Self-Care: What’s Power Got to do With It?

Written by Ayesha Mago, Anik Gevers and Leila Billing

We know that working on violence against women and violence against children can impact our emotional health[1]. And COVID has further impacted mental health globally[2] whilst at the same time illuminating and exacerbating pre-existing inequalities within and between societies, communities and organisations.[3]  In this context many of us in the field, including SVRI, have been reflecting on self-care and wellbeing. Many organisations have made efforts to support their staff during enormously challenging times and given thought to how to prioritise and encourage self-care both at and outside of work.[4] However, this commitment to inclusive approaches to care is far from the norm, even within our field, and we wanted to reflect on whose voices are included and who has limited or no access to meaningful practices around self and collective care: how do power and privilege impact on concepts of and access to self and collective care within organisations?

Self-care does not look the same for everyone: As a recent blog put it - “self-care is not a one size fits all.”[5]  Definitions of self-care vary widely across cultures and contexts. For instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines it in relation to access to primary health care and the ability of families and communities to “promote health, prevent disease, maintain health and to cope with illness or disability.”[6] On the other hand, many dominant Western narratives commodify self-care making it about a yoga class, a spa day, a (paid) day off work, or weekend away and while these activities may be nurturing and caring for some people, few people have the freedom and resources to access these.  As Jessica Horn points out: “as wonderful as bubble baths and hot yoga sessions may be, much of this is out of reach for the average African activist – for their cost, and their relative rarity in the contexts in which we live.”[7]

Dominant narratives often frame self-care as an indulgence or a luxury which makes this fundamental practice less accessible and brings in ideas around self-care as something rare rather than as a part of daily life that everyone deserves. Linked to this is the sense of guilt that many activists feel, if they do have the privilege of being able to take care of their own needs, when their work exposes them to so much suffering and to communities who do not have access to care and wellbeing practices or services.

Resist by Flourishing’, a Zine produced by feminist activists, foregrounds self-care, not as a luxury, but as a critical strategy for preserving and sustaining activists and movements. They share examples of how organisations can promote this by creating spaces to share emotions (including doubt and fear), prompting individuals to think about their own needs without fear of judgement, and advocating with donors to recognise and support care practices as part of budgets they review and approve.

Organisations such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) have suggested that self-care should be considered a human right. There is growing recognition that care practices are essential at both the individual and collective levels. Chamberlain, in her research of collective care practices in global human rights organisations explains that self and collective care are inextricably linked, stating that, “collective care is self-care institutionalised.”[8] Organisations working on care and well-being need “to generate policies, processes and procedures that cultivate a culture where care can take root and flourish.”[9]

Workplace and societal norms may impact our approach to self-care: Given the high risks of vicarious trauma it is particularly important for organisations working on violence against women and violence against children to prioritise self and collective care. However, research shows that working conditions in organisations in this field often undermine care and wellbeing and cause stress due to low salaries, temporary contracts and a lack of medical insurance or social security.[10] These conditions leave little space for individuals to stop and reflect about what they require in terms of emotional or physical sustenance beyond meeting basic needs.  

Societal norms also play a role in impacting perceptions of self-care or wellbeing at work and the likelihood of individuals finding relevance in the concept. “In my [AM’s] experience, working for almost two decades in the human rights field in India there were strong norms related to the expectation of ‘noble sacrifice’ for those working in the ‘non-profit’ sector. For instance, during my early career, I was involved in multiple conversations with friends, peers, relatives and colleagues around the  expectation that I should be paid less and work more because I was ‘doing good’ and all resources and efforts should be directed at doing good for others. Therefore, a 17 hour train journey rather than a one hour domestic flight for a work trip is logical because no money should be ‘wasted’, without any thought to the impact such a decision has on staff well-being. There was a significant culture of martyrdom which disregarded any kind of self-care.”

Women’s rights organisations and movements may also be constrained in their approaches to care by norms wherein younger activists or employees are required to display traits of stoicism and toughness that pay homage to the battles and personal sacrifices of older activists who started and developed women’s rights movements in many regions. These expectations and work cultures often lead to overwork, immense stress, burnout and a high turnover of staff within these organisations. Norwood’s work in Palestine and Myanmar for

instance found that healthy movements were limited by “the contentious issue of elder leaders judging younger women for their lack of commitment to the cause and younger women not wanting to replicate the burnout they see among their role models.”[11]  There is a growing recognition that well-being of the individual and the quality and sustainability of the work that they do is connected and that self and collective care cannot be separated from work and the organisational context and practices.

