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Women Activists’ Resistance to Global Threat of Closing Civil Society Space

 “We find alternative routes for activism, not for innovation’s sake, but out of the dire necessity” those were the words of Sondos Shabayek, an Egyptian Feminist Writer describing how activists are building resilience to the massive civil society space crackdown sweeping through the globe.

The closing of civil society space is a global trend that has become a major challenge to the functioning of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the work of women human rights defenders (WHRDs). According to a recent report by the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG), Challenging the Closing Space for Civil Society: A Practical Starting Point for Funders, “Since January 2012, more than 100 laws have been proposed or enacted by governments aimed at restricting the registration, operation, and funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in a context where the majority of human rights activists globally have little support from funders in their own countries”. Also, findings from the CIVICUS Monitor Platform released in April 2017 revealed that only 3% of people on the planet live in countries where civic space is truly open.

This global trend of closing of civil society space is further exacerbated by inter-governmental laws and policies that greatly restrict NGOs from receiving foreign funding, use smear campaigns against human rights defenders, limit freedom of expression of WHRDs and women who work on sexuality and Lesbians, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer and Intersexual (LGBTQI) rights.

Providing rapid response grants to WHRDs and feminist activists across the globe, the Urgent Action Sister Funds see, first-hand, the impact that the work of WHRDs has on conflict resolution, peace building, economic justice, climate and environmental justice issues, indigenous rights, harmful traditional practices, among many other human rights issues. The closure of space means the disappearance of the vital ways in which civil society improves societies every day.

In view of this, the three Urgent Action Funds-Urgent Action FundUAF-Africa, and UAF-Latin America, with the support of the Open Society Foundation, organised a convening in Naivasha, Kenya from 3-5 July 2017 to discuss the gendered nature of the grave crackdown of civil society space across the world. The convening, which was entitled “Closing Civil Society Space: Feminist Organising, Resistance and Resilience” brought together over 50 female advocates and activists from different regions of the world to discuss the complex ways in which civil society space is shrinking and disappearing for activists; the challenges women’s human rights defenders are facing; how they are resisting and surviving these challenges.

The convening was an ambience of safe space for activists to speak to each other about the legal, policy, community and familial changes that are joining forces to impacting their activism including restrictions on freedom of assembly, association and expression; exploring how they have continued to resist the global crackdown and more importantly sharing and learning innovative strategies to build resilience. Among the participants were trailblazing global feminist leaders and young women activists who have innovatively defined their activism paths in the male entrenched sectors of politics, environment, journalism, film making, academia and digital security. An America activist said, “There is now more communication among groups in the broader women’s movement, and a much deeper understanding of our level of solidarity with one another. Intersectional movement building is happening. We realise we can’t go alone…we are dealing with the same systems of oppression. We need to fight together and work together at a significant level.”

The candid and intergenerational reflections and debates on bold activism in the face of systemic suppression pointed to the growing need for more similar platforms for activists across the world. A participant from Mexico puts it this way, “…discussing the closing of spaces for civil society was a new and structural topic for me. It had an intercontinental vision that allowed me to listen to the experiences of women in flesh and bone. Women who do real work for and with other women. This made me feel part of a global resistance that is worth to continue building in order to push forward the fight for our rights.”

Over the course of the three days, the convening profiled the gendered experiences of the closing down of civil society space across the world. The conversations mapped out strategies used by WHRDs, women’s rights organisations and LBTQI to push back or adapt to the changing context. Many activists agreed that the degree and extent with which government regulations were enforced for civil society organizations and activists was much harsher, more malicious and targeted than to business entities, cultural and religious institutions.  Emphasizing the power of solidarity in the unfriendly situations women human rights defenders operate in, an activist from the Gulf said: We can see what’s happening on the streets thanks to women’s movements around the world from the US and the UK to Arab countries. These opportunities keep us going.

The global phenomena of sexual harassment and physical sexual violence, defamation and use of real or fake explicit material used as systematic tools to humiliate, tarnish the image and names of WHRDs and generally thwart their activism could not be overemphasized. Noting the value of the convening a Nicaraguan participant said, “I’m grateful for the space to share the situation in Nicaragua, the exchange of experiences, the opportunity to continue coordinating efforts. In the reports, common situations in Latin America and in countries in other continents are identifiable. For example, antidemocratic government institutions that affect the work of female advocates to the point of putting their lives at risk. Even in these complex contexts, we as feminists are innovating resistance mechanisms.”

A peculiar discussion that surfaced during the conversations was on how many WHRDs are increasingly feeling isolated from their own families, friends, communities-their safety and social networks. The harder it is becoming to advance and protect women’s rights in the face of extreme religious, cultural and regulatory fundamentalisms and given the multifaceted pushback, the bolder their strategies and inventions. Dr Njoki Ngumi who works with an art based organization in Nairobi, Kenya said we built a practice of being a family to deal with backlash and threats. This is how we resist.”

This means the more they begin to sound and look like extreme social deviants to their loved ones and community, the more isolation they face including being disowned by families, being miscommunicated from religious and social structures and systems, being unfollowed by friends on social media and downright being ignored and their work rubbished. Activists spoke of how this has the effect to fragment them- make them develop health, emotional and spiritual difficulties as they yearn for social and human connection and seeking a sense of belonging. One activist gently alluded to, “Activism is a solitary place!”

With this understanding, the Urgent Action Sister Funds introduced an introspective session on feminist wellness and self-care to the convening. The conversation allowed activists to reflect on what wellness and self-care means for them and the work they do as well as the value of caring for one another physically and mentally. Amyrah Mah, a Psycho-spiritual practitioner who was at the convening advised activists not to let their inner space shrink, she said “the best thing to do in the face of powerlessness is to slow down”.

Apart from consciously incorporating performances by ‘artivists’ in the convening, it was an opportunity for participants to hear from ‘artivists’ who are using the arts to challenge patriarchal norms and navigating difficult social terrains to advance feminist principles and agenda. It showcased the multi-disciplinary experiences of feminist artists who are using their work to inspire thoughts on feminist principles reflecting on arts as not merely an object for aesthetic admiration, but an act that could incite audiences to question social and political landscapes and bring social change towards gender equality.

Activists at the convening pointed out how donor relationships can either alleviate or further entrench the closure of space especially for smaller organizations and collectives if they are not part of decision making on the closing space debate. They want donors to seek better understanding and analysis of how all types of civil society are experiencing closing space so that they can provide appropriate, informed, creative and flexible funding that match the needs of activists and feminist organizations in the face of restrictions.

WHRDs find it difficult and frustrating to liaise with donors whose frameworks are not informed by a strong power analysis. The mere fact that power dynamics exists between funders and communities disable creative discussions and debate between activists, organisations and funders. One activist provided the analysis that the fact that funders are referred to as ‘donors’ is in itself destructive, undermining, and condescending. In her understanding, a ‘donor’ has more power and choice to give or not to give to a ‘recipient’ who seems like a victim and is powerless. The urgency to politicise social justice and feminist language was therefore argued to be imperative. Some language obtaining with the human rights arena could easily be considered as fundamental drivers of closure of space even within the funding architecture.

Understanding the breadth of women’s activism and the limited number of spaces in which they can meet to strategize and organize, the space created by the Urgent Action Sister Funds did just that- provide a space where activists and WHRDs that operate in a world that is increasingly resistant to women’s freedom, to re-charge and breath. A quote by a Honduran activist at the convening couldn’t be more apt- “the characteristic of our organization is that we don’t give up hope that someday something can be changed, so we continue with this busy-bee work; and this is where we also gain clarity about self-care, security plans and eventually individual self-protection”.

By Onyinyechi Okechukwu