Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Well-being, Self-Care and Integrated Security (WeSIS): An introduction

Published Date: 
Saturday, September 5, 2015
Institute for Women’s Empowerment (IWE)

The concept of WeSIS has been developed out of a need; a need to refocus, re-energise and re-define activism and leadership so individuals do not compromise their own wellbeing to achieve organisational goals.  As a practice, WeSIS aims to strengthen the foundations of social movements through nurturing the individuals who form the basis of these movements. WeSIS strives to provide a holistic approach to activism, which nurtures collectivism and solidarity as the foundations of movements while at the same time, caring for the health and wellbeing of the individuals within those movements.  The practice of WeSIS helps activists challenge patriarchal structures which have been internalised into movements, organisations and individuals.

Building internal strength and resilience or nurturing our wellbeing has been a critical component missing from our approaches to activism. Feminist activists often neglect their own health and wellbeing in their constant fight for equity and justice. Many individuals who are regarded as extraordinary leaders and have accomplished great victories in their work for social justice have suffered enormous costs to their own wellbeing. This in turn has led to personal burnout, and stagnation and fragmentation in the movements However, a social movement is only as strong as the individuals who comprise the greater collective. If these individuals are burnt out, unable to recognise their physical and emotional limits or devote their lives to a movement without taking stock of their personal wellbeing, then the movement is likely to be unsustainable as the activists are working with a finite capacity.  Wellbeing, Self-Care and Integrated Security concepts and practise guide individual activists and human rights defenders in building their internal strength so they avoid burnout and damage to their health and wellbeing.

Oppressive power structures such as patriarchy and constructed gender roles are internalised not only by those who benefit from power, but also by those who are marginalised and oppressed.  Internalised gender norms define our concept of self and how we understand the role of women through our relationships with those around us. In most societies this results in women not only being assigned caregiver roles, but that they must prioritise this role above all else, including their own wellbeing. It is through first recognising these internalised gender mandates that we can relinquish feelings of guilt and selfishness which are tied to our own and others’ expectations of women. We are then equipped to understand where these gender mandates originate – often they lie in the intersections of  cultural, religious, and class norms.  . Releasing ourselves from these feelings of inadequacy builds self-esteem and encourages us to be mindfull of  our own needs, while we remain sensitive and open to the needs of others around us.

Feminist activists are not exempt from this phenomenon as even women and men who recognise and resist oppressive structures have been socialised to accept many forms of less-visible disempowerment which prevent them from challenging the status quo. Gender is inculcated into our lives not only by society and our interactions with other individuals, institutions and culture, but through our personal dialogue with ourselves. We impose limitations and standards on ourselves without questioning how mandated gender roles influence this mentality. The concept and practice of WeSIS encourages individuals to deconstruct these internalised gender mandates, building a critical awareness of their own attitudes and how this affects their wellbeing.

A holistic understanding of “security” takes into consideration the internal as well as the external threats that feminists have to confront,  on a daily basis, and at multiple levels in their lives and in the course of their work.  While much “technical” and  “logistical” strategies have been developed and rolled out, necessary in the situations where activists and their families face physical life-threatening  threats, it is imperative to  approach security issues as also having “internal causes and effects“. These internal elements may affect an individual’s (and consequently her collective’s) safety if not brought into the calculation of the risk factors, and in the assessment of the personal and group vulnerabilities that affect the real level of risk  involved in any specific situation.  Ultimately, the same  process of  “internal work” is necessary to build the emotional and mental strength to resist and hopefully, transform the oppressive patriarchal institutions and relationships that continue unabated to limit, obstruct and punish women, especially those who visibly and actively confront them.                 

Reflexivity is central to the concept and practice of WeSIS, therefore it is necessary to  create safe and inductive spaces where women can reflect on and express their experiences, feelings, aspirations and thoughts. For women who, whether consciously or unconsciously, regard their primary role as caring for others’ needs, this can be a profound step in realising the value of their own individual and personal opinions and feelings and developing their self-esteem in vocally expressing their thoughts to others without fear of reprisal or being judged,   shamed or rejected. Such ‘safe spaces’,  based on respect and acceptance of each person’s lived experiences, encourage women to practice reflexivity and to share often deeply personal feelings and experiences with one another, and in the process, recognise the fundamental commonalities in the “women’s situation” that is the basis of solidarity.  

