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 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 is about mobilizing power for impact. Oriented by our animating 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 Just Societies It’s as important to imagine the world we want, the communities we want and the organizations we want, as it is to understand and analyze problems and contexts. This enables us to not only envision change, but also to eradicate structures that perpetuate inequality and develop new structures that support our vision.
Amplifying Our Vision/ Shaping Culture Producing and strategically communicating cultural and political content that shapes the public conversation, promotes inclusive and positive social norms and supports our change agenda.
Combining Grassroots and Institutional Strategies Skillfully expanding and leveraging a web of relationships, working inside and outside formal decision-making, to advance and sustain our change agendas.
Building and Regenerating Movement Leadership Building and regenerating Movement Leadership centers on the on-going development of effective, collaborative and feminist leadership. It requires reconceptualizing traditional patriarchal forms of leadership and creating opportunities for new leadership to emerge.
Collective Protection and Safety Recognizing that our success increases the risks of backlash, particularly for women activists and other marginalized groups, we work to develop holistic forms of protection that encompass personal safety and collective security. We work proactively to combine self-care, mutual support and community protection strategies with changes in policies and social norms to eliminate threats and impunity with the goal of assuring the safety, wellbeing and human rights of activists.
INSTITUTIONALIZING GAINS, TRANSFORMING POWER
Institutionalizing Gains, Transforming Power is about strategically building and using our power to create and maintain deep and lasting change - in policies, in laws, in budgets, in institutions, in community practices and culture, in decision making itself. Through sustained organizing, advocacy, electoral interventions, direct action, cultural work and other movement building efforts, we work to permanently transform power relationships.+ Read More
This is long term work. If we are clear about our goals, each step we take, each seed we plant, is guided by our vision of transformative change. Along the way, transformation also requires building alliances, revitalizing the social fabric of our communities and movements, advancing social and political priorities that matter for our lives, remaking political leadership and changing attitudes and social norms.
Transforming power is about transforming what is possible. As LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter noted, commenting on their historic electoral victories in 2021; "The work wasn’t overnight. It has been an ongoing process for more than a decade. The way I talk about community power is like electricity: Thomas Edison didn’t create electricity in the purest sense; what he created was a conduit to organize the energy and direct it. It was already there. That’s the same way I see organizing: We’re not creating power; the power is already there. This outcome in Georgia is a result of deep-seated organizing. It works. While I do certainly believe that Black folks, particularly Black women, were at the vanguard, we weren’t leading this by ourselves. There is a multigenerational, multicultural coalition that is rising up in the South and is really going to transform it."
Transforming power is complex and requires multiple strategies. As we know, systemic inequality leads to injustice in basic needs, such as healthcare, housing and access to justice. While it is clear that we must work to develop better policies, we must also build a path to their adoption, implementation and institutionalization. Often the policy process is so dominated by a narrow elite that our issues and proposals are blocked from public debate.
Climate change is a case in point. Powerful interests like the fossil fuel industry continue to do everything in their power to prevent meaningful solutions from reaching the agenda. They lie about and suppress science, mislead people, fund elected officials to buy their support, and get state militaries and police to protect their infrastructure. To get our issues on the agenda, we need multi-prong strategies including research, savvy communications and organizing, legislative and electoral efforts, direct action- that together build our power and push our concerns into public conversation.
Campaigning with clever slogans and a policy agenda is important, but insufficient if it is not accompanied by deep and broad grassroots organizing. With the rise of NGOs, there has been an overreliance on one-dimensional approaches to change that focus almost exclusively on very visible aspects of power, such as laws, policies and governmental institutions. These approaches usually promote technical solutions and short-term advocacy gains, but sometimes neglect the work to build the necessary movement power to make and sustain change.
Failure to understand power puts our movements at risk of missing opportunities and making poor strategic choices. Ignoring power can be dangerous for activists who underestimate the potential backlash when entrenched interests are challenged. Women and LGBTQI+ activists understand these risks politically and personally. Extraordinary gains in women’s rights around the world in the last decades provoked powerful, well-organized and frequently successful conservative efforts to systematically roll back our gains in many countries. In some countries, these forces have succeeded in re-imposing and “normalizing” a traditional view of women and gender, and institutionalizing forms of control over bodies, gender roles, sexuality and basic freedoms. Women activists know that a deep transformation in how society understands gender and gender roles is essential to assure lasting gains.
