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Celebrating the courage of women human rights defenders

International Women's Day is a critical time to raise awareness of the plight of women environmental and human rights defenders around the world. Leigh Day partner Shubhaa Srinivasan and Susi Bascon, Director of Peace Brigades International, highlight the incredible story of Valentina Rosendo Cantu, a human rights defender in Mexico. 

Valentina Rosendo Cantu and Susi Bascon
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Shubhaa Srinivasan is a partner specialising in international group claims, human rights law and complex personal injury claims. Susi Bascon, Director of PBI (UK) is currently recording the powerful stories and work of environmental and human rights defenders in Latin America. She shares the story of Valentina Rosendo Cantu whom she had the privilege to meet in person.
As we mark International Women’s Day 2019, there has never been a more critical time to raise awareness of the plight of women environmental and human rights defenders around the world. In the current climate when human rights defenders are under increased attack, these brave women face significant and unique gender-specific obstacles compared to male defenders, a fact acknowledged by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. The challenges they face are often driven by deep-rooted discrimination against women, stereo-types about their “appropriate” role in society, and gender-based violence. 

Many of our international clients have been at the sharp end of gender-based violence and face significant obstacles seeking justice for themselves and others in their communities. On this special day, in partnership with Peace Brigades International, we shine the spotlight on Valentina Rosendo Cantu, a human rights defender in Mexico, Latin America. This is the story of one woman who fought for her dignity and transformed her trauma and suffering into resilience.    

Valentina’s Story from Mexico

Valentina Rosendo Cantu is an indigenous me´phaa woman from the southern state of Guerrero, one of the poorest states in Mexico. In February 2002, when Valentina was only 17 years old, she was assaulted by eight soldiers while she was washing her clothes by the river near her house. The soldiers were looking for guerrilla supporters in the area. She was beaten and raped. Her only crime was being an indigenous me’phaa woman living in a heavily militarised area. 

The brutal event radically changed Valentina’s life. When she reported the crime her case was transferred to the military courts. She was too terrified to speak with the army. The case was eventually shelved. In order to stop Valentina from seeking justice, the army attacked her community. Valentina was forced to flee her home and seek a safer haven for herself and her three-month-old daughter.   

Refusing to be a silent victim, Valentina began a long struggle to have her case heard in a civilian court. She received death threats. Her young daughter was attacked and threats to her lawyers forced them to close their local offices. Valentina and her daughter were forced to change homes several times just to stay safe. 

Despite the danger, with the support of her lawyers and PBI’s protection on the ground, Valentina carried on her fight against impunity. She took her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights not only to regain her own dignity, but also to fight for the dignity of other indigenous women similarly impacted by gender brutality. 

In Valentina’s own words, “I don’t want the same thing to happen to my daughter, or to other women. That’s why I seek justice.”

Valentina's perseverance, courage and deep desire for justice led her to win her case in June 2018 and to see one of the most significant judgments being passed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 

In a groundbreaking verdict, the Court acknowledged that sexual violence had been used by the Mexican Army as a form of torture and a weapon of war against women. The court also found Valentina’s rights had been violated and ordered Mexico to end the use of military justice in cases where soldiers commit crimes against civilians.  Subsequently Mexico modified its Military Justice Code, which now requires civilian courts to investigate human rights violations committed by military members against civilians. 

As a result of the judgment, 16 years after the event, a civilian court in Guerrero convicted the soldiers who raped and tortured Valentina and sentenced them to 19 years in prison.

This verdict was only possible thanks to the determination and strength of Valentina in her struggle and defence of women´s rights. Her story highlights the instrumental role that women human rights defenders play in upholding the rule of law and building sustainable peace in communities and wider societies.   

About Peace Brigades International

Supporting and enabling environmental and human rights defenders, with a particular focus on women, is at the heart of the work of Peace Brigades International (PBI). PBI use their international presence and global networks to protect, support and enable the work of women defenders for peaceful social change. 

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