‘Women’s Voices Can No Longer Be Silenced’

‘Women’s Voices Can No Longer Be Silenced’

Even as gender equality and women’s fundamental rights are under attack around the world, women activists and their unions and organizations are standing up to the challenges and pushing back, panelists said yesterday during the launch of a landmark report, “Celebrating Women in Civil Society and Activism” with Clément Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

“Women around the world are building economic power by exercising freedom of association and assembly,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Unions and the right to collective bargaining is one way we fight back.” (Watch the event here.)

UN Special Rapporteur, freedom to form unions, gender equality, worker rights, Solidarity Center“Courageous women and organizations are pushing back,” said Bahia Tahzib-Lie, Netherlands Ambassador for Human Rights in her opening remarks. “They make clear that women’s voices can no longer be ignored or silenced.”

The virtual side event, co-sponsored by the Solidarity Center, brought together women civil society leaders from around the world to discuss the findings of the report, prepared by Voule, who is presenting the report to the UN General Assembly this week.

“Women’s organizations and movements and their contribution to activism and civil society continued to be undervalued,” Voule said, highlighting one of the report’s key findings. Their ability to freely form unions and associate is key to their ability to create positive change, according to the report. Yet these rights increasingly are being violated, he said.

“Women are 50 percent of the population” but are often targeted by harassment and other forms of violence when they seek to form unions to improve their workplaces, he said, one of the  report’s many findings informed by the experiences of many Solidarity Center partners.

Gender-Based Violence Undermining Women’s Basic Rights
Clement Voule UN Special Rapporteur, freedom to form unions, gender equality, worker rights, Solidarity Center

“All forms of gender-based violence and harassment must end,” says UN Special Rapporteur Clément Voule.

Crucially, the report finds that gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) is “perhaps the fiercest form of reprisal to the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for women workers.”

Gender-based violence begins at home for women and continues to all aspects of public space: “to the streets and the workplace and the public sphere,” said Voule, and COVID-19 lockdowns have worsened the violence women face at home.

The pandemic also has increased the violence women face at work, said Bader-Blau. But a new treaty the International Labor Organization approved last year creates the fundamental right to be free from violence and harassment at work by addressing the root causes of gender-based violence which often also involve race, ethnicity and gender identity.

The treaty, Convention 190, “demands employers and governments make real changes,” she said. “The treaty calls for employers to negotiate directly with workers. No longer can we look at workplace as the private sphere of the employer where workers give up their rights.”

Shawna Bader Blau, UN Special Rapporteur Report Release, gender equality, freedom to form unions, Solidarity Center

Unions and the right to collective bargaining is one way we fight back”—Shawna Bader-Blau.

Unions and other activists are campaigning for their governments to ratify C190, a difficult process, but one that creates the opportunity for coalition building and cross-movement building among unions, feminist organizations and our allies, said Bader-Blau.

Voule also pointed out how the pandemic has been used to limit the space for civil society, with women especially targeted. “COVID-19 has increased criminalization of women’s rights organizations and harassment against women exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and association with worrisome reports on the misuse of emergency measures, application of criminal laws or limiting public gatherings.”

Progress, Challenges from Beijing +25

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and UN adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on advancing women’s rights, a landmark panelists said should be celebrated, but also reinforced and built upon.

UN Special Rapporteur, gender equality, freedom to form unions, Nicolet Naylor, Ford Foundation, worker rights, Solidarity Center

World leaders are now talking about gender equality, but only due to the efforts of grassroots women activists, says Nicolette Naylor.

“Over the last 25 years, we have gone from zero laws, zero resolutions to over 120 laws and resolutions to protect gender equality,” said Nicolette Naylor at the Ford Foundation. “It shows us that progress is possible. This is thanks to women on the ground pushing for change. It’s because of the mobilization of women’s rights organizations and feminists on the ground.”

Making progress on ending gender inequality means involving women and ensuring their voices are heard, according to panelists who reinforced the report’s recommendations that “effective strategies to address violations of women’s rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association should be grounded in supporting and empowering women’s movements and organizations in all their diversity.”

“Many women on the ground led the way. Now we need to create more space for women to get places they deserve so they can push forward these agendas,” said Mireille Tushiminina from the Cameroon Women’s Peace Movement. “To hold our governments accountable, we need to be part of the conversation. Women are at the forefront and need to be in the conversation.”

