Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Wellbeing, Risk, and Human Rights Practice 1/9

Human rights defenders at risk often find it difficult to talk about their mental and emotional wellbeing, even when they are concerned about it. Cultures of human rights practice tend to emphasise self-sacrifice, heroism, and martyrdom. These norms inhibit defenders from expressing their anxieties and seeking help. How can we engage in discussions about wellbeing in human rights practice? How can we strengthen personal and collective strategies for wellbeing amongst defenders at risk?

86 percent of human rights defenders at risk in our study expressed that they were ‘somewhat concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about their mental and emotional wellbeing. They were as concerned about this as they were about their physical security and digital security. In this brief, we highlight the recurrent themes on wellbeing that emerged through our interviews and surveys with defenders at risk in Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, Kenya, and Indonesia.

The important but insufficient focus on wellbeing

Although defenders at risk are concerned about their mental and emotional wellbeing, this is not discussed much in human rights communities. Even amongst defenders themselves, it is often given only secondary attention.
As a transman defender in Indonesia observed: Human rights defenders sometimes do not have concern for [their wellbeing], because they are busy assisting victims.

Therefore, they sometimes forget to think about their own welfare. Sometimes, they also work too hard and do not have any rest or vacation, and so they are neglecting their mental and emotional wellbeing. Defenders also tend to prioritise the necessity and importance of their work before thinking about their personal wellbeing. Their strong commitment to achieving human rights’ goals propel them forward in spite of the challenges in their work.

A woman defender working on the rights of LGBTIQ* persons in Colombia observed: This is a tough business. You are always stigmatised. We have to protect ourselves vis-à-vis our orientation. It’s a question of trying to survive. But you have to get on with things, to come out on top, to fall a thousand times and get up each time.

When they do think about the topic of wellbeing, defenders often focus on the wellbeing of victims of human rights violations and abuses, rather than their own wellbeing.
Defenders sometimes feel guilty when thinking about their own wellbeing; it feels self-indulgent. A woman defender working on campesino rights in Colombia expressed: This is the last measure people take. We start by thinking about our children, our families, our communities; the last person we think about is ourselves. 

It is because of the ‘love for our art’; we are not looking to be protagonists or to serve our own interests. Nevertheless, the psychological consequences of their work can be tremendous.
Defenders in our study spoke about the challenges of living with pervasive fear and anxiety; of their inability to sleep; of their feelings of powerlessness in the face of oppression; of feeling ‘numb’ or emotionless; of being in constant ‘fight mode’; and of their fatigue, despair, isolation, and stigmatisation.

I compare our work to that of Sisyphus: extreme mental and physical strain with no apparent outcomes… [We are] working under the constant threat of being arrested at any moment, and some of us are being personally attacked on the media outlets. What makes it even more difficult is our knowledge that if we go to trial, the trial will more than likely be unjust and biased and it will lack transparency and professionalism. Human rights lawyer, Egypt

 This Policy Brief is based on research findings from the project ‘Navigating Risk, Managing Security, and Receiving Support’ which examines the experiences of human rights defenders at risk in Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, Kenya, and Indonesia. Interviews and surveys were conducted with over 400 defenders between July 2015 and November 2016.

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