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Shaking Up: Strategy, Solutions and Sustained Impact

Within each Cycle we offer Key Ideas and Tools to support you wherever you are in your movement building journey.  Are you just starting out or are you in the heat of a shaking up moment?  What is emerging in your context and what do you want to do?  What kind of capacity do you have?  Have you thought about risks and safety?  These Cycles can be used as a framework for Movement Builders—both experienced and new. So start collecting your tools and store them in your We Rise toolkit.

Shaking Up

Shaking Up is about mobilizing power for impact—oriented by our alternative vision and agenda, we strategically act with allies to make lasting change in policy and decision making, shift social norms, and protect and strengthen our communities.

  • Institutionalizing Gains, Transforming Power Strategically using our power to impact governance and democratize decision-making. Using advocacy, elections, direct action and other means, we reshape policies, practices and laws, and transform power relationships.
  • Imagining and Creating Alternatives It’s as important to imagine the world that we want, the communities that we want and the organizations that we want, as it is to understand and analyze problems and contexts. This allows us to not only envision but also to develop alternatives to the problems and structures that exclude and perpetuate inequality.
  • Amplifying Our Vision/Shaping Social Norms Producing and strategically communicating cultural and political content that shapes the public conversation, promotes inclusive and positive social norms and supports our change agenda.
  • Inside and Outside Strategies Skillfully expanding and leveraging a web of relationships, working inside and outside formal decision-making, to advance and sustain our change agendas.
  • Regenerating Movement Leadership Regenerating Movement Leadership is about creating opportunities for new leadership to emerge, and putting in place the capacity to continuously develop effective, collaborative and feminist leadership.
  • Collective Protection and Safety Recognizing that our growing success increases the risks of backlash particularly for women activists and other marginalized groups, we work to develop a holistic form of protection. From community strategies for protection, support for self care, to changes in policies and social norms to eliminate impunity, we proactively work to secure the safety, wellbeing and human rights of activists.

    Institutionalizing Gains, Transforming Power is about strategically using our power to change policies, improve the implementation of existing laws, and to democratize decision-making.  Using advocacy, elections, direct action and other means, we change the rules to make them more fair, and the institutions to make them more representative and more accessible. In this way, we work to permanently transform power relationships.

    Policy and institutional change is a step toward and a key aspect of transformative change. As a long-term process, transformation includes changes in whose voices count in making and implementing the rules, changes in the social and political priorities that shape our public agendas, and shifts in attitudes.  

    Many problems are the product of unequal systems that benefit a few at the expense of many. Healthcare, housing, access to justice are but a few examples. Sometimes clear policy solutions exist, but better policies alone are insufficient to address the issues at stake. Often the policy process is so rigged in favor of a small few that our issues cannot even reach the public conversation. Climate change serves as a good example. Powerful interests like the fossil fuel industry prevent meaningful alternatives from reaching the agenda. To get those questions on the agenda, it is crucial to gather data, educate and mobilize to make it impossible for policy-makers not to listen and not to respond. Similarly, the activists involved in Occupy Wall Street did not have a policy agenda because they believed that the entire system needed to be transformed, and that no amount of tinkering would address the deep inequalities that systematically disadvantage the 99%. But Occupy multiplied and succeeded in getting the issue of deep inequality on to the public agenda in many countries. 

    The bottom line is that campaigning with clever slogans and policy advocacy is insufficient, yet still important for change. With the rise of NGOs, there has been an overreliance on one-dimensional approaches to change, which focus almost exclusively on very visible aspects of power, such as laws, policies and structures of government. These approaches often function only as quick-fix technical solutions; they are aimed at short-term advocacy gains, and neglect deeper analyses of power. Failure to investigate sources of power can have serious consequences. Beyond the risk of missed opportunities and poor strategic choices, ignoring power can prove to be dangerous for activists who underestimate the potential backlash when entrenched interests are challenged. Women’s rights activists understand these risks politically and personally. Extraordinary gains in women’s rights the world over in the last decades provoked a powerful and well organized conservative religious push back that has served to reverse those gains in many countries, particularly in regards to reproductive rights. In some countries, these forces have succeeded in re-imposing a traditional view of women, legitimizing control over clothing and basic freedoms. Women activists know that a deep change is essential to transform how society understands gender and gender roles.