As activists, we are always searching for more effective means by which to engage and transform power to address the issues we care about. When we understand the complexities of power, we can more easily identify cracks and contradictions within our governing systems that can serve as potential entry points for change. For example, excessive increases in the cost of higher education and students’ growing debt burden in many countries has sparked action, such as the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts in the UK. These campaigns mobilized street protests and social media campaigns to pressure decision-makers and though they have had important gains, the student activists recognize that unless they alter the overarching structure—a consumer-oriented, privatized model of education—long-term transformative change will not be achieved. To get the issue into the public conversation, the movements must build alliances with others concerned about consumer models of healthcare and other essential services.
Understanding how different forms of power interact, and what that means for strategy and success, requires a close analysis of the overlapping dynamics of visible, hidden and invisible power dynamics (See JASS power analysis). We then must develop strategies to build transformative power capable of challenging social inequity and any use of power to oppress, dominate and exclude. Strong models for change build on power within oneself, power with others and a vision of change, what we call power for, which together create a formidable combination that inspires people to act. We have found that to guarantee long-term transformation, groups need to have sustained strategies to challenge and transform power so we can achieve and protect our vision of justice, peace and freedom.
HERRAMIENTAS PARA INSTITUCIONALIZAR LOGROS Y TRANSFORMAR EL PODER
IMAGINING AND CREATING JUST SOCIETIES
Imagining and Creating Just Societies is about the importance of eradicating structures that perpetuate inequality and developing new structures that support our vision. It’s as important to imagine the world we want, the communities we want and the organizations we want, as it is to understand and analyze problems and contexts.+ Read More
“We are an army of dreamers, and that's why we're invincible.” Sub-Commander Marcos, Zapatistas
Imagining new ways of living together and living on the planet begins as dreaming, but eventually leads to concrete proposals, ideas and worldviews. We actively build our transformational visions every day by changing the way we treat one another and organize together. Throughout history, social movements have created visions of new worlds. These experiences teach us a lot, from small-scale utopias to liberated or autonomous zones where communities seek to live by a different set of structures, rules and values. Indigenous peoples have long offered a different worldview, or cosmovision, to live in harmony with nature and continue to lead today. Activists and researchers are collaborating to create more fair and humane models.
Creating change requires understanding and challenging what’s wrong, and devising strategies to imagine and construct new models. Collectively imagining an end to inequality and injustice is essential to building alliances and coalitions and generating the hope and energy that keeps change-makers and movement activists going for the long haul. Imagining new futures helps us to define the values and principles at the core of our agenda—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 to develop the political and policy proposals that would bring our new models to life. Those proposals are the basis for our demands for change. They 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 concrete demands that carry us toward a new reality—one where we can feel powerful, not powerless.
For example, faced with a rise in exploitative resource extraction projects, indigenous and rural women draw on their communities’ culture of resistance and the Mayan cosmovision to defend their lives, land and territory. Lolita Chavez, an indigenous leader of the Consejo de Pueblos K´ichés (CPK) located in the department El Quiché in Guatemala, explains their sustaining worldview; “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. 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. Mother earth should not be bought or sold—it should be respected and defended, and we say NO to transnational companies and YES to life.
Imagining, recovering certain traditions and building new models must always be embedded in our organizing and popular education. In this Resource Kit, we offer a wide range of methodologies with ideas for using words, skits and other creative dynamics that tap into people’s ability to imagine change that confronts the structures and situations that create injustice. These imaginings form the basis for defining the principles to guide how we organize. For example, if we want relations that respect dignity and seek inclusion, that value care and sustaining life, that deal with conflict in an open respectful way, that promote reciprocity and solidarity, how we organize, lead and build organizations should reflect those practices. We can’t wait until we have the perfect future; we have to build it every day in how we work.
