Fighting for equality carries massive health risks, particularly if you are a woman
| By Macarena Aguilar
Worldwide, scores of women are fighting for equality and our rights. Too often their lives are at stake. Most women human rights defenders are exposed to extreme violence, they work exhausted, and experience permanent stress, which makes them increasingly vulnerable to physical and mental illnesses. Women human rights organizations need to integrate holistic self-care and wellbeing programs to sustain their work, but minuscule budgets still hinder this for most.
Ana María Hernandez heads Consorcio Oaxaca, a feminist and women’s rights organization operating in one of Mexico’s most inhospitable places for women. On any given day her job keeps her on the go for close to 15 hours. The day we spoke, her morning had started with the release of a statement to demand justice for the killing of 18-year-old Jennifer Carrillo, burnt to death by her husband. “With Jennifer, the number of women murdered so far this year, only in Oaxaca, has gone up to 22,” she said.
Amongst the three poorest States in Mexico, Oaxaca tops the list for women dying during childbirth, and only in 2014 it registered one of the highest numbers of femicides. The amount of women and girls who are raped and/or beaten in their own homes or disappeared has grown at an alarming rate in the last years, putting women human rights defenders (WHRDs) like Ana Maria on high alert.
“Early this year we had to intervene to protect a political activist who was whipped by her grandfather for insisting that women are allowed in the city council as per our law on parity,” recalled Ana Maria. “Her colleagues from neighboring communities, who also dared to speak up for women’s political participation, were threatened with death by men around them.”
Targeted and systematically attacked
In Oaxaca and around the world, scores of women fighting for equality play a vital role in upholding human rights, the rule of law, peace and democracy. Yet too often the risk to themselves and their families is huge. Precisely because they are viewed as stepping outside socially prescriptive gender stereotypes, female activists are systematically targeted and attacked for their work.
Between 2012 and 2014, only in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, the Mesoamerican Human Rights Defenders' Initiative (IM-Defensoras) documented 1,688 attacks on women activists. Of these, 32 were killed, with the vast majority of their deaths blamed on the state. Those most frequently attacked were women defending their land or their right to engage politically, as well as journalists.
Every year since 2012, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) pays homage to women from across the world who have lost their life defending our rights, resisting the tide of extremist and misogynist groups or the excessive power of corporations. So far, close to 300 stories make up the breathtaking online Tribute.
Threats, violence and exhaustion take a toll on activists
During our conversation, Ana Maria recalled how much time she had spent that day fundraising and rallying support for a close colleague just diagnosed with a stomach cancer. Only a few months ago they had sat together at a meeting. “She complained of bad stomach aches,” she said. “Now she is in hospital so we are organizing to take turns and accompany her through this painful journey.”
Constant threats, attacks, sexual harassment and smear campaigns against women activists result in soring levels of stress, burn out, depression, anxiety, migraines and even cancer, which, Ana Maria assured me, is becoming increasingly frequent.
A survey exploring self-care strategies amongst WHRDs from some Central American countries and Mexico revealed that 80% suffer permanent or frequent stress. Muscular tension, intense head aches and problems concentrating were the top three stress symptoms that the vast majority identified. In fact, 81% of the women who responded to the survey had fallen ill in the last two years, and most acknowledged they lacked access to health care.
In an interview with AWID, African activist, Jessica Horn, put it down to the nature of the work, which in many cases entails bearing witness to violations and violence day in and day out.
“Often the violence is close to us – it is being inflicted either on people that we know, or people like us. There’s only so many times you can hear stories of terrible things happening to someone before it starts to affect you.”
A rare study conducted a couple of years ago looked into the impact of a wide range of human rights work on the mental health of activists. The majority of the respondents were women. Almost 20% met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder and close to 15% for depression. Amongst other factors, the researchers noted that, indeed, being regularly exposed to trauma was likely to be a major contributor.
After interviewing hundreds of women activists around the world, the authors of the flagship publication What is the Point of Revolution if we Can’t Dance?, concluded that, regardless of the cause, WHRDs across the world were constantly trying to balance too much work with too few resources and never enough rest. Exhaustion, they said, was behind many of the challenges when coping with their daily lives, with health and mental difficulties.
Integrating self-care and wellbeing
Ana Maria is a fierce advocate for the need to actively promote and nurture a culture of self-care and wellbeing amongst activists and their organizations. Findings from the IM-Defensoras survey showing that 57% of the women interviewed never exercise, or that 22% couldn’t remember when they had last taken a holiday, keep her awake.
“As women defenders we are built to care for the others at the expense of our own lives. But in the long run, the consequences can be devastating for us and for our struggles,” she insisted.
Since 2010, regional initiatives like the IM-Defensoras - of which Ana Maria is part -, and many others around the world have made strides working with defenders to integrate holistic protection mechanisms and frame the issue of self-care as a subversive personal and institutional strategy. As Jessica Holms, who pioneers this approach in Africa, said to AWID: “it makes political sense to think about the sustainability of our sector of women’s rights activists, and to pay more attention to activist wellbeing.”
For Ana Maria this means organizing all staff mandatory sessions with a psychologist every single month, and individual sessions for members of her team who are the closest involved with the cases of extreme violence against women. Her organization also pays for staff to attend a wide range of natural therapies, like neuromuscular massages. Ana Maria herself is strict about fitting those into her routine every two weeks, she told me. “It helps me prevent muscle spasms.”
However, daily crisis and minuscule resources for the vast majority of women’s rights organizations continue to hinder profoundly a more radical and systematic investment in holistic wellness programs for the women who defend our rights.