Once we recognised how deeply interconnected all of these issues are to our security, we began to explore strategies to stay safe and well from a new perspective.
We realised that, despite all of these challenges, you just keep going, and going strong. You all have capacities. You are all resilient. And you all have your private strategies that you use every day.
These strategies are so often instinctual – they come from the gut, and they are second nature. That is one of the many reasons they are also not recognised as security strategies.
So they are rarely understood and articulated as ‘real’ security strategies – either by women human rights defenders themselves, or by their supporters. And that is why they are so rarely shared, documented and acknowledged.6
But when we started talking about the way women human rights defenders around the world naturally protect themselves, their organisations and programmes, we identified a range of creative, clever and flexible responses to security threats. For example:
Working with visibility: sometimes, women human rights defenders will go underground and remain low profile until a threat has passed. Other times, their work is always ‘hidden’ in some way. For instance, many women’s shelters and centres have no names on their door. Women’s rights groups may not register as formal organisations, or they may publish their work anonymously. Other times, they may choose to respond to a threat very publicly, by challenging an opponent through national or international court systems. Alternately, they may scale up their activities and increase their public profile to attract attention to – and support for – their cause.
Bluffing: there are times when women human rights defenders decide that the best response is simply to stand their ground – and tell a little lie. When one women human rights defender in Asia was challenged at a checkpoint in a war zone, she bluffed her way through it by saying she was on her way to visit someone important in the next town. In one African country, women human rights defenders stopped soldiers attempting to rape them by saying that they were menstruating and wore pads to prove it.
Building allies: many women’s rights groups form strategic relationships with individual allies in the media, government ministries or the police force. In addition they forge alliances with other human rights groups in their country, in the region and internationally. When they have been threatened, they have triggered these support networks for protection.
Symbolic Resistance: sometimes, women human rights defenders use symbolism to speak out when any other form of expression would be silenced. They may simply wear specific colours: black, white or red. They have protested in silence. Others have used music or dance to defuse aggression.
Strategic spirituality: the ways in which women human rights defenders protect their health and their hearts from the challenges of the work are equally creative and powerful strategies. One woman activist from Colombia summed up her strategies to cope with the stress and the insecurity of the work when she said: first, I use music, then I love dancing. These are two ways of saying to the merchants of death that the essence of dignity is happiness.
- 6. In addition, many security strategies can never be documented, because public documentation would expose women human rights defenders to more risk.