By Sophia Sakhanberidze, Programme Associate for Europe, Central and North Asia

One thing that supporting activists in restricted contexts has taught me is to recognise some of the less visible challenges and costs of activism. We support self-organised, collectively-led feminist groups working to secure change on contested issues. We know that this is emotionally challenging work, especially for marginalised and stigmatised groups that are speaking out in public on issues that many people would prefer not to hear about. I have come to understand that it feels to many partners as if they are continually “coming out” or sharing difficult personal stories over and over again. Some partners tell us that interactions with donors can feel emotionally exhausting, too; as if they repeatedly need to explain the context and challenges they face.

The challenges to feminist leaders’ mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health are always considerable, but the challenges are especially great for those working in extremely repressive and even life-threatening environments. Yet, grantee-partners do not always share these challenges up-front with their funders. In our grantmaking generally, but particularly in the R&R initiative, we wanted to make sure that grantee-partners trusted our support and our understanding of their situations. One way that we did this was by not continually putting them in a position of having to explain what they go through. Building trust with partners has enabled more open conversations, and ultimately this helps me to provide better support.

Activists also have to deal with the emotional toll of constantly thinking about their physical security; again we see this particularly in the contexts where the space for civil society is restricted. Grantee-partners experience violence from both state and non-state actors. Officials may use state resources and power, such as tax and financial scrutiny, as a control and intimidation mechanism that can take up grantee-partners’ precious time and energy, or they may use state-controlled media to run smear campaigns as a form of intimidation. These campaigns, usually politically-supported, are picked up by right-wing extremists who attack or threaten the activists, individually as well as collectively.

In some contexts, grantee-partners tell us that to feel safe, it is better to be more outspoken and more visible, but this can also be exhausting. Often, activists have to spend time developing safety schemes, like having a Plan B to relocate themselves and their family members in cases of threats, which also needs to be organised on top of daily work and struggles.

The bottom line is that feminist activists are doing difficult, long-term work that is both physically and emotional debilitating. Funders have a responsibility to understand this, and to offer continued support and solidarity to the activists who are working so hard, often at great personal cost, to make change happen and the world a better place.