Despite a global momentum to end violence against women and girls, women’s rights defenders are at higher risk of violence now than two years ago, according to new research.

A poll by ActionAid of 47 women’s rights defenders in more than 20 countries found that almost two thirds felt their safety and security had deteriorated in the past two years.

“Women activists from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil and the USA have all seen threats of and violence increase… hampering their efforts to improve women’s lives and end violence in society,” Lucia Fry, head of policy at ActionAid, said in a statement.

The women reported threats from political groups, including armed militias, governments and religious groups.

“Opposition groups have repeatedly threatened me,” Samira Hamidi from the Afghan Women’s Network said in the survey. “There are no prevention and protection mechanisms by my government where any women, but particularly women human rights defenders, can be supported.”

The charity urged the British government and international community to ensure the target to eliminate all forms of violence against women in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is backed by adequate funding for the goal to be met.

“Women’s rights organisations are increasingly starved of funds, while women remain marginalised from decision-making at all levels,” said ActionAid.

Eighty percent of activists working on abortion or the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) said they felt less safe, according to the survey.

“I’m afraid always. I live in fear,” a campaigner working for LGBT and women’s rights in Kenya told ActionAid in the survey. “I am at the forefront trying to defend grassroots women. I know I can be shot anytime.”

Feeling unsafe

ActionAid published the survey and a report on violence against women ahead of the adoption of the SDGs – a set of new development objectives such as ending poverty and tackling climate change – at a U.N. summit in September.

The report highlights gaps between commitments to tackle violence against women and the reality – including funding shortfalls and the failure to prosecute attacks.

The charity said in many countries, an erosion of civil rights, growing inequality and religious fundamentalism were undermining efforts to improve women’s rights.

Violence against women and girls is the most widespread human rights abuse and affects one third of women globally.

It can prevent women from securing a job or moving freely in cities for fear of sexual assault.

Women can feel unsafe within their own communities where they may be at risk from harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation or child marriage.

Most of the violence occurs at home, at the hands of a partner or ex partner and is often overlooked by authorities.

Despite landmark agreements such as the 1979 Convention on eliminating discrimination against women and the 1995 Beijing Declaration, as well as national efforts to address violence against women, concrete action remains “unacceptably slow,” the report said.

“If the world does not act now, women and girls will continue to pay with their bodies, their opportunities and their lives for generations to come,” said Fry.

This article is published in collaboration with The Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Maria Caspani is a journalist at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, covering humanitarian crisis and women’s rights.

Image: A woman is seen at a shelter for domestic violence victims. REUTERS/Jorge Silva.