In a gathering for International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on Nov. 29, 2022 that is part of a larger global observance of “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” from beginning on Nov. 25 and culminating on Dec. 10, church women gathered in prayer and protest—highlighting the stories of women church leaders who have been persecuted and harassed in their ministries with marginalized and oppressed communities.

Church women vowed to stand against violence against women as well as to defend the defenders of human rights.

“Church people and church ministries—that take the side of the poor and live out the mission and evangelism of their Christian faith to participate in releasing the people from economic, social, and political bondage—experience persecution. They are harassed, red-tagged, imprisoned, and can even join the roll of church martyrs, as victims of extra-judicial killing,” said Rev. Juliet Solis Aguilar.

For her part, Rev. Irma Balaba said: “All forms of violence and unthinkable reprisal are used to force compliance with the agenda of the ruling elite, including gender-based violence. In a context like the Philippines, red-tagging, terrorist-labeling, and vilification campaigns are wielded against women who exercise their right to dissent and speak out against injustice.”

In the Defend Women Human Rights Defenders gathering, testimonies of Bishop Emelyn Dacuycuy of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and Bishop Dulce Pia Rose underscored the viciousness of red-tagging campaigns. As direct victims of these operations, they urged Church women to pray for those who are under attack and stand together for the truth.

“Being part of a network of Church women gives us courage because we know that our Church sisters are with us as well as the larger human rights community. To be a Woman Human Rights Defender is simply to stand for what is true, righteous and just. We exercise our faith and live out the message of love for our neighbors, as disciples of the Living Christ,” said Bishop Dacuycuy.

Even as Women Human Rights Defenders persist and expose unjust structures and systems, resisting militarism and standing for truth, terrorism legislation is being weaponized against some church leaders.

“We seek to build justice and peace that address the roots of the social ills that cause the suffering of the poor and exploited. Our ministry with marginalized groups, like my own work with indigenous peoples, should not result in harassment and fabricated charges against Women Human Rights Defenders like me,” said Rev. Glofie Baluntong.

“We are proud of our sisters who are Women Human Rights Defenders. We are in solidarity with them as they face state persecution. Those who stand boldly with the oppressed and take the side of those suffering from government neglect, abuse, and political repression should be honored and emulated,” said Rev. Juliet Solis Aguilar.

With the continuing rise in political repression in the Philippines, it is ever more urgent to support Women Human Rights Defenders under threat. Leaders like Bishop Emelyn Dacuycuy, Bishop Dulce Pia Rose, Bishop Fely Tenchaviz, Rev. Glofie Baluntong, Sister Elenita Belardo, Sister Augustina Juntilla, Sister Maryjane Caspillo, Sister Emma Teresita Cupin and Sister Susan Dejolde and lawyer Czarina Musni are just a few of many church women human rights defenders under threat in the Philippines.

Women Human Rights Defenders from urban poor, workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, students, school teachers, humanitarian aid workers, environmental defenders and other professionals have also been targeted.

The pandemic was used as a time for militarized lockdowns that pushed many who are struggling for basic rights to the proverbial corner: Filipinos must work together to cry out for justice and push back in their struggle to uphold human rights.

Against a backdrop of entrenched patriarchy, church women human rights defenders are pursuing the cause of truth, justice and peace.