    Activists are always searching for more effective means by which to engage and transform power to address the issues they care about—from climate change to healthcare to policing. If we understand the complexities of power, we can more easily locate cracks and contradictions within our governing systems that can serve as potential entry points for change. For example, the increasing costs of higher education and debt burden on students in many countries have become so excessive as to spark action from Fees Must Fall in South Africa to the National Campaign for Fees and Cuts in the UK. These campaigns mobilized street protests and social media campaigns to create pressure on decision-makers to halt fee increases for university students. Though they have had important gains, the student activists recognize that, unless they alter the frame of recent years—a consumer-oriented privatized model of education—long-term transformative change will not be achieved. Getting their issue into the public conversation is the first step, and to achieve that, it is necessary to build alliances with others concerned about consumer models of healthcare and other essential services.

    To better understand how different forms of power interact, and what they mean for strategy and success, we look at the overlapping dynamics of visible, hidden and invisible power over others. We then identify forms and strategies of transformative power to challenge social exclusion and domination. Alternative approaches build on power within oneself and power with others to create a formidable combination that inspires people to act. We have found that to guarantee long-term transformation, groups need to weave together this deeper, more comprehensive understanding of power with the various strategies aimed at channeling life-affirming forms of power.


  • “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”―Arundhati Roy


    Imagining and Creating Alternatives is about the importance of envisioning and developing alternatives to the problems and structures that exclude and perpetuate inequality. It’s as important to imagine the world that we want, the communities that we want and the organizations that we want, as it is to understand and analyze problems and contexts.

    Imagining alternatives can begin small, but eventually leads to concrete proposals, ideas, worldviews and ways of living. While an alternative vision may be transformational, we actively construct it every day by changing the way we treat one another and organize. Throughout history, social movements have created an alternative world, and there is much to be learned from these examples, including many today who have constructed “liberated zones.” Where communities are trying to live by an entirely different set of values.  Indigenous peoples have long offered an alternative worldview—cosmovision—to live in harmony with nature. And finally, activists and researchers are collaborating to create alternative economic, political and social models for us to draw upon.

    What inspires change is not only the capacity to imagine an alternative to violence and inequality, but to bring it to life in the day-by-day construction of alternative communities and ways of leading and acting in the world.”—Lisa VeneKlasen

    Creating change requires both understanding and challenging what’s wrong, and strategies to imagine and construct alternatives. Processes to collectively imagine alternatives to inequality and injustice are essential to building coalitions and generating the hope and energy that keeps change-makers and movement activists going for the long haul. Imagining alternatives helps us to define the values and principles at the core of our agenda for the future—values that we embed in how we organize ourselves in our day-to-day practice, not only in our proposals for the future. A clear vision for the future is also the basis for working with many allies—researchers and activists—to develop the political and policy proposals that would bring our alternative to life. Those proposals are the basis for our demands for change. In order to inspire and mobilize other people to join our cause—including many people who do not think like us—we need to offer hope, possibility and a concrete demand. That demand takes us to a new reality, where we can feel powerful, not powerless.

    An example from Guatemala: Against the backdrop of exploitative resource extraction projects—indigenous and rural women draw on their community’s culture of resistance and the Mayan “cosmovision” to hold the line in the face of violence and exploitation. Lolita Chavez an indigenous leader Consejo de Pueblos K´ichés (CPK) located in the department El Quiché in Guatemala explains what this “cosmovision” is:

    “We have a different way of thinking from what has been called 'development' as the accumulation of wealth or imposing of other people’s idea of what is ‘better’. Rather, we are talking about a harmonic way of life, and of being with nature.

    Historically, we have demonstrated our strength to resist injustices committed against our people and especially against our bodies (considered the first territory to be invaded by the brutal invasion and colonization). Officially, history does not recognize the cultural legacy of our ancestors, but we know that our grandmothers and mothers left us the necessary wisdom to defend Mother Nature. For us this is the same as defending life itself.

    For us, the earth doesn’t belong to any particular person. Instead, both men and women are seen as ‘one living being’ with no private properties or divisions. To defend our territory is to defend every aspect of life, this is how our community consultations have been a strategic struggle in the face of the neoliberal economic model which depletes the elements of life.

    Mother earth should not be bought or soldit should be respected and defended, and we say NO to transnational companies and YES to life.

    Many people don’t like our way of thinking, because we threaten the current model of living which privileges and creates hierarchies based on the resources you can accumulate—be it money, land, ideas etc. As a result, indigenous people are labeled negatively—from ungovernable to idiots, and even going as far as questioning our identity as Mayan people.”