Through promoting wellbeing and self-care of individuals in the context of their organised activism, WeSIS cultivates the capacities essential for feminist leadership which is transformative and sustainable. Internal strength, resilience and mindfulness are all critical attributes for women to carry out sustainable and meaningful work towards transforming oppressive social relations to being equitable and just. The process of self-transformation has often been neglected in collective activism as activists become engrossed by meeting deadlines and achieving goals, however, this process is an essential element for achieving social transformation. Through nurturing strong, resilient activists who are mindful and self-aware we build the self-esteem and confidence for women to realise their value and potential as leaders, undermining the patriarchal culture which works against us.

The value of this internal work cannot be underestimated, as our wellbeing is at the core of every action and interaction we undertake. Through realising our self-worth, reclaiming our conceptualisation of ourselves and our identities and recognising our value and potential as leaders, we empower ourselves. Well-being is about internal strength and resilience, by nurturing these internal attributes we create stronger foundations for the networks, organisations, communities and collectives that we are party to.  And we build the power and resilience we need  to sustain ourselves as feminist, transformative leaders.


Hear what our partners say about their experiences of WeSIS:   

 “Wellbeing and self-care is an issue that is most inspiring…. For example, all the beneficiaries of the program, on average, were able to devise a plan for future activities for themselves, their community, and for changes towards gender equality in the organization. Definitely this program can be considered to have relative success both in terms of achievement towards the welfare of the individual-collective, self care and the collective itself” 
—Dewi, KPA Indonesia (Indonesian Consorsium of Agrarian Reform)

“We came to know what it means to care for and give rights to ourselves. If our condition is not healthy, we are now daring to postpone and reject the work assigned, we even dare to say ‘NO’ if the work is burdensome. We also asked our organization for the right to 'refreshment and recreation’ after we performed a lot of activities, and to pass on ways of doing 'Reiki' to friends in the office". 
—Rizkikoh, mother of two, Muslim feminist working with FAHMINA Indonesia

“Yes, I am also aware that the activities of ‘Perempuan Mahardhika’ have not prioritized self-care and wellbeing. Their activities are very massive and many do a bit of anarchist actions like demonstrations and burning tires. Because Perempuan Mahardhika is influenced by the Marxist feminist movement and Feminist Socialist movement, they do not think much about how care is very useful for the sustainability of the struggle, or about the right to our own lives. The issue most spoken about in the organisation is ‘Well being’. We often discuss that the absence of self-care will destroy the sustainability of the organization” 
—Dinov, student activist working with Perempuan Mahardhika

“I think our soul and body need to be always happy. Now, I am practicing yoga two times a week, even though I am busy with work. I always remind myself to take a break and rest. I don’t feel selfish anymore. I am more aware about self-care after attending the well-being workshop organized by IWE.” 
—Hanifah , mother of five, working with AMAN- Indonesia

“Since I am working with the community in Aceh, I very rarely think about myself. I often feel bad if I take time for myself to rest. I just know that we also have to care about ourselves, because we are human. Now, I have started doing exercises and taking enough rest. That wellbeing workshop was very inspiring for me.” 
—Asri, Solidaritas Perempuan Beungong Jeumpa Aceh (Women’s Solidarity for Human’s Right in Aceh) 

“I am practicing Reiki on myself and my kids. I did not know about Reiki till I attended the wellbeing workshop. Now, I understand that well-being is not about material money, but more about how we take care of ourselves as activists, to sustain our activism.” 
—Ida, mother of two, working with Solidaritas Perempuan Palembang (Women’s Solidarity for Human’s Right in Palembang)


By developing a feminist approach to self-care and wellbeing, the construction of our organizations will benefit with reflective, active and positive women, who are aware of the impacts of stress and burn-out and know how to recognize (and hopefully prevent) mental and physical exhaustion. This, with time, will provide more sustainable activists to the struggle and benefit everyone involved.



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