Uma Mishra-Newbery at the Women’s March Global moderated the panel, which also included Marusia López from the Mesoamerican Network of Women Human Rights Defenders and Masina Fusi at Her Voice.

Event co-sponsors included Access Now, CIVICUS, Freedom House, Geneva Academy, Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Women’s Global March, Women’s Major Group and the World Movement for Democracy.

Report: Freedom to Form Unions Key to Women’s Activism

Report: Freedom to Form Unions Key to Women’s Activism

Women activists and their organizations are the drivers of positive change worldwide—and the freedom to form unions and freely associate is key to their ability to do so, according to a report released today.

Celebrating Women in Civil Society and Activism,” prepared by Clément Voule, United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, finds these fundamental freedoms empower women to “express their political opinions, engage in … economic and social activities … form and join trade unions and cooperatives, and elect leaders to represent their interests and hold them accountable.”

Yet women’s voices are undervalued, the report states, even as government, employers and others violate women’s rights, with many women experiencing an increase in severe violations of these fundamental freedoms and backlashes against gender equality. Exclusions from labor laws, barriers to forming and joining unions and reprisals for labor organizing leave women with “little leverage to change the conditions that entrench poverty, fuel inequality and limit democracy.”

Bangladesh, Women's Day march, worker rights, Solidarity Center

Women’s exclusion from labor laws and reprisals for forming unions in Bangladesh and around the world limit women’s ability to improve their workplaces. Credit: Solidarity Center

For instance in Bangladesh, “in many cases when garment workers want to unionize, they are blacklisted, intimidated, local groups threaten their families and many women are subject to physical assault,” says Nazma Akter, Awaj executive director and president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF). “There is no robust legal mechanism to appeal to for the right to organize and to help protect our human rights.”

Women seeking to improve their working conditions face similar challenges around the world, including in Ghana, where women “often are threatened with dismissals or non-renewal of contracts,” say Edward Kareweh, general secretary of the General Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU) and GAWU Gender Equality Officer Bashiratu Kamal. “There is a lack of cooperation from government in enforcing laws against discrimination, marginalization and exploitation.”

Morocco, women, agriculture workers, union, bargaining agreement, Solidarity Center

Agricultural workers in Morocco and around the world often are not covered by their countries’ labor laws, a lack of rights that falls especially hard on women. Credit: Solidarity Center/Hind Cherrouk

Laws barring retaliation against women who seek to form unions often are not enforced and additional barriers erected, say women activists.

In El Salvador, “the ability to form and join unions is a constitutional right, but in practice, there are many obstacles, ranging from delay in legal registration, defamatory campaigns, loss of employment, widespread violence, to murder in certain cases, says Marta Zaldaña, Secretary General of the union federation FEASIES.

“Tunisia’s Constitution guarantees equality and equal opportunities for men and women. But despite those important laws, the actual problem is in implementing those laws, especially in the interior regions where male domination prevails,” according to a Tunisian woman union activist.

Nazma, Kareweh, Kamal, Zaldaña and the Tunisian activist were among hundreds of worker rights and human rights activists whose testimony informed the report, which Voule is presenting this week to the UN General Assembly. SGSF, GAWU and FEASIES are Solidarity Center partners.

Gender-Based Violence the ‘Fiercest Form of Reprisal’

The ability of women to freely take action is especially critical now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the inequalities facing women, in their jobs, homes and communities.

“Faced with narrowing civic space, mounting inequalities and rising fundamentalisms, women have persisted in their fight for structural change, speaking truth to power and building resilience in their communities,” the report states.

Gender-based violence and harassment is “perhaps the fiercest form of reprisal to the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for women workers,” the Special Rapporteur finds.

Rose Omamo, Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, Kenya, gender equality, worker rights, Solidarity Center

Violence is used as a way of discouraging women from actively participating in unions and seeking leadership positions—Rose Omamo, Metal Workers Union, Kenya. Credit: Solidarity Center

“Gender-based violence against women at work has been on the rise in various places in Kenya. Violence also is used as a way of discouraging women from actively participating in unions/associations and seeking leadership positions,” says Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers, a Solidarity Center partner.

And, when they protest gender-based violence and harassment, women then become targets. “Women workers in Nigeria have been involved in protests against all forms of gender-based, violence and harassment,” says Mercy Okezie, chairperson of the National Women Commission and Nigeria Labor Congress vice president.

