Why is wellbeing part of our struggle?
In recent years, the WHRDMENA Coalition team has reflected on the concept of wellbeing that has surrounded many aspects of our work, and we have evaluated many of the tools we have known about women human rights defenders’ (WHRDs’) wellbeing, recovery and their mental and emotional health. We understand wellbeing as a vital part of health and we understand that it not only impacts the ability of WHRDs to pursue and continue their work, but also their ability to make appropriate and informed decisions related to their own security and safety, and that of organizations and others.
We also know that the presence of women in the public sphere (outside of the home) in any capacity still exposes them to symbolic or actual violence. This violence exists because women have always challenged patriarchal assumptions that define their roles, values and societal roles and presence that they are not allowed to trespass; but they do so and defy those roles everyday across the world, not only in our region. Defying societal norms exposes WHRDs to violence for several reasons, the most important of which is the patriarchal state and the existing structural and legal discrimination that protects and encourages the ability of men in particular to subject women to violence, due to the absence of any laws that protect women and recognize violence committed against them due to the fact that they are women. Governments’ refusal to recognize gender equality by law is also a refusal to protect women and can be seen as proof that patriarchy is a fundamental driver behind many of the laws and procedures that govern us. WHRDs work in the Middle East and North Africa within this context, and their presence in the public sphere is multidimensional, and such presence exposes them to violence because they are women, and also because they are women who confront government institutions in a field that is not favored by the state and that is human rights.
It is within this background in which WHRDs deal with the violations that they are exposed to by the state or militias, which may threaten WHRDs on the level of physical safety and cause them severe bodily harm in many cases, especially in terms of torture practiced against them in prisons and detention centers and the accompanying psychological and emotional effects and trauma WHRDs also deal with being isolated from their communities, smearing campaigns, bullying, and defamation by security forces or by political parties and activists who do not agree with them.
WHRDs work in several areas related to human rights that might require them to provide services of a health/medical, legal or social nature, which may include direct work with survivors of violence or torture, or they might be working in the field of knowledge production, or union or syndicate work, or documentation of violations and security incidents in which WHRDs listen and deal with violent testimonies and triggering visual and audio materials. All of this requires from them a lot of energy in order to continue their work, in addition to traumas that might need healing through recharging their emotional and mental energies. It is the process of recharging that is the most neglected and most damaging part on the long run, and it pushes WHRDs into despair and burnout and subsequently keeps them away from the social movements to which they belong due to the internalized violence.
As a result of the aforementioned reality, the Coalition is working to develop a comprehensive and integrated approach to wellbeing and safety, which includes a pivotal focus on wellbeing and self-care for WHRDs as an integral part of their struggle and security by integrating it into all aspects of our work. Wellbeing and safety are essential elements of security and protection, and achieving this requires careful reading of the contexts in which WHRDs work in the region and their exposure to patriarchal violence in both the private and public spheres as punishment for their work and their sexual and gender identity. Additionally, the Coalition aims to develop a thorough understanding of the effects of burnout on WHRDs, their health, their organizations, social movements and the safety of the environment in which they work. Exhaustion and burnout lead to the isolation of WHRDs from their work and movements and to the inability of WHRDs to continue their work within the absence of any opportunity for them to recover.
There are several challenges that prevent WHRDs from wellbeing and recovery which include the difficult circumstances the region is going through, WHRDs disregarding their personal wellbeing due to guilt, exclusion or marginalization that they are exposed to due to their work or the issues they work on or the rights they defend, as well as the limited resources and tools that they may use sustainably. However, the biggest challenge in the absence of the ability to recover remains a question related to the environment in which WHRDs are active, and the possibility of space allocation for talks about emotions and what has been settled due to the work of advocacy and the existence of steps that WHRDs can use.
The Coalition believes that wellbeing and recovery are feminist practices central to the struggle of WHRDs. These practices address the dimensions of the various challenges, that is, the double violence WHRDs are subjected to because of their work and gender. Wellbeing practices, varied according to need and the capacity of WHRDs, serve as an opportunity to protect themselves from exhaustion and burnout. This does not necessarily mean that wellbeing is an exclusively individual responsibility, but it is also a collective responsibility to ensure the continuity of WHRDs’ work, the achievement of goals and the implementation of social movements’ vision through ensuring that the energy and power of WHRDs who make up these movements are not depleted.
Therefore, the WHRDMENA Coalition embraces recovery as a critical and strategic part of its work. Collective care requires support and assistance in preventing the burnout of WHRDs in order to support the sustainability of their movement in the region and build the necessary strength to achieve their goals. The Coalition also considers that wellbeing becomes more achievable when there is a supportive framework for it individually and collectively, as well as looking at wellbeing as part of the vision of WHRDs and their work.
On the basis of the principle of collective responsibility and care, the Coalition will publish on this page: tools, information and resources related to recovery and wellbeing, in addition to working with members of the coalition directly, and ensuring that wellbeing is dismantled and regained from being a commodity for happiness and rediscovered as a political practice aimed at examining internalized violence against women and non-normative identities and healing.
For more content on the work of WHRDs, challenges and impact, please check the following videos: