As feminist movements build greater collective power to mobilize solutions for a just world, they are targeted with increased—and increasingly intense—forms of backlash.


And as the nature of activism has expanded in the context of today’s crises, so have the range and forms of the backlash, or reprisals, that feminist activists face. From online harassment and digital surveillance to the denial of healthcare and smear campaigns that threaten activists’ reputation and credibility, feminist activists, organizations and movements are facing expanded challenges.

Credit: Tracy Chahwan

We have had a lot of online threats, and now it’s getting worse. Whenever you use the word ‘peace,’ you are considered a traitor.

Anna, peacebuilding activist living in exile

Credit: Andrea Piacquadio
Credit: Andrea Piacquadio
Credit: Andrea Piacquadio

Credit: Andrea Piacquadio

What Backlash Do Feminist Activists Face?

What is a reprisal? Reprisal is the term most often used by the United Nations, human rights organizations, and governments to refer to forms of backlash or retribution that governments, corporations, and right-wing movements use to intimidate and silence human rights and social justice activists and movements. Here, we use words like backlash, retribution, and reprisal interchangeably to refer to any type of intimidation or retaliation that individuals, communities, and movements face for speaking out and standing up for justice, equity, and liberation.

Toward a feminist, inclusive understanding of backlash: Understanding the full scope of the reprisals that feminist activists face is key to ensuring the collective, holistic well-being of activists and their movements. For example:

  • Perpetrators target feminist activists’ mental, emotional, economic, digital, and professional security as well as their physical safety. 
  • Backlash against feminist activists also affects the safety, health, and well-being of their families, loved ones, support networks, and movements. 
  • Women, trans, and non-binary activists are more likely to be in charge of caring for families, communities, and organizations, limiting their capacity to care for themselves and avoid burnout. 
  • Perpetrators often target feminist activists’ reputations and honor to silence and alienate them from their families and communities–or target activists’ loved ones directly.
  • LGBTQIA+, disabled, Black, Indigenous, and other activists who are most marginalized by systems of oppression are at greater risk and face greater barriers to protection and resources to prevent, mitigate, or heal from backlash.

Credit: Karen Keyrouz


Surveillance, whether in-person, assisted by drones and other technology, or using social media, is an extraordinarily common reprisal faced by feminist activists. Online surveillance, often conducted in combination with offline surveillance, is a rapidly growing problem. The use of newer technologies and social media are exposing activists to expanded risks, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed more and more activism online. 

Online attacks and smear campaigns

Feminist activists report being targeted with online and offline smear campaigns by “ordinary people” and community members, as well as state and non-state actors, like governments, private corporations, and private-sector employees. In the online sphere, this includes sexist and other hate speech, as well as other forms of online harassment and gender-based violence. Public shaming is often used to alienate feminist activists from their families and communities; once socially isolated, they become more vulnerable to attacks.

Detentions, arrests, and violence

Some of the most severe cases of retaliation against feminist activists are conducted by police officers or soldiers who detain or interrogate activists and use verbal and physical violence against them. Oftentimes, private security guards will target activists with violence or incite violence among protesters on behalf of corporations.

Misuse of policies and laws

States sometimes use false accusations, misuse laws and regulations, or even falsify documents to intimidate and threaten activists.


Intimidation is a tactic employed by nearly everyone—from local and international state actors, including government ministries, police, and third-country embassies, to a range of private actors, including multinational corporations, their subsidiaries and financiers, organized right-wing movements, and local community members. Several activists reported facing intimidation by state actors (either from their own or other countries) while participating in United Nations advocacy spaces.

Denial of health care and participation

Activists with disabilities or medical conditions report being denied access to health care as a form of retribution—as well as being denied the right to participate in professional, academic, and international advocacy events.

Who is Responsible for Backlash Against Feminist Activists?

Who is Responsible for Backlash Against Feminist Activists?

Governments stifle dissent, corporations hire mercenary forces to intimidate and harass, while individuals also threaten activistsoften with the explicit or implicit backing of the state or the conservative movements that foment opposition to gender justice and human rights. In many places around the world, the threats feminist activists face are compounded by rising authoritarianism and a global anti-gender movement that aggressively targets proponents of LGBTQIA+ and abortion rights.

People and institutions responsible for targeting feminist activists with backlash include state and non-state, or private, actors. State actors include intelligence services, police, armed forces, or the judicial system as well as third-country state actors, like embassies. Non-state, or private, actors include militias or armed groups, private security officers hired by corporations, investors of mining and other “development” projects, community members, faith-based groups, or fundamentalist, anti-democracy, and anti-gender civil society organizations. 

In many cases, the line between state and private actors often blurs when conservative movements operate with the backing of government officials, or states and corporations work hand-in-hand. Media—especially state- or corporate-controlled media—can also contribute to reinforcing harmful stereotypes, echoing patterns of marginalization, and creating a hostile environment for feminist activists.

Vera, an artist and environmental activist, shared: We have this government structure where the President is basically the mayor of every town, the parliamentarian in every seat, and he is the presenter of every television show. They are all representing the interests of the President, and the President is representing the interests of the investor. It is like the investors completely have their hands in the pockets of the government. The government also essentially owns all of the national frequencies, and the mining company will not debate any of us on live television. I think the media blackout is another form of reprisal.” See Vera’s story

Credit: Noelle Otto

When they are saying ‘she is a slut’ or ‘she is a whore’ in their social media campaigns against me, they are obviously targeting my gender. They don’t call men ‘sluts.’

Irina, journalist & environmental activist

Credit: Dids
Credit: Dids
Credit: Dids

Credit: Dids