Let’s recognize women human right’s defender’s activism before we tell them to practice “self-care”

At the end of April, I was in Berlin to see one of my favourite feminist heroes, Kimberlé Crenshaw speak in honour of the 30th year since her coining the phrase “intersectional feminism.” The venue was packed and buzzing with excitement. I was lucky to even stand in the back of the room, since all seats were taken within 30 seconds after the doors opened. The attendees, including myself, hung on every word Crenshaw said. She spent over an hour discussing intersectional feminism and how intersectionality is still relevant today. Her speech was engaging and she was incredibly charismatic. I couldn’t help but feel inspired, yet one thing she said surprised me. During the Q&A session towards the end of the event, Crenshaw was asked about “self-care” and what her rituals are. With a smile she said something along the lines of “Well, ‘self-care’ is a pretty new concept, you know,” and then she explained how she enjoyed taking a hot bath in her hotel sometimes after her speeches.

I reflected on what she said for a while, thinking about the meaning of “self-care.” To me “self-care” is common sense. Of course, I will make sure to take some time out for myself after a stressful day at work. Perhaps I will go to a yoga class or cosy up on my sofa cross stitching for the night while I eat take-out food instead of cooking. To me, a white, privileged CIS-woman who is working a stable well-paying job in Europe, “self-care” is easy to access. However, I am also not a front line worker in a women’s organisation or a women’s rights activist in a country that is hostile towards women demanding equality and basic human rights. These women are exposed to emotional and physical violence daily and to insist that they practice “self-care” should be laughable.

I was forced to think back to all of the women’s human right’s defenders (WHRD) who have been fighting for decades, even centuries, to make life for women in today’s world more bearable. For them, the concept of “self-care” didn’t exist. I remembered Ida B. Wells, a Black journalist who travelled to the southern United States to document lynch mobs in the late 19th and early 20th century. She certainly did not have time to take a hot bath in a hotel room, much less stay in a hotel room since she most likely would not find a stay in the segregated South at the time. She was vilified in the press, and even The New York Times labelled her as a “slanderous and nasty-nasty-minded mulatress” (1). Wells continued working after she had her first child, doing her best to balance her role as mother and a national activist, however this garnered criticism from her own feminist ranks. Susan B. Anthony, a prominent US suffragette, complained that after Wells had her child she seemed “distracted”(2).

For many WHRDs in this world, “self-care” is still not an option. What do you do when your NGO has just been defunded by the government and you have no idea where the next pay check will come from? How do you react when you can see that a woman needs access to a shelter but you have to turn her away simply because you do not have the capacity? WHRDs deal with emotionally stressful situations like this on a daily basis.

Very often, being a WHRD also puts one in danger of violence. As stated in the 2010 Annual Report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the particular risks faced by WHRDs, “women defenders and those working  on  women’s  rights  or  gender  issues  seem  to  be  more  at  risk  of  being  threatened,  including  death  threats,  and  being  killed  in  the  Americas  region  than  in  other  parts  of  the  world.    Arrest and further judicial harassment and criminalization of the work of have been more commonly  reported  in  Asia,  sub-Saharan  Africa,  Europe  and  Central  Asia.  Moreover,   these   defenders   also   risk   being   exposed   to   the   reported   torture,   mistreatment  and  widespread  use  of  excessive  force  by  State  agents  in  the  context  of  arrests  and  detention.  Furthermore,  women  defenders  face  a  greater  risk  of  being  subject to sexual harassment, sexual violence and rape” (3).

The ever present spectre of torture and harassment with the additional stressor of injustice and patriarchal oppression can easily lead to a burn out. What WHRDs need is acknowledgement of their valuable work. In one word: solidarity. We must acknowledge the daily trauma WHRDs experience as they witness violations and violence against people they know and people like them. Seek out the WHRDs that you know and show them your support. If you see a fellow WHRD struggling, ask how you can help, or just listen to her if she feels comfortable sharing her stories.

Women’s rights were not formally considered human rights by the United Nations system until the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. Judging by the current international backlash against WHRDs, there is still a long way to go until the fight for women’s rights is seen as legitimate in everyone’s eyes. One day we will achieve this recognition, however, until then we must make sure that WHRDs are acknowledged for what they are: an invaluable asset which the world cannot afford to lose.

By Lina Piskernik, WAVE Digital & Social Media Coordinator

If you are looking for more resources regarding self-care, check out the website of Young Feminist Fund: https://youngfeministfund.org/


(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ida_B._Wells

(2) Tichi, Cecelia (2011). Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 340. ISBN 978-0-8078-7191-1.

(3) Sekaggya, Margaret. “Report to the 16th session of the Human Rights Council” (A/HRC/16/44). 20 December 2010.