Unexpected power dynamics within organisations: Organisations may undermine the pursuance of self-care through oppressive practices of power within their own structures. Feminist organisations and movements, like others, can replicate the power structures of the societies in which they are situated including reproducing harmful power dynamics. Some leaders – including women leaders striving for equal rights and social change – have been known to repeat “enormously oppressive environments within their own organisations.”[12] Leadership practices that are oppressive can in part be driven by ‘power-under’  dynamics,  wherein long-term systemic discrimination (and the concomitant sense of powerlessness that it might create) can feed an unconscious belief that the way to avoid being oppressed is to become an oppressor.[13]

In addition, organisations may have ‘deep structure’ dynamics which are informal norms (contrary to stated values) that guide how people are treated.[14]  For example, organisations may state a commitment to ‘work-life balance’ but censure individuals for refusing a meeting at the end of the work day or leaders may give abusive or destructive criticism if work is not completed in a specific way. These types of uncaring work environments are deeply challenging, especially because individuals within them exist in a state of contradiction between the expectations of working towards dismantling oppressive systems and yet finding themselves deeply entrenched within one.

Moving Forward: There is some evidence that power and privilege can be mobilised as a positive force to build good practice in the field. The SVRI evidence review points out how leaders can use their power and privilege to promote and build self and collective care within the work culture for all team members. Feminist leadership approaches which commit to creating “organisational cultures and structures where practices of wellbeing can flourish”[15] illustrate the potential of this approach to contribute positively to care and well-being. Indeed, much of the most exciting, contextually relevant, inclusive and thoughtful work in this field is being done by feminist organisations and movements and especially those in LMICs. Examples of this include feminist leadership “self-love camps”, “rest as collective resistance” or hosting online care sessions such as trauma-informed meditation. We are also seeing funders begin to support self-care within organisations and staff wellbeing.

Whilst these are all hopeful signs, examples of good practice remain anomalies rather than the norm and it is clear that we need more leaders who have the persistent intention and willingness to commit to building cultures of care in their teams or organisations. In addition, far too many minoritised groups or those with less access to power are still falling through the cracks when it comes to institutional approaches to care and we need to pay specific and ongoing attention to this using an intersectional lens. Self-care should not be limited to those privileged enough to work and live in specific circumstances. Narratives around this fundamental practice need to be broadened to be more inclusive and accessible. Self-care and collective care should be seen as an essential part of our work or as Guacira Oliveira and Jelena Dordevic put it, “self-care is about reinventing ourselves and living better amidst all the oppression.”[16]

To conclude, we would like to ask our readers to reflect on the ways in which you have seen power and privilege mobilised to promote, build, and support self and collective care? We would love to hear from you at svri@svri.org.

 

 


[1] Coles J, Astbury J, Dartnall E, Limjerwala S. A qualitative exploration of researcher trauma and researchers' responses to investigating sexual violence. Violence Against Women. 2014 Jan;20(1):95-117. @ doi: 10.1177/1077801213520578. PMID: 24567538

[2] Marzo et al. Psychological distress during pandemic Covid-19 among adult general population: Result across 13 countries. Clinical Epidemiology and Global health. VOLUME 10,  APRIL 01, 2021. @ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213398421000129

[3] Paremoer L, Nandi S, Serag H, Baum F. Covid-19 pandemic and the social determinants of health. BMJ 2021; 372 :n129 doi:10.1136/bmj.n129

[4] Women’s International Peace Centre (2020b) Healing through Rituals: A Guide for Sustaining Wellbeing and Activism Kampala: Uganda https://wipc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/HealingThrough-Rituals-A-Gui...

[5] ‘Self-care and Privilege during the COVID-19 Pandemic’ @ https://www.proinspire.org/self-care-privilege-covid19/

[6] Scoping Review WHO Self-Care Definitions @https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544155/

[7] On Africa’s feminist frontlines, we need accessible care practices to sustain our movements @ https://oxfamapps.org/fp2p/author/maria-faciolince/

[8] Chamberlain, L. (2020).‘From self-care to collective care: Institutionalising self-care to build organisational resilience and advance sustainable human rights work ‘(February 2020). SUR International Journal for Human Rights 30, v.17, n.30, 215 – 225

[9] Cardenas, A. & Mendez, N. (2017) ‘Self-Care as a Political Strategy’, Sur International Journal for Human Rights. 14.26 171-80

[10] Billing, L., Gevers, A. & Dartnall, E. (2021). We Care: Evidence Review. Sexual Violence Research Initiative: South Africa.

[11] Billing, L., Gevers, A. & Dartnall, E. (2021). We Care: Evidence Review. Sexual Violence Research Initiative: South Africa.

[12] Srilatha Batliwala. Understanding Power for Organizational Change. Podcast.

[13] Steven Wineman. Power-Under Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change. 2003. http://www.traumaandnonviolence.com/files/Power_Under.pdf

[14] Srilatha Batliwala. Understanding Power for Organizational Change. Podcast.

[15] Batliwala, Srilatha. Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, CREA. 2011.

[16] Guacira Oliveira and Jelena Dordevic. Care Among Activists. Weaving Networks for Feminist Resistance. CFEMEA. 2015.

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