When a woman human rights defender is murdered

The CSW space is always overwhelming. Overwhelming in many ways. The number of human rights defenders that descend on Manhattan in March is eye opening, as are the number of issues that we deal with in our countries and contexts. Every year, we find new, young, energetic women and men dashing from side event to side event, and passionately participating in meetings where they ask questions that many other human rights activists have been asking for years. 60 sessions later, the CSW is still a space for asking questions, and reflecting on the work that we do, the work that exposes us to danger and fatigue, and in many cases, work that gets us killed. We also see old women, activists who have been doing this work since before I was born, uncomplainingly standing in long queues to get their UN tags, and chanting along with other human rights defenders at rallies, in the rain and cold of a New York spring.

This was what I saw when I stood outside in the cold on a Thursday afternoon chanting along with nearly 300 other women, children and men outside the Honduran Mission to the United Nations in New York. Moving around slowly but deliberately, older feminist activists made up a large percentage of the crowd, chanting, singing and handing out literature to people gathered. Meters ahead, far from where I could see, Bertha Cáceres, daughter of Berta Cáceres, was there, firm and brave, speaking passionately through a translator about her mother’s work, and how now, more than ever, this work needs to continue. As I listened to different speakers shout our demands to the Honduran Government for justice, I was overwhelmed once more, but this time thinking, if I was murdered because of my indefatigable search for justice for all women, how would I be mourned? Who would know? Would there be justice?

Berta Cáceres was a Honduran woman human rights defender and environmental champion, who co-founded and directed the organisation Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras [COPINH], which was resisting the construction of DESA’s AguaZarca hydroelectric dam. on March 3, while asleep with her family, Berta was gunned down, assassinated in her own home. Twelve days later, another member of COPINH, Nelson García was similarly murdered in his home. The impunity persists.

As I stood there in the cold and waved my fist in solidarity with our call for justice, two thoughts crossed my mind. The first one was a thought that was shared by a fellow panel member, Patricia Galvez from Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy  said that, if the Honduran state had the arrogance to kill a women’s rights activist and defender as known and popular as Berta, then all activists lives in Honduras were in danger. She also said that, in this brutal attempt to stop neo-liberal capitalist state machinery dead in it’s tracks by killing a loud voice of dissent has instead led to the multiplication of Berta’s work, her voice, her passion, her vision. She said that they are not afraid anymore, that while all their lives are in danger, they might as well stand taller and shout louder and ensure that Berta’s vision is realised, and her dream made real.

My second thought was, where the sisterhood and solidarity has gone. The CSW attracts thousands of women and men from all over the world, all of us ultimately working towards justice, freedom and the realisation of universal rights for all people. Outside our donor-driven funding silos, all our work intersects. We all wish for a better world to live in, and CAL time and again reiterates our intersectional and Radical African Lesbian Feminist Politic which critiques and analyzes what ‘Sustainable Development’, in the face of a mostly white hetero-patriarchal capitalism that influences many of the policies and politics that are present in various advocacy spaces.

If indeed we knew, or know, that we are ultimately working towards the same goal, it is heartbreaking, that so few people, for once present in one place, and with the opportunity to show global and intersectional solidarity for Berta, didn’t show up. I was again surrounded by older women, the second wave, bra burning feminists who, like Berta, are determined to die at the front lines of resistance, whether this resistance is a rally in New York, or protecting forests in Nairobi.

This moment re-affirmed a thought that I am still to scared to say out loud, that the CSW is not a feminist space, or a space welcoming of feminists. But we will keep coming to this space, because feminists fought for the The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women [CEDAW], which is why today, women like myself can travel to this space, and stand in rallies, and sit in panels with other women and continue to make demands and to continue to ask questions.

Even in her death, Berta Cáceres is s phenomenal and inspirational woman worth knowing. Read this wonderful obituary by Beverly Bell first published on Democracy Now.

– Sheena Magenya


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