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Addressing burnout among human rights defenders facing violence online

“Well-being and self-care are collective efforts”

Burnout among human rights defenders working in marginalized communities has become increasingly pervasive. In recent years, much effort has been made to visibilize this reality. In particular, the toll that digital activism has on activists’ mental health has been documented by a number of organizations. While stress, high workloads and financial precarity contribute immensely, the increasing vulnerability that human rights defenders experience due to digital security risks is a key factor. Those defenders who experience structural forms of marginalization due to their identity, location, and economic background are especially vulnerable to digital security threats.

One of the organizations that have produced pioneering, in-depth research at the intersection of well-being and digital security is Digital Rights Foundation (DRF). Their work with human rights defenders, particularly those belonging to trans and religious minority communities in Pakistan, revealed that human rights defenders from marginalized communities are uniquely targeted and face increased risk in both online and offline spaces. While surveillance, harassment, and infringements on privacy against human rights defenders are not new, the digital dimension amplifies the toll these attacks take on defenders’ well-being. This is because the experience of violence online can feel constant and relentless.

Integrating well-being into digital security training

“I have a body fully of scratches and bruises, a mind full of threats and blackmailers… I have never known ease,” said one participant in DRF’s study on the online violence experienced by human rights defenders in Pakistan. The lack of digital literacy among many human rights defenders from marginalized communities offers limited capacity to confront the violence experienced. These defenders experience heightened exposure to the continuum of violence across online and offline spaces. At the same time, social media platforms are becoming increasingly important for human rights work: they are sites of expression, organizing and solidarity. Yet, they are also places where defenders experience trauma.

As a means of reducing exposure to online violence, human rights defenders will often resort to self-censorship, or remove themselves altogether from the online spaces they previously occupied. “Technology is becoming just another avenue to extend harassment and violence,” said Shmyla Khan, Director of Policy at DRF. Of the defenders that participated in the study conducted by DRF, more than 95% reported being forced to leave social media either permanently or temporarily, and over 74% resorted to self-censorship.

Over the past year, Digital Rights Foundation, through funding from the Open Technology Fund (OTF), conducted digital security trainings with transgender human rights defenders and defenders from religious minority groups: two communities that are under-served in digital rights capacity building work in Pakistan. These trainings sought two specific outcomes.

The first was to enable participating defenders to lay claim to the digital security tools and practices available to them. The majority of digital security tools today are developed by and for the global North, and as a result are not geared towards grassroots human rights defenders in the South. Not only are these tools exclusionary of local language, but many are founded on assumptions of context and digital literacy that prove irrelevant to the lived realities of human rights defenders from marginalized communities in Pakistan. This compounds the toll on defenders’ well-being, since the use of tools and practices that are disconnected from defenders’ needs add more stress and become unsustainable in the long run.

Secondly, the trainings sought to integrate well-being practices into digital security approaches, in acknowledging the impact that digital security has on the physical and mental well-being of human rights defenders. Specifically, as a means of integrating a holistic approach to digital security, DRF hosted a flagship residency for the two communities participating in the training. This approach proved effective in speaking to the experience of well-being, as well as creating a sense of well-being among defenders in and of itself. It also produced a number of powerful additional outcomes.

The residency: an approach to nurturing well-being

In May this year, DRF hosted a three-day residency, which consisted of human rights defenders from across Pakistan, primarily from religious minorities and trans communities. The residency involved advanced digital security training, as well as sessions on well-being. While facilitators did step into certain sessions to give prompts, most of the conversations were led by the human rights defenders participating themselves. Storytelling became a primary mechanism for speaking to the relationships that these defenders have with the security tools and practices they were trying to apply to their work. The residency became a space for healing in and of itself, as well as for cross-community sharing and movement strengthening.

A quiet and serene region of Pakistan was chosen as the location of the residency. The defenders that participated stayed there over the course of the training period, and it offered a breathing space away from daily routines in which they are constantly immersed. When defenders experience digital attacks, fatigue, or a mental health break down, “they don’t have time to reflect on what has happened. You just have to keep going, keep working, and turn that experience into daily work,” Shmyla explained. Many of the residents felt that the residency offered them time to fully reflect on the kind of burnout they were experiencing.

The residency not only helped defenders recognize how much of a toll their work takes on them, but they were also able to find commonalities in those experiences. Defenders from different communities spoke collectively about the guilt experienced of not being able to do enough, or how the fear of certain threats hampers their ability to support one another. Exchanges emerged around the complicated relationship that different defenders have with online platforms. Mutual listening and learning built empathy among the collective. Importantly, residents surfaced how conversations on well-being in the face of digital security are not happening in their own spaces of work. By the end, there was a strong desire to continue the cross-community sharing and learning that took place during the residency.

Over and above this, the residency brought together two communities of human rights defenders that otherwise had had limited opportunity to work together and exchange. There was a strong desire to solidify this alliance between defenders from trans communities and religious minorities. The participants of the residency thus formed a collective, which they named the DigiDefenders Network. Together, the DigiDefenders Network drafted a pledge for upholding and advocating for digital rights and freedoms. Importantly, the document recognizes the need for integrating a culture of care and well-being into human rights work. It states, “In the absence of care in our work as human rights defenders, we cannot imagine a better world for ourselves and others.”

The pledge is particularly relevant given the failure of the state to ensure access to resources for mental health in the Pakistani context. Seerat Khan, Program Manager at DRF, explained that community-based support in the face of emerging forms of digital violence becomes crucial for collective well-being. “Well-being and self care are collective efforts. In order for well-being to be sustainable and consistent, it's important that human rights defenders get collective support and acknowledgement from the community,” she said.

The online violence and subsequent burnout that human rights defenders from marginalized communities in Pakistan face are relatable to the experiences of human rights defenders in many parts of the world. While digital security is fundamental in combatting such exposure to violence, building capacity in this area can prove unsustainable if the impact of online violence on defenders’ mental, emotional and physical well-being remains unaddressed. The residency hosted by DRF proved effective in embedding well-being into both the content and experience of digital security training, and therefore offers one way of approaching digital security through a well-being lens. Through their time together, residents not only found commonalities in their struggles, but discovered and strategized towards a shared vision for dismantling them. This work is well-being in action: collectively reclaiming the internet as a space of safety, pleasure, creativity and liberation.

For more information about Digital Rights Foundation and their work, visit their website.

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