    We are an army of dreamers, and that's why we're invincible.Subcomandante Marcos, Zapatistas

    Imagining and constructing alternatives is an ongoing processes, embedded in organizing and popular education, and a project with allies to develop our agenda.

    As a process, there are many methodologies in this Resource Kit with ideas for using words, skits and other creative processes that tap into people’s ability to imagine change in direct contrast to the structures and situations that create injustice. These imaginings are the basis for defining the principles that then guide how we organize. For example, if we want structures that respect dignity and seek inclusion, that deal with conflict in an open respectful way, that promote reciprocity and solidarity—then our practice in how we organize, lead and build organizations should aspire to reflect those practices.  We can’t wait until we see the perfect future, we construct it every day in how we work.

    In addition, once we are clear about the causes and consequences of the problems we are seeking to address, we work with like-minded organizations—including policy advocates and academics—to clarify our demands and specific policy proposals. Policy proposals alone will not adequately achieve transformation. It’s important to continuously sharpen our alternative worldview and world to remember the path we have to travel as we organize on specific issues.

    An exciting example of a clear path from an unequal world to a better future is in Movement Generation’s Just Transitions framework. JASS has tested and adapted this with many gender justice activists and integrated a feminist perspective.

    Tools for Radical Imagination and Alternatives

    Moving Beyond The Tool…

    Listen in to Adelaide Mazwarira and Alexa Bradley reflect on why imagination and envisioning alternatives is vital for fueling our hope and planting seeds for the future we want to bring to life.

    1. What is the role of imagination in organizing and creating change?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    2. The versions of ourselves and the versions of reality that are shown to us are extremely suffocating. Some of those “realities” embody white supremacy, class supremacy, male supremacy. Therefore, if we don’t actively cultivate our imaginations to imagine ourselves differently—our sense of community, economics, our relationship to the environment, our relationship to one another—we allow the oppressive to stay with us and weigh us down.
    3. So, would you say that imagination is an important component for organizing?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    4. Absolutely. In my mind, it also connects to heart, mind, body. Sometimes we imagine the future through poetry, through dance or art or storytelling or theater. We give ourselves the space to jump over, step around, evade all those ideas that keep us down. In organizing, if we only operate out of anger against an injustice—then we do not cultivate that imaginative capacity.
    5. It seems that if you are organizing around a particular issue, and all of it is quite bleak, people do get turned off. How do you expose a grim truth, but still convey that there is hope?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    6. Well, you just said it, Adelaide. Imagination is the most important tool against despair and resignation. Because, if we just elaborate the problem, this is how bad it is, that only motivates a small number of people. Most people will feel like they can’t do anything. Hope and imagination on the other hand are very attractive; they can be playful, emotional, can embolden people to act.
    7. If we consider Berta Cáceres’ death, and the hopeful messages that have come out of that tragic event, like people saying, “Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.” We’re finding ways to still carry on her message, while letting it be known that we’re not defeated, even in the face of that tragedy.
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    8. In the assassins’ version of reality, they have killed Berta, and now her fight will stop. And we reply, “You’ve just activated more people and drawn more attention to this issue and made the fight clearer to others. Now, we’re not just going to stop that dam; now this will go global to stop all your dams.”
    9. Yes, those who didn’t know Berta, and her dedication to her cause, have been drawn in. Her death touched so many people who never knew that building dams was an issue, or that environmental activists were specifically targeted. Her death not only put a spotlight on the criminalization of activists, but also on the global scramble for resources currently taking place.
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    10. Songs have also held a lot of power in movements. Writers, too.
    11. And graffiti–a lot of graffiti. We just posted one from the World Bank that says, “Berta Lives.”
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    12. Exactly, she’s here–presente. The idea of presente was used in countries where disappearances regularly occurred. Someone would call out the names and someone would say, "Presente," as if that person was still there. That act exemplifies the idea of resistance, that creative act that symbolizes our refusal to accept your version of reality, your sense of our defeat.
    13. So, how can we channel more imagination, generate more joy?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    14. We have to embrace the creative exploration of inventing our way forward. Sometimes we will succeed, and the results will be amazing, and sometimes, like any creative work, not every creation will be a masterpiece. You may write the first three lines of a poem and then later realize, those three lines weren’t good, but they moved the poem somewhere, and the next lines were even better.
  • "Let us teach both ourselves and others that politics does not have to be the art of the possible...but that it also can be the art of the impossible, that is the art of making both ourselves and the world better."—Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovaki


    Amplifying Our Vision/Shaping Social Norms is about producing and strategically communicating cultural and political content that inspires people, shapes the public conversation, promotes inclusive and positive social norms and supports our change agenda. 