Once we have a grasp of the causes and consequences of the problems we seek to address and an animating vision of what we want, we work with like-minded organizations, policy advocates and academics, to clarify our demands and specific policy proposals. Policy proposals alone will not achieve transformation. It’s important to continuously define our vision and remember the path we have to travel as we organize on specific issues.
Tools for Imagining and Creating Just Societies
AMPLIFYING OUR VISION/SHAPING CULTURE
Amplifying Our Vision/Shifting Culture 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.+ Read More
All movements that aspire to social transformation engage and impact culture. Through diverse strategies, including 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 that deny rights and freedoms. When movements begin, they already have a core set of adherents who share a vision, but it is when those movements begin to influence and inform the thinking of a broader circle of people, when the arts and cultural institutions absorb and reflect their vision, and when social norms begin to shift that we know the movements are 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
Real transformation cannot take place without cultural change. Cultural change 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. Beliefs and ideas—subversive, passionate, liberating, radical, heartfelt, humane and bold—have an extraordinary capacity to unleash courage and creativity; at the same time, creativity is a powerful force to reaffirm and spread ideas. Movements gain momentum by both tapping into and expanding people’s imaginations, inspiring change and action on personal and collective levels. While cultural change should not be mistaken for political change that involves structural shifts in policy, laws and institutional practices that embody the power relationships of the society, it is vital to fuel and sustain that deeper change with celebratory, imaginative and defiant expressions of our vision.
Changing social norms and inspiring social imagination begins in the simple and important ways we take our knowledge, stories and identity back from a culture that has tried to shape and distort how we see ourselves and keep us under its control. Using storytelling and inviting participants to question “reality” and ask “But why?” opens minds to challenge taboos, break silences and engender new ideas.
JASS members have found many ways to amplify the voices of the women we work with—radio programs, "write-shops," speak-outs, concerts, theater, testimonials, learning exchanges, blogs and articles. Each contributes to cultural and knowledge production that affirms our truths and raises social awareness.
Sometimes this work is fun and provocative, like gathering hundreds of women together in our Caution: Women Crossing the Line tee-shirts or singing and dancing together. Sometimes, it’s simply offering a safe space for women to talk about bodies, sex and sexuality, casting off shame and stigma. And sometimes, it is the painful but important meetings we’ve held in which women speak out about their experiences as women human rights defenders. Ultimately, we work so we can all 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 Culture
COMBINING GRASSROOTS AND INSTITUTIONAL STRATEGIES
Combining Grassroots and Institutional Strategies is about working inside and outside formal decision-making, skillfully expanding and leveraging a web of relationships to advance and sustain our change agendas. Grassroots strategies include community organizing, street and virtual mobilizations, assemblies, petitions, media work and cultural events. Institutional strategies include elections, lobbying federal, state and municipal legislatures, negotiating demands and implementation with officials, filing lawsuits and leveraging political influence in formal decision-making spheres.+ Read More
The leadership and tactics employed for institutional strategies are different from those employed for grassroots strategies, but the differing strategies should never alter your principles and vision. Activists often tend to make an ideological distinction between institutional strategies as “reformist” and grassroots strategies as “revolutionary”. Many grassroots activists argue that institutional strategies end up diluting or coopting our issues, while advocates working with institutions argue that nothing will change unless we engage with policymakers despite imperfect politics. The history of social movements and our experience over the years clearly demonstrate the need for both grassroots and institutional strategies and today’s context calls for a fluid combination of the two. In fact, almost every movement that we’ve known employs a combination.
“We want feminists — women who care about the rights of other women and who are prepared to rock the patriarchal boat — to be in leadership positions and to be there when the deal is made.” - Everjoice Win
Grassroots strategies enhance people’s power and leadership and generate experiential analysis and demands from the people themselves, while institutional strategies seek spaces in which to advance those demands and begin to translate our visions into specific policy change. Both, in that sense, are potentially transformational. Institutional strategies are key to making inroads in translating our visions into concrete policies, but 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, mobilization and smart use of media. The grassroots strategies increase our base and thus our ability to make our issues visible and powerful and reach the policymaking sphere.
