The past decade has seen activists and academics merge around a fascination for questions of care, as the essential social glue and resource for sustaining activist community. Care, according to American social theorist Nancy Fraser is in crisis, caught between the exiges of a precarious labour market that demands our constant participation, yet with minimal protections in return, and the persistent non-recognition of the value of social reproductive labour that keeps us all alive- as labourers but also as humans in society. Perhaps because of this crisis, the word ‘care’ is everywhere, commonly prefaced by the word ‘self’ as we are increasingly urged to look after ourselves as the stresses of state crisis, patriarchal violence and economic precarity shape our world.
These intersecting axes of exclusion and marginalisation are very much felt in feminist communities across the African continent, as activists face the question of how to sustain their work in the midst of varying pressures on emotional and mental health and at times physical safety. The slow burn evolution of African feminist praxis around radical care has now peaked, with generalised discussions and a growing body of thinking around defining the emotional labour of African feminist activism, and how this labour can be attended to.
Hope Chigudu, a Ugandan organisational development expert, is an early pioneer in thinking around radical feminist care on the continent. In her work she has persistently called for activists to pay greater attention to the emotional dimension of feminist organising both at an individual level but also in the organisations that we create to marshall feminist labour. Her concept of nurturing an ‘organisation with a soul’ is grounded in a notion of organisations as living systems, made up of the people that work in them and the power relations that inevitably shape and frame how the work is actually done- and the extent then to which it is liberating.
Affirming the need to understand care as a political project in feminism, Yara Sallam – Egyptian feminist activist and former political prisoner – has launched a narrative initiative documenting the emotional impact of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions on women who participated in them. The platform Even The Finest of Warriors traces the ways in which revolution entails transformation of the personal and the need to be attentive to the emotional demands that revolutionary struggle places on women. As Sallam expresses: “I insist… that we are also a priority in the sphere of a struggle for a better and more beautiful life. Revolutions don’t happen for us to be miserable, nor do they happen for us to get sick, or for us to neglect our other lives. For revolution – as I believe in it – is an action for change so that beauty can win over ugliness, and hope can win over pain.”
Sallam’s offering is significant in that it surfaces the idea that not performing activist labour in the public sphere- be it by withdrawing temporarily to rest and heal- or withdrawing completely- is both valid and should not be stigmatized by activists that choose to remain publicly engaged. This assertion of the right not to labour is important given that African women are expected to perpetually labour with little consideration for the right to rest, a point that I have argued elsewhere.
Alongside these important individual voices on radical care, African feminist collectives have also developed forms of care praxis, often in response to crisis. As I have explored previously, one of the most compelling models of radical care in African activist communities emerged at the height of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in Africa, with women’s support groups coming together to respond the practical and existential needs around staying alive. Support groups affirmed HIV+ women’s right to exist in contexts where sexist stigma placed the blame on women for the spread of the epidemic and isolated positive women from the sense of belonging in society. Along with food, income generation and basic health information, these groups formed the emotional anchor for a political movement across the continent of women demanding the right to health and reform in policy, state response, and social discourses. I have witnessed similar movements of women’s collective care in communities affected by armed conflict across the African region – including in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Liberia. Women who were displaced by direct violence or the stigma surrounding their survivals of public sexual violations, and their loss of land and livelihood working together to build intentional communities of care and healing, often combined with initiatives to rebuild economic agency.
These popular movements of collective care remain inspiration in newer efforts to provide more structured , organisational responses to a movement’s demands for support in sustaining the collective care that keeps its activists- and its political agenda- buoyant. In the mid 2000s a multi-disciplinary group of African practitioners working in response to violence against women, HIV/AIDS armed conflict and the impacts of forced displacement came together to consider how we could develop a response. The initiative that was born- The African Initiative for Integrated Responses to Violence against Women and HIV/AIDS (AIR) presented a critique of the apolitical, individualistic framings for understanding trauma, offering both thinking and methodologies towards a transformative African feminist approach to emotional health that attends to the structural roots of distress.
Building on similar energy, the continent’s two regional women’s funds (philanthropic mechanisms set up by African feminists to resource women’s organising) have both begun to invest in measures to provide rest, protection, and healing and reflective spaces for feminist activists. The African Women’s Development Fund– the continent’s first regional women’s rights fund- has recently piloted The Flourish Retreat- the first of what aims to become a standing retreat for frontline African feminist activists, offering a week of guided collective and individual rest, reflection and workshops that cultivate the emotional tools and practical knowledges to build resilience for political activism. Urgent Action Fund-Africa, a feminist rapid-response grantmaker – is in the process of creating an Africa regional women human rights defenders platform called The Feminist Republik, that will generate knowledge around healing justice, provide direct care, and serve as a documentation and advocacy platform for advancing the protection needs of women human rights defenders in Africa.
This work is however not without its political conundrums. As African feminists call for greater attention to care, the question of who is responsible for supporting this labour raises inevitable tensions. I am reminded in this vein of a warning offered by Swazi feminist Patrician McFadden over two decades ago, as the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund led a wave of privatisation of public services across the African continent. Considering the limits of attempting to meet African women’s social and economic needs through the civil society sector alone, she contended: “We are taking over responsibilities which the state should be shouldering, and we are not asking ourselves whether this is our agenda or if it is an imposed agenda. Female nurturing can easily become a trap…we need to understand the limits of our nurturing, where we should draw the line in relation to the responsibilities which men must assume, and especially men who traffic in the state.”
Today, in the face of persistent austerity we need to ask ourselves the same question. Clearly activists would not expect a repressive state to heal the emotional wounds of its feminist dissidents. However there are elements of the more generalised right to access health and social services that need attention as we call for increasing private and personal investment in feminist care labour across Africa. Indeed as we build visions of a feminist Africa we must continue to consider how the normative political, economic and social structures we live can be reimagined in ways that nourish rather than constrain life, and contribute themselves to sustain healthy, agented collective and individual selves.
Jessica Horn is a feminist strategist, writer and movement builder. She is a co-founder of the African Feminist Forum and the author of several monographs on activist praxis, including the Cutting Edge Pack on Gender and Social Movements. She tweets @stillsherises.