    Movements that aspire to social transformation—and that is, in truth, all movements—engage and impact culture. Through a multitude of strategies, including through the arts, social media, cultural production, education and public institutions, movement activists work to communicate values, stories, norms and ideals that reflect their visions of change or to question and "de-normalize" ideas and cultural practices they find problematic. When movements begin, they often have a set of adherents who are engaged with their vision, but it is when those movements begin to impact and shape the thinking of a broader circle of people, when their ideas become absorbed into the arts and cultural institutions, when they are reflected in shifting social norms, that movements can be said to be gaining social power.  

    We are struggling for the heart and soul of community – community built on a commitment to the common good and cooperation ... upheld by solid bonds of human relationships that respect diversity and human rights, a weave of justice woven with multiple threads of power and people...“—Mexican and Central American Women Leaders, JASS Movement-Building Institute, September 2006

    Of course, cultural change is just one component of transformation. But it is an important one, as it takes on the “invisible power” of ideologies and beliefs that oppress and control by offering a vision and beliefs that are more compelling and freeing. The power of beliefs and ideas—subversive, passionate, liberating, radical, heartfelt, humane and bold—to unleash creativity and courage is extraordinary. Movements gain momentum by both tapping and expanding the imaginations of the people involved, inspiring change and action on personal and collective levels. While cultural change should not be mistaken for political change, which involves structural shifts in the policies, laws and institutional practices that embody the power relationships of the society, it is vital to fueling and sustaining that deeper change with its celebratory, imaginative and defiant air. As movements colleagues in Latin America say, movements help us create a new social “imaginary," or an imagining of ourselves and our society.

    While changing the social norms and inspiring social imagination is a long-term goal, it begins in the simple and important ways we reclaim our knowledge, stories and identity back from a culture which has tried to shape and distort how we see ourselves and keep us under its spell, in control and subordinate. Using storytelling and inviting participants to question “reality” and ask, “But why?” creates openings to challenge taboos, break silences and for new ideas to emerge.  JASS prioritizes amplifying the voices of the women we work with in many forms—radio programs, "write-shops," speak outs, theater, testimonials, learning exchanges, blogs and articles. Each contributes to cultural and knowledge production that both affirms our truths and is designed to raise social awareness. Sometimes this work is fun and provocative, like sharing our Caution: Women Crossing the Line tee-shirts. Sometimes, it is the space we create for women to talk about bodies, sex and sexuality that helps cast off shame and stigma. And, sometimes, it is the painful but important hearings we have held in which women speak out about their experiences as women human rights defenders. Ultimately, we work to bring our experiences, demands, and visions for change to the center from the margins so we can shape new realities going forward.

    Tools for Amplifying Our Vision/Shaping Social Norms

  • "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."—Martin Luther King


    Inside and Outside Strategies is about aligning the tactics and strategies for change outside (street and virtual mobilizations) and inside (lobbying, inside allies, political influence) within the halls of formal decision-making to maximize our negotiation power and create pressure on decision-makers—the kind of pressure necessary to advance and sustain institutional and policy change.

    The leadership and strategies needed to lobby power holders and officials are very different from the mobilization strategies in the streets and the media used to call attention to problems and demand change. Consequently, activists regularly debate the merits of outside versus inside strategies. To oversimplify, resistance (outside) activists argue that the policy process merely waters down or coopts our issues while advocates (inside) argue that nothing will change unless we work with policymakers despite imperfect politics. Both have valid arguments, yet the path of social movements throughout history that have demonstrated the need for both inside and outside strategies and, ideally, a convergence of the two. Outside strategies give voice to a bolder change agenda and enhance people’s power and leadership and in that sense they are transformational.  Inside strategies are key to making inroads in translating our visions into specific policy change. Our justice demands and agendas are unlikely to make it to the public policy agenda, let alone turn into policy and legal changes, without the pressure and exposure created by direct actions and smart media. Those strategies make our issues—and the numbers of supporters behind them—visible and powerful.

    Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”—Frederick Douglass, writer, abolitionist, freed slave

    It takes more than data, evidence, and a persuasive argument to get social, economic or environmental justice issues and alternative policies onto the public agenda. Unless those in power feel that a policy serves their political self-interest, or that the costs of inaction are too great, they are unlikely to move ahead. This is not a cynical view, it is a realistic assessment of how politics and power operate. With great sophistication, economic and political elites control policy agendas and prevent new issues and voices from entering and shifting the policy discourse at all levels. Even when our issues and proposals are taken up, without steady outside pressure, they can be coopted by decision-makers who grandstand behind rhetoric and stall concrete action. Often our policy demands reflect a completely different logic than that for which the policy process allows, i.e. proposals on climate change or peace-building that call for a radical re-think of economic and military policy. In these situations, outside strategies are essential to redefine, claim and create room in the policy agenda. While allies inside or closer to decision making can bring attention and credibility to our issues and increase the likelihood of their adoption.

    Once our issues are taken up by those that hold decision-making power, outside organizing must maintain pressure on these actors and highlight the political costs of inaction. Research shows that organized communities are a vital part of achieving government responsiveness and accountability. At the same time, we must beware of the co-optation of the language and intent of our agendas. In the past, women’s rights agendas have been used to justify military intervention, “green energy” solutions have kept the fossil fuel industry intact, and corporate responsibility strategies have focused more on branding than true change.

    There is no formula for aligning and choosing the right mix of inside and outside strategies, because power is always shifting. However, some basic principles can help determine the best course of action. One is to understand the political moment and our sources of power. Creative street tactics and social media campaigns combined with exposés and news releases that uncover hidden truths and abuses of power often generate both political momentum and pressure on policymakers to take action. From the inside, our allies can guide us and ensure that our proposals make it into the decision making spaces.  For grassroots groups, finding advocates and researchers who support and validate our justice demands is essential.

    The strategic interplay of inside and outside strategies also demands that we understand the value of what each brings to the change process. This can be difficult in a political culture which often values data and advocacy over movement activism. But, in truth, the discomfort which comes with the latter is exactly its power—to bring new pressure to bear. Moreover, this collaboration creates important opportunities for mutual learning; too often advocates with inside experience speak on behalf of and represent others in ways that do not build skills, voice or power. It is vital that the very people most affected by inequality, and who will benefit most from positive action, speak and lead on their own behalf.

    Another challenge comes from the seduction of power. It is easy to misread an invitation and an opportunity for engagement as a firm path for change, and consequently to discontinue the outside pressure. However, an invitation to participate is rarely a win; it is just a first step. In this situation, the concepts of invited versus claimed versus created political spaces can prove useful. Invited spaces are those within which our participation is expected or at least allowed. These vary by context, but can include elections, legislative and public hearings and lively public discussion about issues. But these spaces are always contested and under pressure by forces that would like them closed. Strategically, movements often need to claim or create political space, intervening in spaces that are not open to us or inventing alternative political spaces (holding our own hearings, creating our own platforms, etc.).

    Tools for Convergance of Inside and Outside Strategies

    Moving Beyond The Tool…

    Hear what Adelaide Mazwarira, Lisa VeneKlasen and Anna Davies-van Es say about strategic alliances and partnerships which bridge outside activism with partners inside the power structures and decision making processes we want to impact—and when and why they can be strategic.

