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We cannot afford to be traumatized: the reality for grassroots advocates

When human rights defenders are both advocates and victims, self-care can seem like an impossible luxury. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on mental health, resilience and human rights. العربية. Español.

Local human rights defenders—who are fighting to stop global companies from destroying their people's lands, or documenting horrific war crimes against their own communities, or providing aid for displaced families—are not just advocates, they are victims too. For local advocates, the passion to defend their communities' rights is far more personal and very emotional, but most of the time, their commitment to the struggles of their people exceed their limited capacities. They often make the choice to ignore their personal needs in order to ensure the survival of their communities—but this choice can come at a significant cost.  

Being an advocate in many local communities also means being a leader for change and a voice for the voiceless.

Local defenders’ persistence against various threats and obstacles is not just coming from compassion; it is coming from sharing experiences and conditions with the victims. Being an advocate in many local communities also means being a leader for change and a voice for the voiceless. These different roles are accompanied by high risks of persecution for the activists defying powerful states and non-state actors. Despite these serious threats and stressors, grassroots advocates do not have the luxuries of quitting the job, taking a break or going on vacation. If they did any of that, they would likely feel more anxious than relieved; burned out or traumatized local advocates always suffer from inner conflicts, because they do not want to abandon their people—otherwise they would see themselves as traitors and cowards. So they stick with it, and continue the work until they fall sick or die. Even those who have been detained or prosecuted and forced to leave their countries continue to feel that guilt, as they keep asking themselves: why I am here and not there? Consequently, either inside or outside their country, local activists struggle to establish professional boundaries that could help them maintain their mental and emotional wellbeing.


Flickr/UNAMID (Some rights reserved)

For women defenders in particular, stress and trauma has a strong effect on the whole family.


I know all of this because I am one of them. Five years ago, I had to leave my country, escaping from espionage charges as a result of my documentation of the ongoing war crimes in Sudan. But I also know these things because I interviewed and documented dozens of experiences of grassroots activists inside Sudan, who are working in one of the most hostile environments for human rights defenders in the world. These women and men working in conflict areas or with displaced people were deeply involved and committed. They had never considered their own wellbeing neither as a priority nor as a right. One of the most courageous anti-genocide activists I have ever known used to wear dirty clothes and ride a donkey for weeks into remote areas of Darfur. He wanted to reach those women who had been mass raped by militias, while also taking pictures of the burned villages and the mass graves of his own people. I often asked him why he did not stop after ten years of doing this, as it clearly was taking a toll on his health, but he simply said to me, "I can't." I did not understand why at the time. When he died a year ago, I had been disconnected with him for a while so I asked about the reasons of his death. His family told me that, "For more than a year he turned to the bottle; he drank himself to death." My friend and colleague died of depression, because he just could not stop his advocacy work, or did not know how to.

Sudan has been plagued by civil wars for half a century now. The Darfur conflict, which started in 2002, has continued, while new wars have started in another two regions of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. The ethnic conflicts in the country escalated to genocide under the current Islamic militarized regime, and the Sudanese president was accused of war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court in 2009-2010. However, without the efforts of local and grassroots activists, the evidence and stories of thousands of victims would have been buried by the government forces. But those brave women and men paid high prices in terms of their own safety, wellbeing and health.

One such example was a young female activist from Darfur, who had been documenting war crimes since she was a teenager. Because her family still lived in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, she told me: "I had to study psychology, I needed to help myself to survive all that I have been through, and to process what I have heard from others." Another 45-year-old woman activist from Nuba Mountains said:" I have chronic headaches, and I became hypertensive. I just cannot see my people die this way, it's too much and I feel helpless." For women defenders in particular, stress and trauma has a strong effect on the whole family. One of my female colleagues, for example, had ongoing fertility problems that her doctors attributed to too much stress.

The commitment and passion of grassroots advocates is admirable, but the main problem is that they do not know how to stop when they need to. Most of us feel that we should not stop, that we cannot leave our people’s fight. On top of this, the lack of holistic security trainings and resources at the local levels has increased defenders’ risks to develop different types of health and mental problems. And access to psychological support at the grassroots level is very limited, especially for those at risk of PSTD. Occasionally, local advocates have to relocate, sometimes even outside their country, to find psychological treatment.

For grassroots activists, solidarity remains at the core of their coping strategies. One of the female activists who was a victim of rape in security detentions, as a result of her work, decided to share her relocation fund to help another colleague to relocate as well.  We managed to find help for the raped activist to relocate and receive medical and psychological support, but she said: “My other colleague is at risk too, I will not leave her behind." She made this decision because her colleague was living in a remote area inside Nuba Mountains; she did not have access to internet to apply for her own relocation or to communicate with protection networks. With a lack of resources to seek professional help, peer support has been the most effective—and often the only—safety and mental health network for grassroots advocates.  

Yet we know that this is simply not enough. The international donors and human rights defenders support networks need to take measures that consider the complicated challenges encountered by local defenders. More importantly, NGOs, either local or international, that recruit community-based activists must recognize their unique status and develop strategies that understand their vulnerabilities. Only when organizations approach this issue proactively will they be able to ensure the safety, wellbeing and work stability of advocates who are also victims.


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