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Women’s groups caring for others, but who’s caring for them?
February 11, 2020
A reflection on the Fiji context
by Tiriseyani Naulivou
Sometimes just taking the time to make your bed, before going to work, is an important act that allows you a moment to yourself; a little bit of self-care.
For others, making the bed is a dreaded task!
We are all different but something we have in common is the often forgotten need to recognise that self-care is very personal and very important for our wellbeing.
These thoughts mingled through my mind when I recently caught up with a friend and colleague in the Fiji women’s movement (the movement) and we reflected on how we faired last year and our plans for the new year. My friend has spent her entire career working in the movement, while I am newer in the space, and she has often described it as very rewarding but often very stressful. I excitedly shared I was about to enrol in a wellness program with some colleagues because I felt it would help me along my journey with self-care. She then explained that for her, self-care begins each morning when she arises and tidies her bed. She described that first, simple action as being an important time for herself. It’s the first action she does to bring about order to her day before leaving home to start the chaos of the day.
Our conversation brought me back to the Fiji Women’s Fund’s Annual Reflection Workshop in 2019. The workshop is an annual event that brings together existing and previous grantee partners and stakeholders to collectively reflect on our journey, share experiences, celebrate achievements and to strategise on how to address any challenges we may have faced during the year. The workshop began with a panel discussion on the movement itself and featured feminist activists Mamta Chand (Fiji Women’s Rights Movement), Veena Singh (The Pacific Community) and Virisila Buadromo (Urgent Action Fund for Asia and Pacific). They shared their thoughts on the movement and what it means to them. They described the movement as a space of solidarity, accountability, peace, strength, sisterhood, opportunity, respect, collaboration, healing and pain. The panellists’ candid reflections revealed that, in its worst form, the movement can also be a space that is toxic, unhealthy and capable of driving the most steadfast, well-intentioned feminist to “burn-out”.
One of the panellists shared how it is not uncommon for women who work in or lead women’s rights or feminist organisations, to experience burn-out if they or their organisation does not value self-care. She expressed two opinions as to why:
- Resourcing is prioritised over implementation work and very little is allocated to institutional strengthening, which would have allowed organisations to facilitate opportunities for their team members’ self-care.
- Long-held views that those involved in activism should be selfless, putting the needs of those we serve above our own.
What is self-care and how can we implement it?
According to FRIDA (an international young feminist fund), self-care is a political strategy critical for sustaining the movement. Former Slate culture writer and current Culture editor, op-ED at the New York Times, Aisha Harris explains that it became a political act during the rise of the women’s and civil rights movement when women and people of colour regarded it as a response to medical systems that did not adequately address their needs . Deepa Ranganathan and María Díaz Ezquerro also described self-care as;
“a security mechanism that can help women’s human rights defenders cope with physical and digital risks and prevent burnout and vulnerabilities at an early stage of our roles as activists. At its core, self-care challenges the patriarchal vision of women as carers of the family and community, at the cost of undermining our own sanity and health. Often, self-care is only related to the individual level. But it cannot be separated from the collective well-being within our organisations, shared efforts, and movements. Collective self-care, as an essential part of integrated security, is a feminist act of resistance and resilience that contributes to transformative social change and strengthens the sustainability of our work.” 
Self-care isn’t a new topic, and as many others have written about, it has become highly commercialised. Spa treatments, holiday vacations, gym memberships, even nature trips, and the likes have been attractively packaged along with their not-so-attractive prices. These respond to a growing awareness of the need for people to take time-out. But for the activists and advocates in the movement, these can be seen as too extravagant and too selfish and they question: ‘why would we be indulging in these activities when we need to be channelling all our efforts and resources to improving the lives of women?’
Self-care needs resourcing
As for the panellist, she has both experienced and witnessed, first-hand, the effects of organisational stress. This she said led to the adoption of bad coping mechanisms such as moodiness, limited sleep, exhaustion, and illness. The executive team in her organisation then began researching self-care and well-being. They realised the need to change organisational culture by institutionalising provisions for collective self-care. Speaking with several other feminist and civil society organisations in Fiji, we discovered that while a few had time-off policies or collective self-care activities for staff, the majority said that, with already limited resources and budget constraints, it has been challenging to support self-care activities. Nevertheless, the kinds of support these organisations are currently providing for self-care include:
- Time-off for those who have been under heavy workloads
- Afternoon or lunchtime team sports or walks which is inexpensive and fun
- Teambuilding get-aways or pay increments
- Counselling and support for staff who have witnessed or handled traumatic cases such as working with abuse and sexual assault victims
As FRIDA and others have emphasised, each organisation must take the time to understand the self and collective care needs of their team members in the context of the environments they work in – perhaps an organisational first-step to addressing the self-care needs of its members. The counsellor who experiences trauma vicariously, the activist at the frontline and the lawyer involved in a sexual assault case, are just a few examples of people whose safety and mental health needs must also be taken into account. Self and collective care strategies need to be in place. To be effective these strategies need to detail safety procedures, resource mobilisation plans for self and collective care, resource allocation for time-out, team-building and healing, while also encouraging people to take care of each other .
2020, putting self-care into practice
Which brings me to our role as a women’s fund in promoting, respecting and fulfilling the need for self-care not just for our team at the Fund but also for our grantee partners. Our myriad of grantee partners are activists and advocates who work towards changing attitudes, behaviours, legislation, and policies, reform institutions and so forth, so that women, girls, and gender non-conforming people’s rights are protected. As the resource mobilisation arm of the women’s movement, we should prioritise supporting women’s organisations, networks and groups to have the resources needed to ensure self-care is practised and valued.
Here at the Fund, some of the ways we practise self-care is by checking in with each other and how we can better support each other’s personal and work journeys. We spend eight hours a day, five days a week together and so our personal and professional lives are intertwined. This year, we are consciously reviewing how we practise self-care as individuals but also as a team so that we create an organisational culture of self-care.
We know we can do better at practising self-care so if you have any great ideas, we would love to hear it.
“Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel” – Eleanor Brown
About the Author
Tiriseyani has over ten years of community development experience, having served in various roles at Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF) and as Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Officer with the Australian Government’s Fiji Program Support Facility. In her community development work she has fostered organisational culture of appreciating MEL as a key component of work and also contributed to ensuring that gender is a cross-cutting priority within the programs she has worked with. Tiriseyani is passionate about community development as well as mental health and suicide prevention. She facilitated the formation of the Youth Champs for Mental Health in 2008 and currently serves on the Boards of Lifeline Fiji and PCDF.