    1. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      Can you explain the meaning of the convergence of inside and outside strategies?
    2. To have a bigger impact on the issues and institutions that we want to change, to solve the problems we are trying to solve, we form alliances and partnerships. In Southern Africa, for instance, we realized that religious institutions perpetuate the shame and stigma women living with HIV/AIDS experience. And they were shaping the politics around HIV/AIDS. So we decided to partner with a progressive religious organization. We did not share every belief with that organization, but our partnership enabled us to reach a much wider audience than if we had worked alone as a feminist organization.
    3. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      How was that an “inside strategy”?
    4. The faith group we worked with was made up of religious leaders living with HIV/AIDS who, because of their social status and position, had relationships with government and high level officials. They could bring a degree of credibility and attention to our agenda by virtue of who they were that we really needed. I won’t say it was easy, but the alliance really helped us move our demands.
    5. These kinds of inside-outside collaborations are not easy. They mean working outside our comfort zone. I think one of the challenges for feminists is related to our unwillingness to work with different groups which hold different values. In truth, change is only possible with strategic partners, people that share your solution and your concern about the problem, but don’t necessarily share all your views. That is leveraging strategic partnerships for a wider and deeper reach. As another example, working now in Honduras to get justice for Berta Caceres, we are fast becoming allied with groups focused on the international banks. Those groups do not use the word "feminist" in anything they say or do, but we’re on the same page about what we want to accomplish. What’s always surprising is how much we learn from each other once we join forces.
    6. And how do you make these decisions? How do you determine which partnerships will have strategic benefits?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    7. I think this is why it is really important to do power analyses. You search deeper for information about the particular institutions, people, and decisions you want to change. And you find out about like-minded organizations with similar goals and key relationships or knowledge to bring.
    8. When women who are the most affected by these decisions are in the middle of the advocacy, you can count on them keeping up the pressure from the outside on policymakers to deliver on their promises.
    9. And you have to figure out where the decisions are being made. In doing that, you’re going to come across groups you should probably partner with so that the inside strategies open opportunities for the constituencies with which we’re working. Aligning both inside and outside strategies is about ensuring that policy change will be implemented.
  • "Confronting power is central to feminist leadership and movement-building. If we as women leaders replicate the practice of power over, how are we any different from mainstream male-stream practices of leadership?”—Shereen Essof


    Regenerating Movement Leadership is about creating opportunities for new leadership to emerge, and putting in place the capacity to continuously develop effective, collaborative leadership. Feminist leadership principles and practice have much to offer other movements in this area. A shared commitment to expanding leadership, complete with opportunities for training and learning while doing, fundamentally changes how we organize and how we lead change. New leadership is not only about younger people, it’s about all the different kinds of voices that may have been on the margins.

    Can feminist leadership principles and practices help change current top-down leadership models on the African continent? If social transformation—deep democracy, freedom, dignity, and wellbeing—is our vision for the future, business as usual is not taking us there. Women are playing leading roles from politics to community-based organizations—but are these enough? Women often reproduce the authoritarian leadership prevalent elsewhere. Rarely do we ask, "What kind of leadership do we want to create through and with women?"

    Tools for Regenerating Feminist and Movement Leadership

  • “A movement-building approach does more than create webs for self-protection. It equips women defenders with the collective power to amplify their voice and engage more effectively with governments to change the norms that impact them.”—Lisa VeneKlasen


    Collective Protection and Safety is about recognizing that our growing success increases the risks of backlash, particularly for women activists and other marginalized groups. As a consequence, we work to develop a holistic form of protection. From community strategies for protection and support for self-care, to changes in policies and social norms that seek to eliminate violence and injustice, we proactively work to secure the safety, wellbeing and human rights of activists.

    Since 2009, many organizations and donors have sought to respond to the criminalization of and attacks on human rights defenders (HRDs). Since that time, resources for protection have multiplied. Still, the scale of attacks is growing and becoming increasingly complex. Violence comes from state and non-state actors, often in collusion with each other. Criminalization and harassment tactics generate fear and fatigue for defenders and organizations, by trapping them in lengthy legal procedures and forcing them to defend themselves from criminal accusations. These strategies against defenders serve to divert resources away from critical human rights efforts, to weaken organizations, and ultimately, to silence activists.

    Human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seem ill-equipped and slow to respond to these "on the ground" realities, and investments in protection cannot keep pace with the problem. Though crucial, emergency funds for temporary relocations of individual defenders and for other security interventions are not sufficient to respond to the nature and scale of violence faced by HRDs, especially by women human rights defenders (WHRDs). Many programs to counter criminalization and to sustain or strengthen defenders and their organizations focus primarily on policy and legal advocacy. While policy and legal cases are vital, implementation is stymied by lack of resources and political will. Indeed, policy advances are limited, if not accompanied, by the sustained work of grassroots movements and local-to-global organizing to engage public opinion and continuously pressure state institutions to implement measures to protect defenders and to ensure freedom of expression.

    Effectively addressing violence against HRDs and equipping defenders to sustain human rights efforts in risky environments requires alternative strategies to prevent violence and to protect defenders on a larger and more sustained basis. Based on JASS’ experience in the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative—a collaborative effort between JASS and five organizations—and in other regions, movement-building that invests in long-term alliance-building with and among defenders across issue, sector, and identity is a promising solution that equips defenders with the tools necessary to protect each other and to use the power of their numbers for an even stronger voice on human rights.

