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Defending human rights is intensely rewarding work. It is also difficult and is often dangerous. These aspects of the work are hard to talk about. Rarely, if ever, do women human rights defenders have the time, or the safe spaces, to reflect on their security and well-being in a meaningful way.

But over the years, we have started talking. We have created those spaces, through individual conversations and workshops with more than 300 women human rights defenders from all over the world.

Spaces where we can share challenges and worries, events of immense sadness, and extraordinary triumphs. Spaces where we can form a community, and develop practical ways to strategise, together, on how to keep going. How to stay safe, and sane, and still do the work we love.

We discovered, through these conversations, how much we all have in common as activists.

It doesn’t matter where you are active – in which country or context. Or how you choose to defend human rights – working directly with violence survivors in shelters or refugee camps. Documenting human rights abuses in conflicts. Changing legal or political systems. As community organisers, journalists, researchers, teachers, lawyers, advocates, social workers.

It doesn’t matter who you work for. It does not matter for how long. Whether you stand up and act for five minutes, five years or for a lifetime. Whether you dip in and out of it.

For every single woman human rights defender, the very public work is intensely personal. And the personal is integral to your security. It is personal because of what motivates you.

Your personal experience of different forms of violence – as survivors, as witnesses, or both. Your experience of repression, discrimination, hatred, sexism. Your sense of injustice. Your passion to do something about the violence, to make change.

It is personal because of your support system. The people who support you are your friends, family, lovers, your created families, your communities. When they support you, it is amazing. And when they deny, or betray you, it is devastating.

It’s personal because of the tools you use – because what you bring to this work is your own body, your sharp mind, your sense of humour, your heart, and your instincts.

The people who want to stop you know that human rights work is personal.

That is why their threats are personal – why they deliberately attack your family: your children, your partner, your parents, your relatives. They attack your reputation, your credibility, calling you a spy, a traitor, a prostitute. They attack your body, and your sanity.

They know it is personal.

So we asked ourselves, why are we not talking about the personal? When clearly it is so important to our safety, to sustaining ourselves and our work?

The reason? Because it is personal. It’s private. We are not supposed to talk about it.
Our conversations about security and well-being are always difficult at first. While activists can talk for hours about the work, it is different when it comes to talking about themselves, particularly about how they feel about the stresses and strains of the work, the impact of the work on their lives, their safety.

During a group interview in Sri Lanka, one of the activists stopped in mid-conversation and said: ‘Look, I don’t get it. What’s your point? What does security have to do with this? Why are you asking about when we take holidays or rest? What does this have to do with our work?’

And that was the point, it turned out. Or one of them. That women human rights defenders did not see that how they felt within themselves – how exhaustion, or sadness, or worry about making ends meet – how they keep themselves safe – had anything to do with their ‘real’ work. For them, it was completely separate.

Most activists had never considered these issues as relevant to their work – they were private. You just don’t talk about them.