Care at the Centre of Feminist Movements

Resisting with Care

Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific
6 min readDec 18, 2023
Illustrations by Kruttika Susarla

Women, trans, and non-binary human rights defenders and activists in Asia and the Pacific face a variety of risks and threats on a daily basis. Dealing with traumatic events, poly crises, state surveillance and violence, clashes with anti-rights movements and right-wing groups, public condemnation, isolation, and insecurity can take a heavy toll on activists’ mental, physical, financial, and emotional health and well-being. Fatigue, burnout, and chronic illnesses are common, impacting their ability to sustain and scale their activism and movements. We, at UAF A&P, have been deliberating on the importance of individual and collective care in human rights defense, and what this might mean in our regions and contexts.

A majority of our grants go to countries marked as closed or repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor. We recognize that activists need rest and rejuvenation to show up as their best selves in social movements. We also believe in the power of community and sharing. In order to offer this to our grantees and advisors, we organized an ‘Oasis of Reflection’ convening in Kathmandu, Nepal earlier this year. We brought together 24 women, trans, and non-binary human rights defenders and activists from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, China, Cambodia, Philippines, Bangkok, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, West Papua, and Fiji to reflect on their individual and collective experiences, challenges, practices, and inspirations.

Convening with Care

The ‘Oasis of Reflection’ was conceptualized as a space for rest, individual and collective care, celebration, and connection. We held our first convening online in late 2021 with the intention to co-create an oasis away from the stress of the pandemic and continuous backlash faced by human rights activists and defenders. We hoped to recreate this in-person this year, curating a convening that would help participants feel a sense of collective care and joy.

Over three days, we communed with defenders, sharing and mapping risks, threats, and opportunities that may have emerged in their respective countries and contexts. UAF A&P sat and listened to them intently about the ways in which we can better support activists and defenders, and recognising approaches that may create further stress to them in moments of crises.

Illustrations by Kruttika Susarla

For many activists, particularly women, trans, and non binary defenders, ‘play’ and ‘fun’ can sometimes be too frivolous and superficial in a world that is fraught with violence and oppression. Reclaiming play, fun, and rest as resistance is a strategy that UAF A&P invests in, and experiments with, internally in our organisation as well as the larger ecosystem. The idea is to disrupt the scarcity, competitive, and patriarchal production-centred contexts we live in. Therefore, play and fun were an integral part of our Oasis of Reflection convening and some of the activities we organised were massage therapy, singing bowl sessions, dancing, singing, painting, and an open mic/poetry session where participants could bond, feel cared for, and supported.

In ecology, an oasis is a fertile area of a desert or semi-desert environment that sustains plant life and provides habitat for animals and humans. In the same way, we hope that UAF A&P’s oasis of reflection becomes a fertile space for healing, rejuvenation, connection, and joy for human rights defenders and activists in Asia and the Pacific. Our hope is that being in this space, they are inspired to create their own oases in (and for) their communities.

The Politics of Collective Care

“Our politics of practice on care is at the heart of who we are and what we do. It is embodied in our feminist values. Care is both a way of seeing and being in the world, and a decision and commitment to transform it to centering sustainability, well-being, empathy, shared responsibility, reciprocity and joy. To root ourselves in care is to connect our being with what sustains life in all its dimensions. It is to be aware that our roots are woven into a web of life, between people and interdependent beings.” - How Can We Ground Ourselves in Care and Dance Our Revolution?

We, along with our Urgent Action Sister Funds, believe that feminist crisis response and collective care are two sides of the same coin. Without collective care, we cannot sustain feminist movements and the protection of women, trans, and non-binary human rights defenders. Collective care is our collective responsibility — a radical and political act that propels us to respond to the holistic needs of human rights activists and their communities to mitigate risks and sustain their activism. It is intersectional and context-specific, and we’re committed to supporting activists to strengthen their care practices to respond to risks in an efficient and sustainable way.

While our rapid response grants integrate collective care and protection, we also offer Webs of Safety and Care grants that provide human rights activists’ networks and organizations financial support to conduct safety and care needs assessments, and build and expand new and existing initiatives for safety, care, and protection. At the same time, we are constantly trying to deepen our understanding of collective care and how we can better support women, trans, and non-binary activists in conventional and unconventional ways.

Illustrations by Kruttika Susarla

Honoring the Needs of Activists

We asked participants at the Oasis of Reflection about what kind of support they need to sustain their movements and make space for care, joy, and celebration in their work. A few common themes emerged that we would like to share with you:

Opportunities for learning and reflection
Most activists expressed the need for a safe space for honest reflections, questioning, learning, and unlearning. This is critical to sustain and scale movements, especially while working in contexts that are unlikely to change overnight. More funders need to support the creation of such spaces.

“We need more feminist workshops for activists to overcome guilt for all that we cannot do; to recognise that it’s not our fault. Workshops aid power-sharing and movement building.” - Activist from Asia

Fostering a community of sharing
Sharing power between organisations and amongst activists is a way of caring for each other and sharing learnings, skills; networks, and enabling collaborations. Collective care is collective power, and by fostering a community of sharing, feminist movements can be strengthened.

“Recently, a sex worker was killed by the police in her friend’s apartment, yet the incident went unreported. We are facing problems due to a lack of funds required to legally challenge such cases. As activists, we are in need of emotional support to cope with such situations.” - Sex Workers’ Rights Activist from Asia

“Our challenges are all interlinked. Even if we are competing for funding and other resources, our sisters’ success helps everyone in their work and fight. Feminist solidarity is important.” - Environmental Activist from South Asia

Financial support for care practices
Providing flexible funding that covers needs like pyscho-socio counselling, movement therapy, community protection, risk assessment, unforeseen emergencies, and alternative care practices, can ensure activists feel more secure and protected.

“I need self-defense training to protect myself from violence.” - Activist from Asia

“We (transmen’s groups) need more spaces in feminist spaces so that it will be a stronger voices. We also need technical support in writing funding proposals for advocacy and more fund for well-being and care from the donors.” - Trans Rights Activist from Southeast Asia

Our understanding of collective care practices in Asia and the Pacific is ever-evolving, and we would love to hear from you about how you understand, practice, and support it.

As we end the year, here’s a small token of gratitude for being a part of our community! Download our Collective Care sticker pack for Signal and WhatsApp and spread love, rest, and resistance in your networks.

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Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific

A regional women’s human rights and feminist fund that protects, strengthens and sustains women and non-binary human rights defenders in Asia and the Pacific