“We have to contest power in all arenas. As movements, we have to contest power and we need to do it in different ways, from different fronts and with a diversity of actions.” - Sandra Moran
It takes more than data, evidence and a persuasive argument to get social, economic or environmental justice issues and policy proposals 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 isn’t a cynical reading, it’s a realistic assessment of how politics and power operate. 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 from that of policymakers, such as proposals on climate change or peacebuilding that call for a radical re-think of economic and military policy. Grassroots strategies are essential to redefine, claim and create room in the policy agenda, while allies 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 formal decision-makers, grassroots organizing must maintain pressure on these actors and highlight the political costs of inaction and the benefits of accepting our demands. Research shows that organized communities play a vital role in achieving government responsiveness and accountability. Women’s organizing in particular is key to lasting change.
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 interventions, “green energy” solutions have kept the fossil fuel industry intact, and corporate responsibility strategies that have focused more on branding than true change.
There is no formula for aligning and choosing the right mix of institutional and grassroots strategies, because power is always shifting. However, some basic criteria help determine the best course of action. The first is to understand the political moment and what sources of power we have within it. Creative street tactics and social media campaigns combined with exposés and news releases that uncover hidden truths and abuses of power often generate political momentum and pressure on policymakers to take action. Institutional allies can guide us and ensure that our proposals make it into the decision-making spheres. Alliances with advocates and researchers who support and document our justice demands can be especially effective.
Second, the strategic interplay of institutional and grassroots strategies also demands that we understand the value of what each brings to the change process. This can be difficult in a political culture that values state power over people’s power and oftentimes official declarations over common truths. But the uncomfortable challenge of movement activism is exactly its power—to force paradigm shifts and bring new pressure to bear.
Moreover, the interplay between the two strategies creates important opportunities for mutual learning. Too often advocates with institutional experience speak on behalf of and represent others in ways that do not build skills, voice or power and are not always representative. It is vital that the 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 for engagement with decision-makers as a strong opening for change, and consequently to let up on grassroots pressure. An opportunity to participate, however, is rarely a win, –it’s just a first step. And it is always important to remain clear about your goals and be vigilant for possible cooptation.
To evaluate potential gains, we must differentiate between “invited spaces”, “claimed spaces” and “created spaces”. Invited spaces are those within which our participation is expected or at least allowed, but whose parameters and rules are controlled by others. These vary by context, but can include elections, legislative and public hearings. These spaces are always contested and disinclined to allow the entrance of new actors. Claimed spaces are those that movements strategically open up to their own purposes, such as neighborhood meetings and community organizations. Finally, created political spaces are spheres of autonomous political activity that allow us to create new models of interaction and freely develop new worlds.
Tools for Combining Grassroots and Institutional Strategies
BUILDING AND REGENERATING MOVEMENT LEADERSHIP
Building and Regenerating Movement Leadership is about the on-going development of effective, collaborative and feminist leadership, that consciously creates opportunities for new leadership to emerge. It requires fostering an organizational culture that is intentionally evolving and welcoming, and a commitment to growing movement capacity and longevity, not just individual leaders.+ Read More
Feminist leadership principles and practice have much to offer other movements. The basic principles are distributive leadership, collective decision-making, employing means congruent with our ends, non-violence and building power with and power to, rather than power over. A commitment to sharing and expanding leadership, with opportunities for training and learning while doing, fundamentally changes how we organize and how we lead change. Rather than placing an emphasis on individual leaders, feminist movements strive for an organizational culture of collective and collectively- accountable leadership.
Regenerating leadership is not only about investing in a younger generation, it’s about fully incorporating all members of the organization and their diverse skills and potentials into the work and assuring that no one remains on the margins. It’s also about making sure that current leaderships continue to learn and evolve in their roles, while avoiding rigid leadership structures.
