is a community leader in Surigao del Sur province in the northeastern part of Mindanao. She is a Manobo woman, one of the major tribes of Lumad (indigenous) peoples in the southern Philippines. Along with others, she has protested the incursions of mining operations into her community. For this activism, she and her community have been targeted …

  • Veronica Malecdan

    For Veronica, a Kankanaey from the Mountain Province, the process of becoming an activist did not happen automatically. Raised in poverty, Veronica found employment as a migrant worker in Hong Kong. Distance brought perspective. Her experience as a migrant worker inspired Veronica to return home, and engage in work for the rights of indigenous peoples in Cordillera …

  • Wilma Tero Mangilay

    Wilma is a Subanen woman from Midsalip, Zamboanga del Sur province. Subanen is one of the major groups of Lumad peoples in Mindanao. As her understanding of environmental and development issues grew, Wilma became an active member of Kesabuukan Tupusumi Pusaka, a Subanen people’s organization. Through environmental activism, Wilma gained a deeper understanding of the rights of indigenous peoples, and became a staunch defender of the rights of the Subanen …


The Power of Locally-Designed Strategies

workshop1Grassroots activists working on women’s rights and the environment face considerable risks and obstacles. They often work in remote locations, with limited access to funding or other resources, and may experience backlash, harassment and violence. Within this context, the ingenuity of locally-designed, locally-led strategies contributes to the effectiveness and resilience of activists and their organizations. These tactics complement traditional legal strategies and policy advocacy, yet are less recognized and thus too often under-funded.

Creative, locally-developed strategies used by the women profiled in this report include:

  • Documenting human rights abuses via informal interviews and community meetings;
  • Door-to-door canvassing to raise awareness of a specific concern;
  • Using traditional songs and dances in the context of peaceful protests;
  • Civil disobedience via barricades to stop transport of mining equipment;
  • Using customary law to strengthen the legitimacy of community decision about the use of their land and natural resources;
  • Telling the history of women’s leadership and stories of strong women leaders to strengthen community support for women’s activism.

Self-care as a Strategy

By Nina Jusuf

selfcare1As a facilitator with years of experience supporting women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs), the first thing I noticed when I met the women whose stories are shared in this publication was their love for the land. Their love for the land was the foundation – it gave them the strength to face a wide range of pressures and challenges: their family’s disapproval, questioning of their ‘womanhood’, slanders, imprisonment, torture and even death threats.

Women like Eva, Jull, Bae Rose, Bai Ali and others experience stressful events on an almost daily basis while defending their lands. As the struggle is ongoing, they are in a continuous traumatic state. The accumulated trauma, if not addressed, can affect every aspect of activism – how decisions are being made, both individual and collective, leadership longevity, and the sustainability of the movement as a whole. Equally important is the recent past and historical trauma resulting from centuries of colonization, ongoing militarization, and displacement. Historical trauma, as a cumulative collective experience passed on through generations, is often overlooked but can manifest itself negatively in activists’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

To support women and their activism, it is imperative to introduce self-care as a strategy, not as a luxury. Self-care means understanding the impacts of current, recent past, and historical traumas on women’s bodies and finding pathways to healing. Women activists are also inevitably leaders, and as such, are expected to appear strong and be supportive of others. The biggest obstacle is integrating the practice of self-care on daily basis and not feeling ashamed or perceiving it as an indulgence.

The healing process is imperative, and unfolds through the creation of safe spaces for women to share their stories and experiences, through counseling; and by tapping into their existing cultures of storytelling. Where it is very difficult to discuss trauma publicly or directly, creative approaches are needed. Through a group story weaving process, for example, women take turns telling a story and sharing their emotional state. Above all, simply introducing the idea that self-care is also a vital part of her work can plant a seed within an activist that will begin to grow and sustain her.


“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.”


Advocacy Strategies

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.

Advocacy Outcomes

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!”


“Their Lives on the Line: Women Human Rights Defenders under Attack in Afghanistan.”
Amnesty International. 2015. Accessed July 30, 2015.

“Climate Change and Natural Disasters Affecting Women, Peace and Security.”
Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD). 2015. Accessed August 10, 2015.

“How Many More? 2014’s deadly environment: the killing and intimidation of environmental and land activists, with a spotlight on Honduras.”
Global Witness. 2015. Accessed July 30, 2015.

Jull Takaliuang, Candidate Profile.
N-PEACE Network website. Accessed October 25, 2015.

“Mining and Violence against Rural and Indigenous Women in the Philippines.”
Pasimio, Judy A.. LILAK, Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights, 2013. Accessed August 19, 2015.

