Self-care in a digital space

For feminist activists, burnout is the norm. How can we best preserve collective wellbeing while practicing security in the digital world?

Che Ramsden
9 September 2016

This article is part of 50.50's in-depth coverage of the 2016 AWID Forum being held on 8th -11th September in Bahia, Brazil.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives!” AWID’s 13th International Forum began with Audre Lorde’s call to an intersectional movement. The euphoric atmosphere, not encouraged so much as reflected by an hour’s worth of live music so early in the morning, was balanced by a panel discussion of the realities faced by today’s feminist movement. From climate change to violence against women’s and trans people’s bodies, to religious extremism and conservative attacks on democracy: women’s spaces are shrinking and under threat.

In a difficult global context with specific and urgent local challenges, it is unsurprising that feminist activists are ‘burning out’. Sonia Correa, Co-Chair of Sexuality Policy Watch and Research Associate at ABIA, concluded the opening plenary of by asking the panellists how they “go beyond burnout,” and I was particularly struck by the responses which referenced friendship and collective support. 


Feminist Internet eXchange Hub, 13th AWID International Forum.

Yara Sallam from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reminded us that “self-care is not an individual act, it is a collective act” and said that, for her, “supportive family and friends” have been hugely important in retaining her strength. Awino Okech agreed, pointing to her friendships (“I cannot overemphasise [their] importance”) and the fun and relaxation they bring as being “the spaces I go to to recharge.” 

This sentiment – which Correa invited us to ponder as “the politics of friendship” – stuck with me as I spent the day discussing and workshopping digital security for women human rights defenders. The digital sphere is one which enables and supports friendships, but it is also used by governments, corporations and bullies to watch, intimidate and abuse human rights defenders.

Digital security

The session ‘Digital Security as feminist practice’ explored tools and strategies for protecting women human rights defenders from digital threats. Maryam Al-Khawaja (Gulf Centre for Human Rights) described some of these threats: online harassment, defamation campaigns, spyware attacks, surveillance, destruction of your data, disruption of your work. It is intimate and nasty, “paying a personal price for work you do as an activist.” 

“A lot of times, we don’t care about our own security,” explained Maryam, before reminding us that when we compromise our digital security, we are putting all of our contacts at risk, too. This also applies to international NGOs and funders who are not familiar with the tools and strategies employed at a local level – all of which will vary by country – and do not think to ask questions and make appropriate choices around encryption; data storage and backup; and which software, platforms, and anti-spyware to use.

In terms of dealing with harassment and defamation, Maryam described how, to begin with, she made a decision to ignore online abuse. However, she now documents it so that she can build trends and report it. I asked how this affected her wellbeing, to read and be exposed to personal attacks. “I’m really bad at that,” she said, describing how she can brush off threats to herself, before admitting that it does affect her emotionally when she receives abuse directed at her family.

Daysi Flores Hernandez (JASS) described a similar position: while “you are not supposed to get used to threats, you do have a tolerance for them;” however, “human rights defenders become alarmed when attacks are framed for their families.” This resonated with her own personal experience; “the first time they said they knew I had a partner and where she worked, it scared the hell out of me” – she and her partner left Honduras for two months.

The final session I attended was an impromptu workshop titled ‘Holistic Security’ where those who were interested, after the Digital Security session, could explore some of the ideas and issues in the round. Fifteen of us joined. Facilitator Ali Ravi immediately got us in touch with our emotions by asking us, quite simply, how we were feeling in that moment. He then asked us how we felt in response to the discussion we had just had around digital security.


Tactical Technology Collective (2016), Holistic Security: A Strategy Manual for Human Rights Defenders.

Because we were talking about feelings and not ideas, the emotions evoked by the session extended beyond it, and were strongly linked to past experiences. The first person to speak up explained a feeling of helplessness when she had been unable to protect colleagues whose devices had been seized and whose work was unencrypted. Others also spoke about colleagues, friends and their organisations. The feelings we expressed ranged from worry, panic, fear, anger and vulnerability, to a single positive expression which was described as empowerment through knowledge (“the more I know, the less paranoid I am”). 

Ali explained that our overall response was fairly typical, and people often feel overwhelmed or paranoid when they are in digital security training. Our associations with ‘security’ are mainly negative (our group associated it with words like ‘locks’, ‘guards’, ‘alarms’ and ‘trauma’ – as well as a single positive, ‘safe space’) and while Ali insisted that there is nothing wrong with any of our emotions, he pointed out that anxiety and irrationality could be paralysing and therefore made us less effective activists, at least for the time we are experiencing anxiety or recovering from it. He suggested that it was necessary to “reframe ‘security’ so that our behavioural response is different.” When we start framing security as an opportunity rather than a liability – “something I can build on, not have to worry about” – we can start dealing with it constructively, and expand our ability to stay secure. 

Holistic wellbeing 

Previously, when they trained people on digital security, Ali and his colleagues tried to ‘surprise’ them into behaviour change by illustrating how insecure their commonly-used applications, like Facebook or e-mail, are. They were frustrated that people were not taking digital security seriously. As Peter Steudtner explained, “the sound of a lion’s roar evokes fear, yet not Facebook” – even when you know that the lion is mostly imaginary and, in any case, far removed from your context and location (unlike Facebook!). But what the facilitators discovered was not necessarily that people were not taking their digital security seriously, but that they had other security needs which outweighed concerns about online privacy and potential threats. 

If you are a gay person living in Uganda, for example, isolation and fear may be combatted through the creation of a caring, nurturing online social network. It may be your lifeline; to be told that this online group is compromising your digital security in turn negatively impacts your emotional security. For many activists who are forced to live or work away from their family and friends, social media provides contact with their loved ones. Remembering Yara Sallam’s and Awino Okech’s assertions in the morning plenary about the friendships which sustain and ‘recharge’ them, this could reinforce the tension between digital and emotional securities.

Ali, Peter and their colleague Dan Ó Cluanaigh drew a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles: digital security, physical security and emotional security. Others could be added, for example legal security, which would map the protection of the individual and/or organisation by legislation. It is in the small area where the three or more circles intersect that a ‘safer’, more secure place exists, where our needs for digital, physical and emotional security are all met as far as possible.

We were asked to raise our hand if we had been trained on digital security (the majority had), followed by physical security (again the majority) and finally emotional security (only 3 of 15 of us raised our hands). To illustrate how nonsensical this was, Ali relayed a cake-baking analogy inherited from his grandmother: ‘we do not bake our separate ingredients next to each other in different ovens.’

It evokes Audre Lorde’s intersectional struggle: when it comes to the digital, physical and emotional securities, single-issue security is ineffective, because we engage across all three spheres at once. To extend Ali’s metaphor, security planning which does not encompass all spheres is half-baked. 

The session was led by men with a background in digital security – unsurprisingly, given the male-dominated tech industry and the overlapping ‘security' emphasis which also carries patriarchal connotations. Yet it is particularly women who need a holistic approach in order to sustain our activism. Women so frequently undertake emotional labour, providing care, scaffolding and security for others, yet no one returns the favour for us. 

Holistic security seems an important step in many respects. Firstly, it acknowledges different aspects of our humanity at once. Second, it recognises that there will be tensions between these different parts of our lives and that our priorities might shift, particularly if our family, friends and colleagues are involved. Finally, it allows for more effective planning, which takes time but will ensure greater protection for women activists overall, not least because self-care and wellbeing are integrated into the approach.

All images by Ché Ramsden

Ché Ramsden will be reporting daily for 50.50 from the AWID Forum. 

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