    A crucial aspect of movement-building is the creation of safe spaces for in-depth contextual analysis and dialogue that recognizes the diverse experiences among defenders and the intersectionality of factors that specifically affect WHRDs, indigenous women defenders, LGBTI defenders and other groups historically marginalized and more vulnerable to attacks. These types of processes generate a shared agenda and are essential for creating protocols and principles to respond with agility to urgent situations. An organizing approach strategically utilizes rapid critical actions and emergency responses when local solidarity and resources cannot protect the defender at risk. An organizing approach is equally beneficial when an external intervention could have a ripple effect, strengthening the safety net for more defenders, and holding governments accountable for transgressions.

    Since 2006, when JASS dedicated itself to building collective power, our motivation was to amplify women’s impact, while proactively protecting women from the backlash and violence sure to result from their departure from traditional roles—for essentially crossing the line. Through the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative, and in other regions, JASS works with allies to incubate and promote a feminist and a movement-building approach to human rights protection that combines individual and collective strategies to sustain and strengthen activism, while reducing risk. This approach takes into account the economic, social and political forces at play, and examines gender relations and other factors of discrimination, such as class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, location, ability, etc., in order to improve the effectiveness of strategies that deal with violence and inequality. 

    A critical component of this movement-building process from a feminist perspective is to engage women defenders in protecting themselves and each other through networks of mutual support and solidarity. National networks from the Initiative enable women activists to better understand and confront sexism and violence. They help women feel strong enough to push for more inclusive social justice movements, and as a result, allow women to be recognized for their contribution in all aspects of life. They also improve governments’ capacity to guarantee rights. In the Initiative, the national networks provide a sense of belonging and a shared understanding of violence, which can help minimize feelings of isolation.

    A critical component of this movement-building process, from a feminist perspective, is to engage women defenders in protecting themselves and each other through networks of mutual support and solidarity. National networks from the Initiative enable women activists to better understand and confront sexism and violence. They help women feel strong enough to push for more inclusive social justice movements, and as a result, allow women to be recognized for their contribution in all aspects of life. They also improve governments’ capacity to guarantee rights. In the Initiative, the national networks provide a sense of belonging and a shared understanding of violence, which can help minimize feelings of isolation.

    Traditional activist protection tends to narrowly focus on the physical protection of the individual through security measures such as bodyguards and bullet-proof vests. In many cases, these measures separate the defender from her community and her family, and fail to address both her physical and mental wellbeing. A holistic approach to protection takes into account the public and the private sphere and includes the need to feel safe at home, at work and in the streets. It encompasses the concept of personal security that includes support for the physical and psychological welfare of women defenders, and the notion of collective security that extends to their families and colleagues.

    Tools for Integral Protection

    Moving Beyond the Tool...

    Women Human Rights Defenders from Mesoamerica explore what integral protection means—the need for approaches to safety to go beyond security measures to also include strong community connections, support for well-being and healing from trauma.

    1. What have we learned? We see more clearly than ever that our core mission—building women’s collective leadership and organizational power—is not just about being louder and more effective in holding governments and others to account. It’s also about creating networks for mutual support and protection in the face of backlash and violence. We call this a movement-building approach to protection and security—we are weaving relationships of trust among diverse women, building our capacities and leading the change we need.
    2. A movement building approach does much more than create webs and systems for self-protection. It also equips women defenders with the collective power they need to amplify their voice and engage more loudly and effectively with governments to change the norms, institutions and policies that impact human rights defenders.
    3. "The ability to recognize ourselves as women defenders, to care for ourselves and each other and to generate new collective security strategies…have become indispensable in order to observe human rights in Mesoamerica."—WHRD, Mesoamerica
    4. "One of the great contributions [of the Honduras WHRD Network] is self-care, which means putting your body as a woman defender at the center of the debate. Your body is political territory. It’s one of the first responses for constructing freedom…for defining how to exist as woman, as a human being, as a citizen in this struggle."—WHRD, Honduras
    5. "I suffered an attempt on my life and that’s when I got to know the [JASS co-coordinated] IM-Defensoras, which at a certain point helped me move away from the area where I’d been attacked and stay away for two months so I could explore the best way to relocate and to continue my work. For me, it’s one more instrument that we now have, especially us women, to consider the issue of self-care, and in doing so, to better our human rights work."—WHRD, Guatemala