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Journey Towards the Feminist Republik

The idea within UAF-Africa to establish a platform focused on supporting WHRDs on the continent is one that has been brewing for years. Women’s human rights defenders (WHRDs) have always operated under contexts of varying degrees of violent political repression, surveillance, attacks and threats. For the past 5 years, coinciding with the global uptake and increased usage of the term “closure of civil society space”, UAF-Africa has been tracking the upsurge in certain grim trends, collecting information on the context in which WHRDs operate in from various sources. These include the intelligence gathered from our rapid response grantmaking; reflections and experiences shared by WHRDs during convenings under our Advocacy & Alliance Building programme (and notably the closing civil society space global convening that UAF-Africa hosted in Kenya in July 2017, with the generous support of the OSF’s Women’s Rights Program), and a resultant global report produced by the UAF Sister Funds on the manifestations of the closure of civil society  space highlight the experiences of activism of WHRDs in all regions in which the sisters work.

With the understanding the Fund has of the context, the support that exists and the gaps that need to be addressed, UAF- Africa convened a meeting of 45 WHRDs in Abuja, Nigeria, from 13th -15th July 2018 for a brainstorming, consultative meeting during which she sought to validate the proposition that such a platform is needed. There was indeed agreement that such a platform is needed, and many ideas were generated on the different roles that the platform could play; the priority thematic areas; means of engagement, structure of the platform, stakeholders to bring onboard, regional languages to be considered; the partnerships that could be formed, among many other exciting discussions, that pointed to the plethora of gaps that WHRDs, from across the continent are grappling with.

The convening in Abuja began to set the tone for the process of setting up a holistic security, safety, wellbeing and collective care platform for African WHRDs where activists will co-create an innovative space for soul restoration, healing and wellbeing for themselves. It is envisaged that this will be a space where African WHRDs will find the space to relieve themselves of the wear and tear, rusting and erosion of heart mind and body that come with activism; support each other and rejuvenate. It was agreed that the space will bring feminist activists, potential actors and partners together to work in ways that advances and prioritises the needs, aspirations, hope and dreams of activists in Africa and work towards advancing activists’ rights while promoting justice by documenting and addressing the violence and violations that women human rights activists face in different spaces where they operate.

Seeing that the proposal for the establishment of an African Women’s Human Rights Defenders Platform (aka The Feminist Republik) garnered significant support and excitement from WHRDs across the continent and in the diaspora, the Fund has decided to convene a small group of WHRDs and feminist experts in varying fields to a Feminist Republik conclave in Nairobi, Kenya from 6th-7th October, 2018. The purpose of the smaller think tank was to provide a critical space for more profound reflections on the feedback that has been harvested thus far, share experiences and insight, and with what we all know about the context and trends affecting the lives and activism of WHRDs, strategise on how to conceptualise the platform.

Guided by the above-mentioned process, UAF-Africa sees a clear need for sustained focus on the following themes:

  1. Holistic (protection) security, safety, wellbeing and collective care, and specifically a focus on collective care as a thematic focus area of the Platform. The focus on self and collective care and wellbeing comes from what we know about the prominent approaches (mainstream) to care and well-being that focus on mental health, and mainly about managing or reducing psychiatric symptoms, rather than challenging the root causes of emotional, mental and spiritual distress. There is a prevalence of approaches that place the mental health of WHRDs in an overly medicalised frame and applying theoretical and practical methods developed in very different contexts from those in which African WHRDs work. There are also primarily individualised responses to support, such as through individual-focused psychotherapies, all of which are inadequate in meeting the collective distress caused by persistent forms of exclusion, violence and marginalisation. Under this thematic focus area, we propose that the Platform generates knowledge through research on indigenous African ways through which women generally, and WHRDs specifically, have practised collective care. This knowledge production strategy entails engaging individual WHRDs, organisational and movement mobilizers and leaders to explore the ways in which they understand and practice collective care in their settings. 

  2. Firmly reinforcing of the collective care bucket is the second thematic focus area of the Platform, namely Healing Justice. We understand this critical concept to be based on an understanding of historical and generational traumas WHRDs suffer from. This is our attempt to resolve conflict and division in ways that do not replicate harm. UAF-Africa sees healing justice as necessary in societies that criminalise women’s resistance and fierceness and structurally facilitates WHRDs’ trauma while creating no space, time or resources for healing. Closely related to collective care, a focus on healing justice in our African context allows WHRDs to politicise how we treat ourselves, how we treat each other, and how we move through, manage and resolve conflict. It also allows WHRDs to unpack, discuss and debate policies, practices and cultures that centre collective wellbeing and self- care in our organisations, communities and movements. Furthermore, healing justice is relevant in our African setting as it necessitates that WHRDs go beyond what each one was socialised to embrace, to further ask ourselves to both recover and create collectively-determined and effective rituals for the kind of healing we need. The discussion on healing justice is one that would also focus on WHRDs’ understandings of solidarities and the manner in which movements can be galvanised to build trust and solidarity between the feminist and women’s movements, both on the continent and transnationally.