“There have been protests against rape and abduction of young girls by terrorists, femicide, sexual harassment in markets and gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. Some of the women who participated faced … gender-based violence attacks ranging from bullying, sex discrimination to loss of jobs, threats to life and social stigmatization as a result of speaking out or standing up to push for an end to GBVH at home, workplace, their unions and communities.”

Women Must Be Part of the Solution
In Honduras, union activists are posting photos of themselves on social media with signs urging passage of C190. Credit: Promotoras Legales

In Honduras, union activists are posting photos of themselves on social media with signs urging passage of C190. Credit: Promotoras Legales

In recommending steps to address violations of women’s rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the report emphasizes the actions “should be grounded in supporting and empowering women’s movements and organizations in all their diversity.”

Governments must ensure adherence to international treaties addressing women’s right to a voice at work and in their communities, Voule said, speaking on a panel today with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau and other civil society leaders. Among its recommendations, the report urges governments ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 190, which covers gender-based violence and harassment at work, and ILO C189 which recognizes domestic workers’ right at work.

Employers also “have a direct responsibility to respect and protect women’s rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, to act with due diligence to prevent the violations of such rights and to provide women with effective remedies for violations connected to their operations,” the report states.

“Celebrating Women in Civil Society and Activism” builds on the 2016 UN Special Rapporteur report on workers rights that found workers rights—and the freedom to form unions and freely assemble—are key to achieving human rights because without assembly and association rights, workers have little leverage to change the conditions that entrench poverty, fuel inequality and limit democracy.

Hundreds of Worker Rights Lawyers Set to Meet in Mexico

Hundreds of Worker Rights Lawyers Set to Meet in Mexico

More than 100 worker rights lawyers from around the world will identify common challenges, share successes and plan strategic partnerships next week in Mexico City at the first International Lawyer Action Network (ILAW) conference.

“The ILAW Network’s inaugural conference in Mexico City aims to bring together lawyers from around the world to construct bottom-up strategies to promote and defend the rights of workers, associations and unions,” says Jeff Vogt, Solidarity Center Rule of Law director and ILAW board chair. “With workers facing constant attacks worldwide, it is more critical than ever that their advocates provide the best support possible.” 

The Solidarity Center launched ILAW in December 2018 as a global hub for worker rights lawyers to facilitate innovative litigation, help spread the adoption of pro-worker legislation and defeat anti-worker laws. Since then, more than 350 hundred individuals and organizations from more than 50 countries have joined, most recently from the Nigerian Labor Congress

“ILAW is needed now more than ever to effectively represent workers across borders,” says Ruwan Subasinghe, International Transport Workers’ Federation legal adviser and founding member of the ILAW Advisory Board, which includes 20 lawyers from 20 countries with expertise on a broad range of legal matters. 

“This conference gives progressive worker rights lawyers a much-needed opportunity to learn from each other, build networks and strengthen cooperation.”

Globalizing Strategies to Protect Worker Rights

Participants from dozens of countries at the November 4–5 conference will discuss corporate accountability in supply chains, migrant and informal worker rights, the employment relationship, employment discrimination in all its forms, and workers’ right to exercise freedom of association. 

In sharing success stories, legal advocates, who have been instrumental in ensuring workers achieve justice, seek to take their victories globally. 

In 2018, for instance, worker rights lawyers won a key victory in Thailand, where a court dismissed criminal defamation charges against 14 migrant workers from Myanmar who faced jail time after reporting abusive working conditions on a poultry farm. The workers left the farm in 2016 and filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand describing forced overtime, unlawful salary deductions, passport confiscation and restrictions on movement. 

“I see the ILAW network as a basis of strategic development of lawyers practicing labor law worldwide, as a source of sharing best practices and the opportunity to bring each other’s knowledge home to our countries to determine its best implementation,” says Raisa Liparteliani, vice president of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) and founding ILAW Board member.

The conference will enable participants “to share best practices and challenges of lawyers from different countries and build the common strategy for worker rights protection, covering not only litigation but advocacy campaigns, law making process, awareness raising and more,” she says.

Follow Solidarity Center on Twitter and Facebook for updates throughout the conference.

