Thursday, April 13, 2017
By Prof. Lauren Carasik continues our discussion on the need for self-care in the human rights community.
The lack of attention to well-being has exacted an incalculable toll on frontline human rights defenders and by extension, on the organizations and movements that sustain them. To engender robust discussion and informed responses to the failure to attend to the emotional needs of human rights workers, OpenDemocracy.net has launched a new series, Resilience as resistance: Mental Health and well-being in human rights. The series will examine “a range of critical questions and issues including: research conducted on the mental health impacts of human rights work, obstacles to advancing mental health and well-being in this field, as well as innovative approaches and strategies to prevent and alleviate the harmful effects of human rights work.” The series announcement quotes Audre Lorde, who poignantly argued that “Caring for myself is not an indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
Continuing our discussion on the inaugural piece, Evidence of trauma: the impact of human rights work on advocates, Meg Satterthwaite observes that although advocates often exchange harrowing tales of their work, “What is frequently left unsaid in these discussions is that trauma—direct and indirect, personal and vicarious—has a real, serious, and lasting impact on the lives of human rights advocates.” Satterthwaite describes efforts that Sarah Knuckey, Adam Brown and she have undertaken to develop “a scientific evidence base to ground efforts to respond to concerns about well-being among human rights advocates.” Their initial survey uncovered levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout among human rights activists that mirrored rates found in first responders. Yet the vast majority of those surveyed reported receiving little preparation or support for the emotional toll of their work. Building on efforts already underway to identify and ameliorate the mental health costs of human rights work, Satterthwaite and her colleagues are focused on “systematically documenting and better understanding promising responses.” As she explains, “To develop such responses, we must first bring these discussions out of the shadows and embrace them for what they are: an acknowledgement of the complex perils—and deep joys—of human rights work”
In the second piece in the series, Douglas Mathew Mawadri, Fighting stigma: protecting the mental health of African rights advocates observes that “With many countries assenting to and domesticating an expanding regime of international human rights treaties in their respective jurisdictions, human rights advocates emerged over the last few decades to monitor these standards, and to take on governments, corporations, and some of the most powerfully entrenched systems on earth. But this type of confrontational work does not come without costs, some of which are personal and very steep” Mawadri identifies the “many issues blocking human rights workers in Africa from accessing appropriate mental health care, but three in particular stand out: stigma, social support, and lack of knowledge,” which must be addressed. He concludes by observing that “In a field where workers frequently experience trauma, burnout, and chronic stress, setting aside funds to proactively protect the mental health of workers would benefit the entire human rights movement. We must stop treating human rights workers as though they are expendable or invincible—we are all human after all, and activists who burn out are of no help to anyone.”
Nzik Awad contributes the third piece to the series, We cannot afford to be traumatized: the reality for grassroots advocates. As she argues, “Local human rights defenders—who are fighting to stop global companies from destroying their people's lands, or documenting horrific war crimes against their own communities, or providing aid for displaced families—are not just advocates, they are victims too. For local advocates, the passion to defend their communities' rights is far more personal and very emotional, but most of the time, their commitment to the struggles of their people exceed their limited capacities. They often make the choice to ignore their personal needs in order to ensure the survival of their communities—but this choice can come at a significant cost.” In the absence of other support, grassroots activists are often left to rely on solidarity to sustain them. “Yet we know that this is simply not enough,” Awad laments. “The international donors and human rights defenders support networks need to take measures that consider the complicated challenges encountered by local defenders. More importantly, NGOs, either local or international, that recruit community-based activists must recognize their unique status and develop strategies that understand their vulnerabilities. Only when organizations approach this issue proactively will they be able to ensure the safety, wellbeing and work stability of advocates who are also victims.”
For those interested in contributing to this important series, the guidelines are available here.