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Politicizing Self-Care and Wellbeing in Our Activism as Women Human Rights Defenders

Stress, burn out, uncontrollable emotional outbursts, depression, anxiety, migraines and cancer, are some of the effects that human rights defense work has on WHRDs around the world, and the ones that often make them quit their important work. AWID spoke with Jessica Horn, Senior Advisor for the African Institute for Integrated Responses to Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS (AIR) about the politics of self-care and well being for women human rights defenders (WHRDs).* 

AWID: Based on your experience, can you tell us about the political importance of wellbeing and self-care in the lives of WHRDs? What is striking about that in your view?

Jessica Horn (JH): Our work is to create societies that are just, where people are able to live well, healthy and balanced, and are able to conduct their lives without the fear of violence. Being emotionally well is central to being able to fully and actively participate in society. It is really fascinating to me that this element of human existence, and particularly activists’ existence, has been neglected for so long. Many feminists argue (Audre Lorde being one of them) that we live in systems of power that are designed to make us unhappy - that are strategically designed to erase the happiness and well-being of certain groups of people. So it is in and of itself a political act to affirm the happiness of women in a patriarchal society.

I also think that we underestimate the amount of emotional and mental stress that oppression and injustice cause, and also fail to recognize that the stress is a collective stress. We tend to forget that when one person is attacked everybody is impacted. The person who is attacked has an immediate direct need, but the people around them and supporting them are also affected. As activists we carry the burden of that constant injury in our communities. So there’s a need to address that burden because it runs us down.

Looking at the women’s rights sector more broadly I think it is fair to say that we have a human resources challenge. There are not that many people working in women’s rights globally, if we compare it say to the technology sector, so we also lose valuable technical capacity when people burn out or can’t cope with any more sadness and feel that they have to do different work, or end up in situations where their emotional and physical health is affected. There again, 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.

AWID: What are the challenges that you feel are preventing WHRD, activists and social movements to seriously consider self care and well being as part of their political agendas? 

JH: In women’s rights organizations and movements we’re not acknowledging fully that our work involves constantly bearing witness to violations and violence, and that 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. And most activists don’t have an organizational mechanism to help deal with that.

Within our organizations we have to build occupational well-being and mental health support into our human resources protocols. This exists in the humanitarian sector, and of course in psychology and counseling, but not yet as a standard practice in women’s rights work. Funding for this is a major challenge, and we speak a lot about this in AIR. We know that there is very little core support available for women’s rights organizations, and occupational wellbeing would be something that is resourced through core funding. When you are struggling to raise money for project implementation, it becomes a hard sell to make the case for additional funds or staff time for emotional wellbeing and mental health. Donors need to start acknowledging that this is very serious, and begin to allocate resources to creating these systems before it’s too late. It is unfair to expect people to work on a frontline undefended. I do think that it is an ethical responsibility for donors to  support the wellbeing of the people they support to do the very brave work of transforming violent and unequal societies. It’s about the longevity of the movement – we need to defend defenders.

In practice we also struggle with methodologies. I know from experience in the African region that when we are doing mobilizing work with LGBTI activists and people who face other discrimination in society, we have a lot of trouble finding skilled wellbeing practitioners who are not discriminatory themselves. We have a basic problem of not having someone to call on for support. With that said, we can also get more creative with our emotional wellbeing methodologies, in particular to move away from the idea pushed by Western psychology that ‘talk therapy’ is the only solution. There are many different ways to support emotional well-being and mental health, including methods that already exist in context- and different methods work for different people.

AWID: Could you tell us about what a “holistic integrated approach” to dealing with human rights violations means for you? What would its distinctive elements be?

JH: AIR’s integrated approach was developed out of the inter-disciplinary experience of practitioners that created AIR. We brought insights from the realities of our different points of entry into work on VAWG and HIV/AIDS - psychology, advocacy, community mobilization and prevention, health service delivery and research. Human rights activism and is historical focus on civil and political rights violations against men has tended to be very legalistic in its understanding of justice and reparation. For women’s rights, while legal justice is one crucial aspect of response, there are many others. For example health: the violations that women experience impact the body in different ways – and I include the mind in the concept of the body. We also need to think about that and address the social dimension of violation. We know that marginalization of WHRDs works through social stigmatization- with women being singled out and labeled as people who are unacceptable in society, as ‘bad women’, or ‘bad mothers’ – all ways of undermining our social standing and diminishing our political power.

The economic is an area that we’ve thought least about. We need an approach, which understands that there’s usually an economic impact to women’s rights violations. Also, when looking at violations of women who live in economic marginalization already, support to become economically autonomous can be healing in itself. There’s an indignity that comes from not being able to look after yourself or the people you care about. Enabling people to gain or regain economic agency can be crucial to the process of re-balancing and feeling mentally and emotionally well. This recognition of the potentially transformative power of livelihoods comes from the experience of AIR practitioners, and what they know is effective in responding to rights violations of women in communities that have been impacted by armed conflict and HIV, and in contexts of forced migration and displacement.

AWID: Can you tell us about the AIR initiative and how WHRDs, organizations, and groups could engage?

JH: AIR was set up as an initiative by and for African practitioners. It recognizes that there is a tremendous amount of knowledge, insight and technical expertise in Africa in dealing with VAWG, HIV/AIDS and emotional wellbeing and mental health that has thus far not been rigorously documented or engaged. We also recognize that people who work in these contexts know them best, and have methodologies and approaches that are useful to share with practitioners in other African countries or contexts, because they have been adapted to respond to similar challenges: lack of civic infrastructure, constituencies who have complex migration status, people who are dealing with a legacy of mass violence, lack of state services, and widespread economic oppression.

With AIR we are interested in particular in African approaches that work from a transformative feminist perspective, which means a perspective that is interested in asking the bigger questions about what the root causes of gendered violation are, and includes ways to address root causes and not just individual manifestations of the problems. This includes prevention- mobilizing to shift power dynamics and stop the problem at its source.

All the tools that AIR produces are available online for free and anybody can use them. Although African focused, they are relevant to people working with similar contexts in other global regions – for example initiatives in communities that are living in contexts of extreme structural violence, with States that are quite complex and unaccountable, and juggling resourcing and infrastructure challenges. In that respect AIR is making a Global South contribution to the debates around justice, wellbeing and the rights of women’s human rights defenders themselves, particularly when it comes to the initiative that we are running now on (re)conceptualizing trauma.

Watch AIR’s new film Working on trauma creatively: African practitioners rethink the field 

Read AIR’s latest Report: (Re) Conceptualizing Trauma. An AIR Convening

*Thanks to May Abu Jaber for her contributions to the piece.