Addressing security and wellness in a holistic and responsive way
Background & Context
In 2016, the Levi Strauss Foundation provided grant support to Mama Cash and Urgent Action Fund to document and analyse the challenges faced by feminists groups (grantee-partners of Mama Cash and Urgent Action Fund) from six different countries where civic space for organising had become severely restricted. We interviewed, and then later convened, fifteen groups to provide insights and reflections about their experiences working in restricted and repressive contexts.
The resulting 2017 report, ‘Standing Firm: Women- and Trans-Led Organisations Respond to Closing Space for Civil Society’, highlighted the disproportionate impact of closing space for civil society on women’s and trans people’s activism and political voice.
Most of the activists who were interviewed as part of this project reported that they experienced heightened levels of state-sponsored, gender-based violence, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination. The report showed that the increase in antagonism and violence, together with heavy workloads and their commitment to maintain their resistance and organisations, puts a severe strain on feminist activists.
The urgency of attending to their mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health was an issue that most activists highlighted in the interviews. While the research highlighted many self-care, collective-care, and security strategies that activists employ, such as networking or creating solidarity support groups, the specificity of their contexts shows that when it comes to holistic safety and security, no single approach meets the needs of every situation. Feminist activists need resources – both financial and non-financial – to be able to address their specific individual and collective needs for mental, emotional, spiritual and physical security and well-being, as well as their physical and digital security needs. However, the resources available in the current funding landscape to meet such needs remain very limited.
The Resistance & Resilience initiative is born
Thinking about what we had learned in the initial phase of this project, we decided to provide partners with resourcing that would allow them to reflect deeply on their holistic security needs and how to address them, and then to implement work to meet those needs. Mama Cash piloted an initiative that we call Resistance and Resilience (R&R). Starting toward the end of 2018, the R&R initiative provided tailor-made, individualised support to several grantee-partners that are confronting the effects of closing space for civil society in their daily work.
Mama Cash provided financial support to five groups with the purpose of allowing them to assess their holistic security and well-being needs. Each group worked with a consultant who supported them in this assessment process. A key characteristic of the initiative was that groups were entirely free to select their own consultant. Mama Cash’s grant support also provided the resources to enable each group to implement the consultant’s recommendations.
Our approach in this initiative was to move away from the practice of “parachuting” experts into contexts with which they are not familiar. We also wanted activists to be able to access tools and structures to support their work in the longer term rather than offering yet another one-off training session on their well-being and security. We wanted to understand how to improve our support to activists to strengthen their resistance and resilience for the long run.
Vanina Serra, Senior Programme Officer for Voice at Mama Cash, described the breadth of approaches taken by partners with dedicated funding for holistic security from the R&R Initiative:
“Some of [the grantee-partners] decided to engage the whole constituency of the group. They had big participatory processes or surveys, using a values-based approach, to define what holistic security means to them. In other cases, partners started by focusing on the more practical things like administration, to make sure that their record keeping is sparkly clean and perfect. They wanted to ensure all the documents were right in place. This means that if an authority comes in to check you, they have no excuses to shut you down.”
We have collected some of the experiences and learning of the feminist groups that have participated in the R&R initiative on a special website. Each of the groups involved decided how to present their experiences. We have also shared the reflections of several of Mama Cash’s programmes staff that work with grantee-partners operating in civil society contexts that are restricted. We offer these reflections in the spirit of sharing an experiment that has been a rich learning opportunity for us. We hope these reflections are useful for both activists and funders as you think about how best to approach issues of holistic security and activist well-being in difficult contexts.