Today more than ever, we must care for ourselves collectively and heal together

This 29 November, worldwide we celebrate International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day. We recognize the legacy of our ancestors and honor the contributions of women who every day raise their voices against injustice and build alternatives for a dignified life.  

Being a woman human rights defender is extremely challenging in a world where patriarchal and racist capitalism hurts us, kills us, takes away our livelihoods and health, plunders our territories, forces us to migrate, represses us, and imposes unjust laws. 

Since we founded IM-Defensoras more than 11 years ago, violence against women human rights defenders has only increased. Between 2018 and 2019, at least 4,119 attacks were committed against us. The alerts we issued in 2020 increased by 123% and 21 sister defenders were killed. The pandemic has exposed how far the system will go to silence our voices in order to maintain their privileges.

Feminist Holistic Protection (FHP) has been our way of addressing this reality and contributing to the urgent task of caring for ourselves and for our struggles. The starting point for FHP is a feminist commitment and perspective on violence, risk, and the vital importance of care, a vision of collective protection coming from the wisdom of women and gender dissidences.

For us, FHP is embodied in the networks of and for women defenders in Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador; accompaniment in times of risk and exhaustion; self-care, collective care, and healing; the registry of attacks on women defenders and their collectives; communication and advocacy for protection; mobilization of flexible and timely resources; systematization of our wisdoms.

Just between January and June 2021, we carried out 2,330 protection actions. Each accompaniment process has strengthened our community of care, but it has also meant huge challenges, and this year, affected just like everyone by the pandemic’s impacts and working 24/7, we reached the limit of our strength.

This is why – on this 29 November – we want to take the opportunity to share how we also making Feminist Holistic Protection possible within our teams and organizational spaces, and the ways in which we decided to take care of ourselves. 

Acknowledging how we are doing.

As in every healing process, the first step was to accept that we had to look inside ourselves and acknowledge how we were doing. Through an internal consultation conducted with the national networks and articulations, and with the regional team, we could express the impacts of our work in the difficult context in which we live:

Accompanying others is necessary, it comes from the heart, it fills sisterhood with happiness, but I must admit that it is quite demanding... I did not realize until recently that everything is in danger of falling like a waterfall, like a mudslide. (National Network of WHRDs in El Salvador)

We are all women human rights defenders, and so we are exposed to the risks and conditions that other women defenders face. This raises the challenge of acknowledging that we also have the need for accompaniment, to lower our defenses, to allow others to embrace us. (Nicaraguan Initiative of WHRDs)

We are pained by the deaths of our comrades, our friends, our sisters; it is difficult to know that they will no longer be there... (National Network of WHRDs in Honduras)

Take a time-out, rest, and care for our health. 

Overcoming guilt and the difficulties in accepting that we need a “time-out” to renew energies, we communicated with our allies and in our different territories that the time had come to stop a bit, while still responding to emergencies.

We decided to take a breath, open spaces to heal ourselves, to renew our energies, and to honor the commitment we took on more than 11 years ago: to place care at the center of our political action (Letter sent to allies, November 2021).

The teams in the National Networks of WHRDs in Mexico and in Honduras took a break for some time. In Nicaragua, they took staggered pauses. In all four countries, we made personal and collective time for rest and healing, and we made use of our healing and respite houses. We reaffirmed that rest is essential, and just like we make rest possible for the women defenders who we accompany, we must do so for ourselves. We also dedicated time and resources for our sister defenders’ recovery after the multiple harms produced by the COVID pandemic.

We established respect for rest to the extent possible. I think there is an implicit agreement to not bother, to not interrupt rest, and that is very important, the recognition that the space for the sister defender to recharge energy is valid for those moments of care. (Nicaraguan Initiative of WHRDs)

We made a prioritization exercise, placing our health first and seeking to avoid overload... We created a fund to support self-care actions for the operational team, some to address medical conditions or situations created by COVID. (National Network of WHRDs in Mexico)

Living in an emergency.

All of us – both in each country and in the regional space – began to think and build together more sustainable ways of addressing emergencies: What is an emergency, when we live in a context of permanent alert? Where are our limits? How do we face burn-out?

These were some of the many questions we asked ourselves, and that have inspired actions like organizing a rotation to respond to emergencies, creating periodic spaces of personal and collective emotional support and healing, allocating specific funds for emergencies, creating spaces for context analysis, among other actions.

This continuous emergency destabilizes us, so we try to have a structure that helps maintain us in those times... We talk, we get help with therapists, we receive accompaniment from our peoples’ spiritual guides. (National Network of WHRDs in Honduras)

Processing grief, celebrating life.

In the past two years, we have lost dear sisters in our networks and work teams, due to the pandemic and other medical issues. This has been very painful, and the whirlwind of needs to address left us without time and energy to process the grief that multiplied. 

In response to this, we organized regional and national spaces with sisters who are healers, who embodied support for us through the wisdom of Indigenous Peoples. Additionally, on 16 November we had a meeting of the IM-Defensoras Steering Group after two years of not seeing each other. It was moving, a moment to finally hug, to weep together for the sisters we lost in these two years, to renew our commitments, and to celebrate life. 

We will continue seeding seeds of hope and resistance through feminist holistic protection. 

This is how we arrive at this International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day, conscious of the importance of acknowledging our vulnerabilities and of developing collective responses to address them; proud of the capacity of our woven fabric to face the context and continue accompanying our sisters in times of risk. Grateful for all the support we receive each day from allies around the world, and with the clarity that we want us alive, free, and together.

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