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Nothing is meaningful without sustainability

"I don't feel safe when there is little money in my bank account." Bee replied with a laugh when she explained what security meant to her. Her two colleagues both nodded to her, and then everyone in the room laughed together. This is what happened when we spent five days discussing the issue of safety and security at the end of 2019.

Her answer revealed a reality that cannot be ignored: security and safety can hardly be discussed without considering sustainability. An activist usually long struggles for a financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable life. A grassroots group always desperately seeks all around for the funding and resources necessary to maintain its operation. And a movement can easily be in an uncomfortable spot, if threatened by a lack of confidence in the future. Therefore it is essential to better frame safety, security, and sustainability on the agenda of the feminist movement by addressing the well-being of both individual activists and organisations.

We learned the importance of safety and security through bitter experience in the past three years when the authorities further restricted all kinds of overseas partnerships and increased their ability to spy on citizens to new and disturbing levels.

A law on civic space approved some years ago has given public security agencies ample powers over NGOs and activists, enabling them to summon NGO representatives for questioning, to conduct on-site inspections and to seize documents, to request the freezing of bank accounts, to order the suspension of activities, to list organisations or individuals as "unwelcome" or "dangerous" within the government system, and even to order the detention of NGO staff and deport foreign staff without a right to appeal the decisions before an independent body.

The implementation of the law has been selective and unpredictable, which further increases the anxiety of activists. All of this led to a culture of self-censorship in social movements. As a result, activists have chosen to isolate themselves on purpose. Event hosts have become more hesitant to have multi-party cooperation and to address more right-focused issues in their events. And in contrast, participants have been reluctant to attend overseas activities or to join events that they are not familiar with. For instance, we had three activists who canceled their participation in our training at the last minute because of this anxiety in 2019 alone.

The development of surveillance technologies is exacerbating this situation. The authorities have been knitting together old and state-of-the-art technologies — phone scanners, facial-recognition cameras, face and fingerprint databases, e-payment, and many other technologies — into sweeping tools for authoritarian control to build a digital totalitarian state.

This surveillance resulted in unprecedented and unexpected damage to both activists and social movements. Individual activists are under incredible stress as they are constantly reminded by the authorities that they are being closely tracked, including who they meet, where they meet, what they talk about, and how long the meetings last. Organisations tend to keep all kinds of information secret due to security concerns, and this negatively affects their ability to be transparent and thus their credibility, preventing them from gaining the trust and support from the public. The social movement is being torn apart, and few people feel safe and secure as a result.

The long term well-being of both individuals and organisations was put on our agenda when we dealt with all the external challenges we had to confront. This isolation of activists resulted in creating misunderstandings and suspicion between each other, funders, and their larger communities, turning social movement leaders into targets of both authorities and the larger public. For instance, following a severe crackdown by authorities, several leaders of our group were targeted by people within the movement, who believed that it is the leaders' responsibility to take more risks to continue their activism, especially in such difficult situations. These active leaders were expected to share their activities and upcoming plans more openly to strengthen the community's trust in the future. They, as a result, had been suffering unimaginable stress, while desperately dealing with the entire backlash also coming from their own communities.

Unfortunately, we failed to win the support from certain partners, and the organisation had to terminate its operation after the entire team burned out. We were neither able to have secure conversations with most of our partners since they did not have the knowledge and infrastructures on digital security in place, nor able to clarify our worries about the well being of individuals since this idea had been misinterpreted as cowardliness and selfishness of leaders.

Through this heart-breaking process, we realised that the sustainability of an organisation, together with the well-being of individuals, has always been ignored on the agenda of activists, although many activists and organisations have disappeared for this very reason. Moreover, a fragmented movement unable to be to transparent, will undoubtedly bring forth more gatekeepers who can own more information and resources within the movement, threatening the sustainability of entire movements. These gatekeepers, who are usually senior activists working in influential NGOs or INGOs, or sometimes even funders, can easily manipulate grassroots groups and activists to follow their agenda through the resources they own.

After experiencing all these external and internal challenges, we believe working on Resistance and Resilience within feminist movements, means putting the well-being of both individual activists and organisations on the agenda of activists, which will ultimately contribute to the sustainability of the social movement.

By regarding the well-being of individuals as an issue within the movement, activists were able to have conversations about their financial, mental, environmental and social well-being without being judged, including requiring decent salaries and benefits, saying no to work that may harm their safety, and expecting more training and investments to secure their well-being from their employers.

By addressing the well-being of our organisation, we were able to adjust our strategy and work plan fwith a focus on maintaining its sustainability, based on our knowledge without being dominated by either gatekeepers or by certain funders. Our organisation was also able to guarantee our resources for the well-being of our staff, including distributing resources on improving staffs' knowledge of security and well-being and infrastructure on digital security.

The feminist movement strives for a world where each individual can achieve well-being, including feminists themselves. In one session of our 5-day convention on safety and security, our team imagined our future 20 years later together and drew it down as a headline in a newspaper. The news is about the closing of a dangerous industrial plant thanks to the constant work of feminists on agriculture technology, environmental sustainability, and well-being of humankind. By picturing how well-being becomes the eventual goal of activism, we were able to put our future in the landscape with great pleasure.

That is exactly the activism we want, isn't it?