Women Human Rights Defenders Targeted in Smear Campaigns

A life of defending human rights comes with the risk of intimidation, violence, imprisonment and defamation. But a woman also risks further violations linked to her integrity and sexuality.

To smear and disgrace women human rights defenders is a proven method that is widely used by repressive regimes and powers with the aim to silence critics. The latest person to fall victim to a “dirty” smear campaign intent on subjecting women to public vilification is Vanja Calovic from Montenegro – Natalia bracelet bearer and Director of the human rights organisation MANS.

As the leading anti-corruption defender in Montenegro, her tireless struggle against organised crime and misuse of state funds has made her a constant target by state authorities. In late June, she was exposed in the Montenegrin newspaper, The Informer. The paper published offensive sexual images taken from a random video and claimed that they portrayed Vanja. Its publication was a deliberate attempt to compromise her personal and professional integrity.

At a press conference shortly after the article was published MANS denied the false pictures and Vanja Calovic professed that “this was the dirtiest smear campaign ever in Montenegro’s history and that this was the ruling party’s way to seek revenge for MANS work”. This smear campaign, according to MANS, resulted from their recent publishing of several reports and recordings proving that the ruling party have abused their power and misused state funds.

After the incident Prime Minister Milo Đukanović commented on the incident in the parliament. Instead of condemning the event he urged the authorities to investigate whether the sex video was authentic or not.

“The on-going smear campaign towards Vanja Calovic is a clear example of how authorities attempt to silence women human rights defenders. When we plan protection efforts, it is important to address the specific threats and risks that women in particular are exposed to,” says Robert Hårdh Director of Civil Rights Defenders.

Threat against women takes different forms of expression than threats against men. This was confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya who in her Annual Report 2011 described the situation of women human rights defenders. Her analysis is that women are at a greater risk than men when it comes to specific forms of violence and abuse. These violations are linked to traditions, norms and perceptions about how women should behave in a society.

Common threats against women human rights defenders:

Threats from family members, relatives and men. Threats are often linked to traditional views of women’s roles in society. This role is further affected by the work they do. Often it is considered that their work embarrasses the family and relatives and goes against traditional values.

Public vilification linked to integrity and sexuality. It is common for women to be branded online and in the media regarding their sexuality. The principle goal is to demonise, create rumours and discredit their work.

Threats of sexual violence. These threats are often carried out both quietly and publicly. Rape is more stigmatised in repressive traditional societies and can severely damage a woman’s reputation. Women are also far more likely to be exposed to sexual violence than men during physical and psychological attacks.

Threats against the family. Seen as an efficient method to silence women. Also used against men but family bonds are in a lot of cultures more strongly linked to women who are expected to put their family’s safety above their own.

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