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On Africa’s feminist frontlines, we need accessible care practices to sustain our movements

Amidst the backlash against women’s rights and activists, we must learn from the radical, collective care models of HIV+ women.

Jessica Horn
2 July 2019
Women activists with South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, marching in Cape Town in 2002.
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Image: Louis Reynolds (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Feminism is having its global moment – that heady feeling when a movement’s revolutionary demands are being heard by the majority, even echoed by the spokespeople of institutions that govern our lives.

And yet – while calls to end rape cultures, defend reproductive choice, or take women’s economic marginalisation seriously are making mainstream news – feminists on the frontlines of these campaigns often face deeply worrying threats to their lives and security.

Attacks on women’s political participation have increased globally according to new research, with a violent backlash against women leading protests, vying for political office, or speaking out in their communities. In Africa, recorded violence targeting women’s rights activists and women politicians has more than doubled since 2014.

These serious, physical threats compound existing pressures that frontline feminists face, including daily triggers and vicarious trauma from constant exposure to the violation and distress of others.

Significantly, a growing tide of feminist initiatives have affirmed the urgency of wellbeing and care interventions – not as a luxury, but as an essential, core strategy to sustaining momentum for difficult work in such a hostile environment. But, how do we do this?

‘A radical model of collective care’

Although it’s rarely acknowledged, one of the most compelling and radical models of activist care was developed by women in Africa amid the AIDS epidemic – one of the most devastating gendered crises facing the continent in the late 20th century.

Amid social and economic upheaval, I saw how positive women organically came together in communities across the continent – forming their own support groups to face the immediate realities of living with an infection that bore the weight of no cure, as well as vicious social stigma that drove many to depression.

Where governments failed to provide for individuals’ well-being beyond the basics, these groups stepped in – offering emotional grounding and collective advice on how to eat well, live well, come to terms with being HIV+ and reclaim and live in your own power.

These movements framed this as ‘positive living’ – a hopeful reframing of the stressful realities of seropositivity. And, through these initiatives, HIV+ women became pioneers of new discussions about wellbeing and care practices in African women’s activist communities.

“From the late 1990s we went around Uganda forming networks of people living with HIV”, said Lilian Mworeko, from the International Community of Women Living with HIV and AIDS-East Africa, recalling: “We would remind ourselves of how important it was that we ate a balanced diet, that we practiced safer sex, so as to live longer”.

Positive women were wise to the need for rest, healthy eating (with a return to traditional vegetables and basic foods, rather than expensive, imported ‘superfoods’) and easy physical therapies like massage they could use on themselves or others in communities of wellness support.

They learned and exchanged practices for individual, self care, but also built collective spaces to share positive living’s benefits. I saw firsthand how, at international human rights and development conferences, it was HIV+ women who set up wellness rooms, providing space to take a pause from unrelenting discussions and corridor advocacy.

The touch offered in support groups alleviated the immediate stress of tired muscles but also affirmed the social value of the body being held. Against social stigma, it affirmed the presence of HIV+ women and the need for them to be well and stay well – through the care of others.

These communities catalysed social change as well. As Mworeko told me: “support groups serve as a safety net for women and all these have improved the lives of women living with HIV. Women have been able to reclaim their rights as a result of belonging to the networks and some who had lost hope went back to school”.

“Through these initiatives, HIV+ women became pioneers of new discussions about wellbeing and care practices in African women’s activist communities”

Enter the 21st century and self-care, like many of our social movement ideas and practices, is #ontrend. But the focus has shifted in the mainstream discussion onto individuals and consumer-based options for managing the stresses of oppression, or even just a tough day job.

What some have dubbed the wellness-industrial complex is booming in Europe and North America, with proliferating wellness and lifestyle coaching, celebrity veganism and highly priced yoga classes. Many activists’ social media feeds feature equal numbers of selfies, alerts on human rights crises or victories, and attractive graphics on self-care.

Much of this self-care content originates in the US, where there are (in general) more services – and different social cultures around the self, as well as care. As wonderful as bubble baths and hot yoga sessions may be, much of this is out of reach for the average African activist – for their cost, and their relative rarity in the contexts in which we live.

As with the peak of the AIDS epidemic, amid today’s anti-feminist backlash we need accessible care practices that build community as much as offer immediate individual support and regeneration.

In Kampala, Uganda the Raising Voices group co-produced zines, by and for feminists in the Global South, with accessible examples of activists centring care practices in their workspaces and movements.

These include simple exercises – encouraging teams to frequently check in on their collective emotional state as a way to voice silenced questions around stress, fear and overwork. They also point to structural remedies – including psychosocial support for staff in organisational budgets – and advocate for donors to take this seriously.

The African Women’s Development Fund, where I work, is also partnering with the AIR network of African practitioners in community-based mental health and violence response, to pilot an African feminist retreat for activists.

This work, drawing on decades of experience responding to mass trauma and developing more politicised therapeutic models is about solidarity along with individual reprieve. It will only become more vital as our activism – and the backlash to it – grows.

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