Article by PBI-International

Only those who are healthy can work with all their strength for human rights. If political and social violence is part of everyday life, the commitment to peace is risky and emotionally stressful. Women also often have to fight against traditional role models. Learn in an interview with Tanja Vultier why psychosocial and gender-sensitive support is so important for human rights defenders. 

As the coordinator of PBI's regional Latin America project, you have worked intensively on the topic of "psychosocial support for human rights defenders". What does PBI understand by this and how is this support implemented in Colombia?

Tanja Vultier: Psychosocial support originated in the psychology of liberation, which has its origins in Central America. It is based on a critical view of Western psychology, which, with its individualist perspective, ignores the social and political causes of illness. PBI's psychosocial support is primarily concerned with addressing the fear and division within the human rights organizations we support. Both are consequences of political violence and psychological warfare with the aim of weakening the resistance and organizational capacity of civil society.

In Colombia, psychosocial support has been a fundamental aspect of the protection model since the PBI project began in 1994. In workshops, the people accompanied by PBI are made aware of the effects their work and the violence have on their psyche and thus on their dealings with other people. Many human rights defenders are tired, nervous, anxious, stressed, sad, and sometimes react with little tolerance or even aggression towards fellow human beings because of the constant threat. This can lead to conflicts within an organization and therefore affect their work. Together with the people we accompany, PBI develops strategies to strengthen cohesion within human rights organizations.

Why is a feminist approach to the protection of human rights defenders important?

In conflict areas, women face particular challenges. In addition to the attacks to which both male and female activists are exposed, women have to struggle against patriarchal structures in many places. Many women carry out their activism without pay and in addition to their work in the household and in the family. They are often criticized for their commitment, as this does not correspond to the usual gender role. In addition, perpetrators threaten human rights defenders with rape or actually attack them sexually. They receive threats against their children or other family members. This requires special protection strategies, such as the exchange between women defenders themselves, the strengthening of their networks, and the promotion of their psychological well-being. And last but not least, the feminist approach always involves the family.

How did PBI implement the topic of "gender-sensitive accompaniment" within the framework of the regional Latin America project? What are the successes and challenges?

Within the framework of the regional project, we have initiated a learning process on psychosocial and gender-sensitive accompaniment, with PBI projects in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia, and the Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras (IMD) as well as other local women's rights organizations. For example, we have developed a "Train of Trainers Module", in which the gender approach is a central aspect of the accompanying work. We have also organized two meetings with thirty human rights defenders from all over Latin America, at which the participants exchanged views on protection strategies. Another success is the establishment of a regional PBI working group on the topic, which meets every two months via Skype. The Latin American projects are also revising their guidelines to ensure that the gender aspect is sufficiently taken into account in security analyses so that protection measures can be improved. Thanks to the project, the gender approach could be further developed both in the accompanying work and within PBI. Now we must continue along this path and ensure that knowledge is passed on within PBI's volunteer structures

PBI carried out the regional Latin America project from 2017 to 2019 with the Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras, financed by Dutch development cooperation. The aim of the project was to initiate a joint learning process to strengthen and improve the protection of human rights defenders.