“The Women Who Defend Human Rights – Eva Bande.”
Protection International website. Accessed August 10, 2015.

“Women Human Rights Defenders of Rights Related to Land in Southeast Asian Countries.”
Real, Mary Jane (upcoming). OHCHR, March 2015.

“The Philippines: Women Human Rights Defenders are targeted for legitimate human rights advocacy.”
Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID). August 14, 2015. Accessed October 10, 2015.

“We are not afraid” Land rights defenders: attacked for confronting unbridled development.
Tibalyaw. Official Publication of Kalipunan Ng Mga Katutubong Mamamayan Ng Pilipinas (KAMP). December 2014. Annual Report 2014. OBS, OMCT & FIDH. Accessed August 10, 2015.


The stories shared in this report are examples of commitment, perseverance and optimism, despite the most difficult conditions. As we embarked on this research, meeting and getting to know these extraordinary women, their stories continued to inspire us exponentially.

As a rapid response grantmaking organization, we understand firsthand the importance of flexible and speedy funding in the context of environmental justice work. We also know that this kind of work requires specific kinds of support. At the September 2015 Convening in Indonesia, women’s human rights defenders shared their wishes for international solidarity and support. Their input is synthesized in the recommendations below.

Photo of women together with a Banner that says "People First Before Profit"

Recommendations for Funders

  • Support leadership development for indigenous and rural women’s human rights Defenders (WHRDs). This includes WHRD-led community-based dialogues and mediation, tribal leadership, negotiation skills, and legal training, while taking into consideration customary law and its potential for community-led reform.
  • Fund locally-led campaigns that address environmental and/or women’s rights issues. Have the flexibility to support efforts that address local needs. For example, the Save Our Schools campaign in Mindanao is focused on moving military encampments away from schools, while also advocating for an end to the military’s protection of illegal or unethical behavior by extractive industries.
  • Support local and regional solidarity campaigns, even if success is not necessarily anticipated; solidarity is important for maintaining buoyancy, momentum and sense of connectedness within the movement.
  • Support the resilience of WHRDs and sustain the movement at the local, national, regional, and international levels by providing funding for general operating costs, convenings and strategy meetings, coordination, self-care, and capacity building activities requested by the networks. Specifically,
    • Ensure funds are sufficient to cover basic costs such as mobile phones, phone credit and travel, as many WHRDs are located in remote areas.
    • Include funds for security and support culturally appropriate and creative ways of addressing burnout and promoting the sustainability of activism.
    • When activists are the targets of spurious lawsuits or unjust detention, funding is needed for legal aide, trial observation, and for post-imprisonment support, when activists may need medical care or assistance with housing.
    • Consider supporting local organizations that can assist human rights defenders during periods of prolonged threat or detention, including providing support to their families.
  • Fund local and regional strategy meetings and convenings, which focus on issues as determined by WHRDs themselves. Ensure that there is adequate time for relaxation and informal conversations, and be open to funding childcare during the convening as needed. Specific advocacy plans are not the only important outcomes of convenings; the strengthened networks that result from them are vital to increasing WHRD’s resilience.
  • Work with intermediary organizations to reach and support grassroots environmental WHRDs that are working in informal/unregistered organizations. Identifying and supporting WHRDs who lead environmental work at the grassroots is crucial to sustaining movements.

“Networking at the international level can affect public policy in Indonesia. There is a critical need for funding and international support to achieve these strategic objectives.”
— Eva Bande

Recommendations for international allies

  • Provide resources – both information and funding – to grassroots environmental and/or indigenous WHRDs to enable them to provide input into NGO shadow reports to United Nations (UN) Universal Periodic Review processes and treaty monitoring bodies.
  • Connect grassroots environmental and/or indigenous WHRDs with UN agencies, treaty monitoring bodies, Special Procedures, and other international and regional mechanisms so that they can share their experiences, challenges, and recommendations directly with these mechanisms.
  • Assist WHRDs in building cross-border alliances to increase their impact. For example, coalitions that connect activists seeking to hold multinational corporations accountable for their activities.
  • Support the policy and legal advocacy capacities of groups and coalitions, including legislative strategies. As Eva Bande noted: “an important requirement for achieving our strategic objectives is a strong network that has the power to influence political policy-making and law.” These cases are winnable, but most communities do not have the resources to bring them to trial.

Urgent Action Fund

660 13th Street, Suite 200 / Oakland, CA 94612 USA / Tel: 415-523-0360 / Fax: 415-520-0626 – See more at: http://urgentactionfund.org/

Authors: Arimbi Heroepoetri, Meerim Ilyas, Nina Jusuf, Nathalie Margi, and Judy Pasimio

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