  3. Documentation and Knowledge Generation – Under this thematic focus area, the Platform will focus on generating knowledge on the politicisation of our movement work and the ways of organising that lead to disillusionment and violence. This, for example entails addressing ‘woundology’ – in the wording of Hope Chigudu, which entails an exploration of relationships that are bound by wounds, where WHRDs work from a place of internalized oppression to act in ways that may be oppressive, exclusionary or even violent against other sisters, so the process of change is never complete. In thinking about how WHRDs relate to each other, what forms of solidarity are meaningful in our contexts? How have WHRDs related to each other in both helpful and harmful ways? Related to the documentation focus area, UAF-Africa has approached the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative (IM-Defensoras) and organized a learning visit to take place this August, 2019 in Mexico. Through the visit, the Fund and some of the conclave members will seek to learn from their experience in setting up a registry that tracks the violence WHRDs experience, including the logistics and capacity needs required to set up a successful registry.

We are envisaging that the Platform will support WHRDs in at-risk environments in the following ways:

1. UAF-Africa will enhance her grantmaking support to WHRDs and provide grants that are needed by WHRDs in risky environments. These include grants that focus on a feminist protection models, which recognise that protection is wellbeing in action and so does not only support for the physical and psychological well-being, but the collective security and mutual care needed among activists, families, organizations and communities to sustain our lives and long-term work for change.  The grantmaking team has seen an increase in grant applications this year. Between April to June, we have received 442 applications compared to 177 applications received in the same period last year. 253 of these requests have concerned women in situations of insecurity, conflict, rising tensions, or threats to their wellbeing and autonomy. We have also seen an increase in numbers of grants towards defenders for their security. Between January to June the Fund has awarded a total of 30 defending the defenders grants compared to 6 during the same period last year.  The grants have been to WHRDs in Burundi, Egypt, Cameroon, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Senegal. These are all contexts experiencing challenges to WHRDs in terms of their ability to operate, mobilize and thrive. We have also seen shifts in approaches to protection with the grants also incorporating aspects of collective care through ‘Agency Circles’, accompaniment, group and individual psychosocial sessions and creative documentation.

2. Feminist protection also prioritises the strengthening of networks, which are an essential response to the isolation of WHRDs, and the common absence of support from their own families and organisations. In networks, responses are developed and led by the women themselves, and thus able to draw on their first-hand knowledge to provide for the needs for specific situations. Related to wellbeing needs, networks can provide shelters for WHRDs in need/activate networks of practitioners that can provide support for self and collective care. In our grantmaking and activism experience, networks become the nerve systems that build, strengthens and ultimately ensures holistic protection. UAF-Africa will provide support that challenges the “classic” support provided to WHRDs, which is often individualistic, focusing on supporting specific movement leaders, raising their visibility and potential risk they might face in the future. The Fund will also challenge support in the form of temporary refuge programmes that – while vital for the survival of many activists- have specific implications for WHRDs, many of whom as primary caregivers, choose not to utilize this protection measure since they cannot take their families.

3. In these ways, the Fund will fill in critical gaps in the holistic protection and support of WHRDs individually and collectively.

4. The Platform will work on the production of knowledge on critical areas of work where feminist thought leadership is lacking. The Platform will focus on the production of research on healing justice from an African feminist perspective. The Fund has already contacted the African Gender Institute at Cape Town University to for them to consider being the Platform’s research partners in conducting this research. The research will fill important knowledge gaps that will enable the Platform to further reflect on its support to WHRDs and what feminist healing practices can be supported.

5. Through the registry, the Platform will collect information on the violations faced by WHRDs in different African countries, especially those where WHRDs face great risks and threats e.g in Sudan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Cameroon. Through the Registry, the Platform will have up-to-date information on the situation of WHRDs and the support that would be useful.

6. Through the Platform, a healing farm will be established that will serve as a restoration centre for WHRDs and is a women-run space that can be used by WHRDs to connect with nature, meet and connect with other WHRDs across the continent, convene, or for any other purposes to be determined by WHRDs. It will thus be a regenerative space that is much-needed by WHRDs across the continent who sorely need the space to rest, rejuvenate, reflect and connect.