The Women Who Defend Human Rights - María Martín



María Martín is a lawyer by training and has worked as consultant, researcher, and legal advisor in human rights institutions in Latin America, mainly on matters relating to protection of (women) human rights defenders. María is also part of Protection International’s Policy, Training and Research Unit.

Protection International spoke with María about criminalisation patterns and how it specifically affects women who defend human rights.



Protection International: How did you decide to become a WHRD? 

María Martín: Well, I didn’t really decide to become a defender of human rights. Defending human rights was a vocation. The work had always been of interest to me and I can’t imagine doing anything else.



PI: How do you stay motivated?

MM: The people who benefit from our work keep me motivated and I wouldn’t be able to do this work without the colleagues I work with. Their dream and energy have proven particularly essential in my work. Also, in terms of sustainable activism, I’ve realised the importance of well-being and proper rest in helping you stay motivated; when you work with love and not with fatigue you find the drive to pursue your work further.



“When you work with love and not with fatigue you find the drive to pursue your work further.”



PI: What is criminalisation?

MM: To explain it in simple terms, it’s the use of the criminal legal system to try to dissuade or obstruct the work of people who defend human rights. Often, instances of criminalisation are associated with other processes like stigmatisation or the application of administrative sanctions against human rights defenders. Nevertheless it remains important to be able to distinguish criminalisation apart from these other processes.



PI: So could you explain the difference between criminalisation and stigmatisation? 

MM: Stigmatisation consists of trying to affect the image that exists of a defender. This is often related to criminalisation because it can happen in connection to judicial processes or in detention. Then again, stigmatisation can also be a consequence of criminalisation. I mean, once criminal proceedings have started, the defender’s public image will be affected, which is precisely one of the effects of this criminalisation.


PI: What are the most recurrent practices in criminalisation? 

MM: The most common practices in criminalisation processes are judicial proceedings or criminal investigations against defenders. But we could even say that the criminalisation process begins even before any detention or investigation occurs through the creation of legal norms that allow these criminalisation instances to become common practice. Meaning that sometimes rules are implemented which create space in the justice system for certain actors to act against the defenders.  One of the most well-known examples of this was in Entebbe, Uganda, where restrictive regulations were implemented against any work concerning the defence of the human rights.
PI: What do you think the impact is of criminalisation on WHRDs? 

MM: The criminal system is often used by the state to hinder the work of women human rights defenders. Its direct impact is that they cannot do their work anymore.
Criminalisation does not only have a strong impact on the person that is subject to it and who faces detention, guilty verdicts or unjust processes. The organisations where WHRDs work are also highly affected, since the criminalisation of one defender obstructs the work of all defenders collaborating with her. In addition, local civil society is also weakened in its mobilisation to defend human rights.
Families of criminalised women are also affected. In this respect the criminalisation of women tends to have a stronger impact than with men. This is due to the leading role that women often play in a family, providing support for their children, parents and other dependants.
If the woman is the income-provider of the family, the economic impact on the family can be very severe. Criminalisation may also have a psychological impact on a family, because they see their loved one illegitimately deprived of her human rights and freedoms.
To compare this to the criminalisation of a male activist, normally the male defender has a partner who attends to the children and supports them during the difficult process. In contrast, women defenders are often single parents and have to single-handedly bear family responsibilities in addition to their criminal charges.



“The criminalisation of women tends to have a stronger impact than with men.”



PI: What can WHRDs do to combat criminalisation?

MM: I believe women defenders must first know what criminalisation is, and how to recognise it. Only then can they work towards a strategic response within the judicial system that prevents it from reoccurring. In other words, she can develop strategic responses to condemn attacks aimed at women defenders on the bias of incorrect legal norms. On the other hand, once a process of criminalisation has been set in motion, defenders can also take actions to identify and counter the negative impact criminalisation can have in their work, on their families and society in general.



“Women defenders must first know what criminalisation is, and how to recognise it. Only then can they work towards a strategic response within the judicial system that prevents it from reoccurring.”



One of the situations where I have seen such a response against criminalisation was by a women defenders’ organisation in the town of Barillas in the northern part of Guatemala. There, defenders were facing police and military interventions. Local women defenders started using different tactics in order to put an end to the government’s criminalisation norms in Barillas.

They carried out large-scale protests and made trips to remote parts in the region to make a conflict little known by national and international populations more visible. Through these actions the women succeeded in putting the issue on national and international agendas. This ultimately generated enough political pressure to paralyse such repressive actions by the state.

PI: What can other actors do to combat criminalisation?

MM: For other actors, the first step is to analyse actions of all stakeholders to see what exactly generates criminalisation and why, and what laws permit such practices to take place. As for governments, they can also fight criminalisation by prohibiting law enforcement officers or justice system officials to carry out norms and practices that favour or lead to criminalisation of defenders. One way of doing this could be implementing fines against police officers that have detained defenders illegally.

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