Creating a healing space for women human rights defenders

EMexico, 91% of women human rights defenders endure stress on an everyday basis.

After several years of reflecting on self-care and collective care, in August 2016 the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Defenders (IM-Defensoras) and Consortium Oaxaca created Casa La Serena: a space dedicated to the self-care and wellbeing of women who are activists and defenders in the national chapters and networks of IM-Defensoras in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico. Our data confirms that in Mexico, 91% of women human rights defenders endure stress on an everyday basis—reiterating the critical importance of self-care for these women. This stress is generated not only by the risks they face within social movements or by the attacks or threats from the state, corporations, drug traffickers or other actors, but also by the precarious conditions in which these women work to defend human rights without social benefits. 80% of these women do not receive a formal salary for the work to which they dedicate more than eight hours a day.


Which principles guide Casa La Serena?

The principles that guide our work at Casa La Serena, which were originally decided in discussions between IM-Defensoras and the Consortium Oaxaca, were designed to change beliefs, myths and taboos concerning self-care and what it takes to exercise it:


  1.  Spaces for the defense of human rights and activism are not idyllic. Our workspaces are often permeated by a sexist, patriarchal culture of exploitation or self-exploitation. Therefore, it is vital that we do not idealize or demonize our organizations and/or movements, but rather continuously reflect on them to seek more coherence in the collective practices and ideals that we support.
  2. Defending human rights or activism is not a sacrifice. Due to the violent contexts in which we live, it is common to have a strong social commitment and to think that it is important to “give up everything”. However, we invite people to reflect on the exhaustion caused by the neglecting wellbeing, and whether our tasks really cannot wait for us to eat, sleep, rest and enjoy ourselves. Often, in our quest to do more, we end up physically and emotionally exhausted, which hinders our capacity to respond and to focus.
  3. Well-being is not a privilege; it is a right. For many activists and women human rights defenders, having a moment of rest is a privilege, and overworking is a token of commitment. However, many times we are merely reproducing the patriarchal idea that we must be there for others. In Casa La Serena we question these gender roles and stereotypes that might not be apparent at first sight, but by doing so we allow ourselves a new perspective on our activism.
  4. Neither money nor time is a limitation. Often, the women human rights defenders with whom we work believe that self-care requires a considerable amount of money. However, we focus on valuing local knowledge, contact with nature, moments of reflection, breathing exercises, the (re)appropriation and enjoyment of the body, and other similar tools. These are elements that in some cases have more to do with willingness than finances.
  5. Every individual knows their needs. People must define what their requirements are based on an honest personal assessment. This is not simple. As human rights defenders, we are very accustomed to engaging in analysis and reflections while neglecting our bodies and disconnecting us from others and ourselves.
  6. Self-care is personal and collective. It is important for our organizations or collectives—if we have them—to lay the basis for a reflection on self-care and collective care and produce policies or agreements to strengthen a culture of prevention and early attention to exhaustion or burnout episodes. For example, respecting work hours and days, creating a work hours compensation system, establishing periods of rest, putting conflict resolution mechanisms into place, improving work teams’ labor rights, and introducing flexibility to allow childcare. Our focus at Casa La Serena is based on a full feminist protection approach—it is holistic and means more than just physical safety. We have reflected upon our experiences when our colleagues were unable to recognize situations that affected their safety or exposed them to unnecessary risks due to fatigue and exhaustion.          


Self-care and collective care do not erase the stress and tensions of everyday life, but using these strategies can sustainably improve our coexistence and work places.


Who comes to Casa La Serena?

At Casa La Serena, we attend to groups of five people: a defender from each country of IM-Defensoras chosen by the self-care groups from the chapters or networks of defenders in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico. They stay at the house for ten days during which they participate in care and healing therapies. They also take part in activities of coexistence, reflection, and creativity workshops. These three axes integrate a program that is designed from a diagnostic interview with guest defenders at Casa La Serena.

It is important that women human rights defenders leave Casa La Serena with a self-care plan that specifically pinpoints what needs to be done for their wellbeing. The continuity of this plan is a challenge for the work team of Casa La Serena; we rely on long distance communication and on the self-care groups of each of the national networks that discusses with their colleagues their experiences and how to walk through their self-care plan.

The services at the house are led by the Consortium Oaxaca team and by a network of approximately 15 therapists who are experts in their fields, with whom we have shared our approach. We organize periodic meetings with the therapists to analyze risks, introduce safety tools, and discuss what it means to support the cases of women defenders during their stay. Furthermore, we update our knowledge on the various fields of each therapist.

Lessons and challenges

Casa La Serena has shown us the courage and resilience of women defenders in our region as well as the adverse impacts of this work on their health, and social and personal lives. Often, while immersed in work, we are unable to notice the effects around us and we begin to feel empty or unrecognized.

The collective stays at Casa La Serena allow activists to share personal experiences and to understand that we are not alone. Other defenders, just like us, struggle not only against the state or transnational corporations but also against sadness, guilt, anger, and disease. This sharing reinforces our work because it teaches us all to value the strength from within. This experience has taught us the importance of working together, hence the motto of IM-Defensoras: “Networks Save”.

We believe that self-care, collective care and healing are full feminist protective strategies that increases the sustainability, creativity and wellbeing of our social movements.

This is not easy, of course. It demands not only the recognition of the vulnerabilities of those we support, but also our own. It is also a challenge, especially considering the value given to strength and even heroism within our social movements. We believe that it is important to question these values not because they are inherently negative, but rather because they lead us to make strong demands from ourselves, which often put us at great risks. We are convinced that new forms of engagement in activism and human rights defense are being developed all over the world. They will be even stronger if we regain trust in our colleagues, build networks, and become aware of the new ways of living that many women are creating worldwide.