Alumna Nancy Tapias Torrado wins ISA award for Best Human Rights Dissertation

Alumna Nancy Tapias Torrado wins ISA award for Best Human Rights Dissertation

10 March 2023

Alumna Dr Nancy Tapias Torrado (DPhil, 2015) has won the Lynne Reiner Publishers Award for Best Dissertation for her 2020 thesis, “Indigenous women leading the defence of human rights from the abuses by mega-projects in Latin America, in the face of extreme violence.” 

The award is given by the International Studies Association (ISA), recognising the best dissertation in the field of human rights. It will be conferred officially at the Human Rights Section meeting during the 2023 ISA Annual Convention in Montreal. 

Nancy completed the dissertation during her time as a DPhil student at St Antony's, under the supervision of Professor Leigh Payne. As a human rights lawyer who had been working for over a decade with and for many human rights defenders in Latin America, most of them at risk of being attacked or even killed in reprisal for their legitimate actions, Nancy felt the urge to understand and respond better to their situation. She was particularly concerned about Indigenous women leading the defence of the dignity, territory and rights of their communities from the violations committed in connection to mega-projects.

She explained that:

While Indigenous women were becoming more visible, vocal and recognised for their leadership and actions, they were also facing too many challenges and attacks, including gender-based violence. Thus, I knew I had to go beyond my law background and learn other analytical and methodological tools, and I did a doctoral investigation in sociology.

Using evidence from across Latin America, Nancy's dissertation investigated the varying successes of Indigenous women’s political mobilisations against human rights abuses, caused by large-scale, extractive, development or investment projects such as coal mining or oil extraction. Such activism takes place within politically and economically inhospitable conditions, with participants facing real threats of criminalisation, violence and death. 

About Nancy's dissertation, the awarding committee said:

Indigenous women activists, the key actors in this dissertation, must contend with three oppressive structures and systems: racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. The author makes these activists visible in a context where many conspire to make them invisible and ineffective. 

The committee praised Nancy's 'novel framework' - the braid of action - which she used to explain the exact circumstances in which Indigenous women-led civil society activism will be successful, influencing corporate practices and improving human rights. 

Nancy explained that four actions, woven together, produce change: “(1) transforming the territory into power; (2) Indigenous women’s effective leadership; (3) human rights framing; and, (4) reacting to a grave violation overtly involving corporations.” Any weak 'strands' would hamper the success of the activism. 

By focusing on the agency of the Indigenous women, the dissertation elaborated on the centrality of claiming and defending territory as a first strand of the action braid. Leadership, human rights framing, and strategic responses to human rights violations are then essential complements for successful mobilisation to change corporate behaviour. 

On receiving the award, Nancy said:

I am very grateful and humbled to receive the Best Human Rights Dissertation Award from the International Studies Association, the oldest and widest association dedicated to international studies. It is a very important personal achievement and a recognition of incredible significance, as I also take it as an acknowledgement of the crucial contributions of Indigenous women and the mobilisations they lead. They are not only defending their peoples’ existence, subsistence and rights from abuses committed in connection to mega-projects but also the most biodiverse and fragile ecosystems that are of fundamental importance for the sustainability of the world, especially now, in the current climate crisis.


I am honoured that Indigenous women leaders, their organisations, and many others supporting them have shared their knowledge and experiences with me. Although there were many wonderful moments, there were also very difficult challenges. In this regard, I am deeply moved by the fact that I will receive this Award in March, the exact month when seven years ago - the day after we talked about her participation in my doctoral study - Indigenous Lenca leader Berta Cáceres Flores was murdered in her house in Honduras. This award is a reaffirmation of her impact, voice, and that of many other Indigenous women leaders across the region.

Original publication: Nancy R. Tapias Torrado. (2020) 'Indigenous Women Leading the Defence of Human Rights from the Abuses by Mega-Projects in Latin America, in the Face of Extreme Violence' (University of Oxford: DPhil thesis)

See the full list of award winners and find out more about the ISA awards