Report: Call to Action for Rights of People on the Move

Report: Call to Action for Rights of People on the Move

The freedom to speak, join unions and take part in community life are basic human rights that apply to all people—including migrant workers and refugees, panelists at a United Nations side event said this afternoon in New York City.

“Migrant workers and refugees don’t usually have access to justice, and so the lack of enjoyment of these rights has more of a negative impact on them than on the general population,” said Felipe Gonzalez Morales, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.

Gonzalez and other panelists took part in the event to launch a new report, Freedoms on the Move: The Civic Space of Migrant Workers and Refugees, by the Solidarity Center and CIVICUS. The report’s findings make clear that many migrant workers and refugees want to access their civic freedoms and do not want to remain on the margins. They want to have a say in their communities and their workplaces, and in the decisions that affect their lives.

(The report also is available in Spanish and French).

Through in depth surveys, Freedoms on the Move highlights the experiences of 1,000 migrant workers and refugees in Germany, Kenya, Jordan, Malaysia and Mexico who discuss the barriers to freedom of association, assembly and expression, and the factors enabling them to exercise those rights.

“Legislation in countries deny migrant workers the right to have access to freedom of association,” said Griet Cattaert, policy officer at the International Labor Organization. And because migrant workers often work in the informal economy, sometimes in “hidden work” like domestic workers in private homes, “it is much more difficult to organize themselves in unions,” she said.

(Watch the full event here).

Freedoms on the Move: An Urgent Call to Action

Neha Misra, Solidarity Center, migration, Freedoms on the Move report

“Migrant worker rights are not just good for them but their communities.”—Neha Misra Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The global assaults on democracy and fundamental rights is an urgent call to action for unions and other civil society groups to include migrant workers and refugees in advancing these rights, panelists said.

In the report, CIVICUS and the Solidarity Center urge all states to create and maintain, in law and in practice, an enabling environment for the rights of migrant workers and refugees, in accordance with international laws and standards.

“Democratic society cannot thrive when entire populations of people excluded,” said Neha Misra, Solidarity Center senior specialist for migration and trafficking. “Migrant workers we talked to rightfully insisted their destination countries have much to gain from their presence. Migrant worker rights are not just good for them but their communities.”

“Freedom of association and expression are important for migrant workers because they are human rights,” said Crispin Hernandez, a migrant agricultural worker who helped his co-workers organize with the Workers’ Center of Central New York.

“It doesn’t matter where we come from, or our country of origin, or our gender. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do. It doesn’t matter what I do for a living. I am entitled to my rights. We are humans.”

Freedom to Form Unions Key to Migrant Worker Rights 

More than 258 million migrants, 164 million of whom are migrant workers, live outside their origin countries as global inequality and the search for decent work push workers to migrate far from their homes, and as war and economic crises force millions across borders.


Monami Maulik, international coordinator at the Global Coalition on Migration, discussed how the report builds on the recently negotiated Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the first-ever UN global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions.

“Fundamental to success of the Global Compact on Migration is the participation and engagement of migrant workers with unions and civil society, and so the success of implementing rights’ protections for migrant workers means we first must look at what’s happening to their freedom to organize,” she said.

Freedoms on the Move finds that “migrant workers and refugees must have the opportunity to come together, advocate for their well being without fear of reprisal and hold states accountable for delivering on their obligations under international laws,” Misra said.

Employer Harassment Major Barrier to Forming Unions

Griet Cattaert, ILO, Crispin Hernandez, NY Workers Center, migration, Solidarity Center, CIVICUS, migrant workers, Freedom on the Move report

Griet Cattaert and Crispin Hernandez discussed why human rights laws apply to migrant workers .Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

The report found that harassment or pressure from employers is the main obstacle for migrant workers seeking to form unions or otherwise exercise their freedom of association: 78 percent of respondents in Jordan, 66 percent in Kenya, 74 percent in Malaysia and 33 percent in Mexico.

More key findings from the report include:

  • Migrant workers believe the main limitation on their freedom of expression is the possibility of being fired from work, detained or deported, with wide variations by gender: 47 percent of women and 72 percent of men in Jordan; 62 percent and 71 percent respectively in Kenya; 50 percent and 41 percent in Malaysia, and 80 percent and 45 percent in Mexico.
  • Rates of participation in protests vary widely, from only 11 percent in Jordan and Mexico to 58 percent in Germany.
  • Refugees say a lack of resources is the major limitation that prevents people from associating and organizing.

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