“Patriarchy, reflected through all the structures and institutions of our world, is a system that glorifies domination, control, violence, competitiveness and greed. It dehumanizes men as much as it denies women their humanity. So, we need leadership that will explore and expose these links and challenge patriarchy. The only leadership that does this is feminist leadership.” Peggy Antrobus
Feminist leadership can be best developed in safe, autonomous spaces. But feminist leadership principles and practices must also be brought to mixed organizations to change top-down leadership models. It isn’t enough that women hold leadership roles, we have to avoid reproducing authoritarian leadership patterns that reinforce inequity and undermine our efforts to make fundamental change. To achieve our vision of social transformation—deep democracy, freedom, dignity, and wellbeing—feminist leadership has a critical role to play in many grassroots movements.
Tools for Building and Regenerating Movement Leadership
COLLECTIVE PROTECTION AND SAFETY
Collective Protection and Safety means assuring our individual and collective wellbeing to the highest degree possible and being free from threats and attacks in women’s daily lives and organizing. Protection should not be seen merely as a shield or series of defensive actions. Although as women activists and human rights defenders we face attacks, we need a more holistic concept of protection to assure our safety and that of our families, organizations, communities and planet. This includes a broad range of tools and activities, including strategies for community protection, support and training for self-care and changes in policies and social norms to eliminate the sources of violence and injustice. In all these areas, we proactively work to secure the safety, wellbeing and human rights of activists.+ Read More
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.
Especially in today’s contexts, our advances bring backlash campaigns that attempt to roll back our gains and neutralize our power. Women and members of other marginalized groups and the many intersections in our movements, face the highest risks because they present the greatest challenges to the capitalist, patriarchal system we seek to replace. Attack tactics include slander, harassment, physical attacks, intimidation and threats, unjust legal charges levied against activists, imprisonment and even assassination.
Over many decades, many organizations and donors have sought to respond to the judicial and physical attacks on human rights defenders (HRDs). Available resources for protection have multiplied, yet the scale of attacks is growing and becoming increasingly complex. Violence comes from state and non-state actors, often in collusion with each other. Pressing false charges, unjust incarceration 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 drain resources from critical human rights efforts, weaken organizations, and ultimately, aim 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 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). 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 ensure freedom of expression.
Effectively addressing violence against HRDs and equipping defenders to sustain human rights efforts in risky environments requires strategies to prevent violence and to protect defenders on a broader and more sustained basis. Based on JASS’ experience in the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative—a collaborative effort between JASS and other women defenders’ organizations and networks in Mesoamerica—and in our work 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.
Creating safe spaces for in-depth contextual analysis and dialogue is essential. These spaces must recognize and honor the diversity of experiences among defenders and the intersectionality of factors that specifically affect WHRDs as indigenous women, LGBTI community and other groups historically marginalized and more likely to be attacked. Discussion and mutual support in safe spaces generate a shared agenda and help create protocols and principles to respond with agility to urgent situations.
The strategic use of rapid critical actions and emergency responses when local solidarity and resources cannot protect the defender at risk, and external interventions, strengthen the safety net for defenders and hold governments accountable.
JASS began systematically orienting its efforts toward building the collective power of women in 2006 with the aim of increasing women’s impact, while proactively protecting women from the backlash and violence. We knew that women’s departure from traditional roles -- “crossing the line” as we refer to feminist transgressions -- often leads to violent repression. Through alliances with community organizations and movements, the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative, the National Networks of WHRD, and many other efforts, 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 considers 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., to improve the effectiveness of strategies that deal with violence and inequality.
Traditional activist protection tends to narrowly focus on the physical protection of the individual through security measures such as bodyguards, bullet-proof vests or relocation of defenders. In many cases, these measures separate the defender from her community and her family and fail to address both 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, in the streets and in the entire area in which she works. It encompasses the concept of personal security and the notion of collective security that extends to their families and colleagues.
When women defenders engage in protecting themselves and each other through regional and national networks of mutual support and solidarity, they reduce their feelings of isolation and enhance their capacity to confront sexism and the many forms of violence they face. WHRD can then more effectively push for inclusive social justice movements and improve governments’ capacity to guarantee rights, while increasing public awareness of their contributions to society.
Tools for Collective Protection and Safety