Louisa and Asha – Sharing Experiences as HRDs in Nigeria and India during COVID-19 pandemic

Human rights defenders across the world are currently facing similar problems. In this HRD update during COVID-19 we are sharing with you the experiences of two former Shelter City guests and women human rights defenders from Nigeria and India. Divided across space, Louisa and Asha are united in a shared struggle, just like many other defenders out there. What gives them strength is that they are not alone in this, and that there is hope for the future.

Working has come to a standstill

“Our work has come to a standstill because of COVID-19”. You could hear both Asha and Louisa making the same comment when asked about the impact of the pandemic on their work as human rights defenders.

Louisa is a Nigerian women’s rights defender, whose work revolves around mobilising women in the rural communities, particularly survivors of domestic violence, and empowering them with social and financial capital. Asha is an Indian women’s rights defender, who works with a team of women activists, monitoring cases of cast crimes, especially crimes of sexual violence, against Dalit women and girls, and defending this marginalised community. Both Louisa and Asha’s work has been challenged due to COVID-19, as they cannot come together with the communities of women they support on the ground.

“We are hearing about increasing cases of cast crimes, but we are not able to go out and meet the survivors after the incidents of violence”, Asha shares. Despite the physical restrictions, Asha and her team are in constant contact with the women victims over the phone, and are monitoring their situation. Louisa, who is also coordinating a support group for women, encourages defenders facing such problems to “begin to look at strategies through which to engage” with the communities.

Supporting women victims of violence

The continuation of engagement with and support to female victims of violence is crucial, as they are especially vulnerable at this time of COVID-19. Asha observed that “the survivors of violence are often times locked down at homes which are in already very difficult situations, with dysfunctional families, and where the perpetrators of crime are in the very close vicinity”. Louisa shared similar observations about women facing domestic violence in Nigeria, and lamented that “because of this situation, they can’t cry out for help, they can’t go to the police.”

This reality, however, has not discouraged the two women defenders. In fact it has presented them with an ever stronger reason why they need to continue carrying out their work. They have both invested their time now in documenting the violations taking place against women, and developing strategies for the future. “As a Dalit women collective, we have to build evidence and then use this as advocacy tools when the time comes that we are able to regroup, and reconvene; we have to plan more strategically for the movement and the work we are doing”, shared Asha. Louisa reinforced the importance of this, and encouraged her fellow women defenders to “to keep writing, keep documenting as usual.”

Facing the challenges the future comes with

Their persistence does not always come easily, as both Asha and Louisa are experiencing the widespread fear and uncertainty. “How do we sustain our organisations, how do we meet, how do we share, how do we talk about new strategies, how many of us have access to Zoom, to wi-fi connection?”, these were a few questions posed by Asha. Such questions, while important to be considered, can be overwhelming for the human rights defenders. Louisa urged the defenders around the world to not give up and give in to the uncertainty – “it’s time to improve on ourselves. It’s time for human rights activists and civil society groups to begin to adapt, to change according to the new world we find ourselves in”.

“It’s time for human rights activists and civil society groups to begin to adapt, to change according to the new world we find ourselves in.”
– Louisa, former Shelter City guest

This new world is one where a lot of work will take place virtually. “Virtual meetings will replace physical meetings”, commented Louisa highlighting that technology is the future. She stressed that “it’s time to begin to put into practice what we have been taught and what we have been trained in (Shelter City)”.* This prospect, however, presents a problem to many human rights defenders and to the members of the communities they work with. Some human rights defenders, especially grassroots ones and ones from marginalised communities, are having their basic needs for technology not met.  According to Asha, there are HRDs with limited access to equipment – “access to mobile phones, laptops, internet connection – we don’t have money for those kind of things”. This is one of the biggest challenges that many defenders are confronted with right now, and are in need of support to overcome.**

Taking care of their own wellbeing

Another domain where human rights defenders need to be supported is their wellbeing and mental health.

“Often when we look at HRDs we are only looking at where the state has arrested them, put them behind bars or under surveillance and restrictions; and that is true, it is happening. But at the same time we activists are also human beings, and how we are operating before, during and after the situation also depends on how we feel within our own selves”. These were the words of Asha on the importance of defenders’ wellbeing during COVID-19.

“But at the same time we activists are also human beings, and how we are operating before, during and after the situation also depends on how we feel within our own selves.” – Asha, former Shelter City guest

Louisa also shared her perspective on the matter, focusing in particular on the effects the outbreak has had on the wellbeing of women: “And this (COVID-19) impacts more on women of course, who are caregivers. For women who are heads of households, like myself – you have to become the doctor in the house; you have to become the security in the house; you have to provide, you have to drive out, make sure you are safe, get things from the market and come back home. It has been tough, let me just use that word.”

Louisa encouraged at these trying times to “try to be strong, to have hope that this will come to an end”. She also highlighted the importance of holistic wellbeing – “we need to exercise our minds and exercise our bodies. We can walk around, ride a bicycle if it’s allowed. Within the times that the government allows people to go out. Otherwise the body can become sick and break down.” The physical and mental wellbeing of human rights defenders is essential for them to continue carrying out their work now and in the times following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building resilience and going through this crisis together

And so is the importance of communicating and staying connected – “Speak on the phone. Use social media to connect, that is working, it is helping.” Louisa shared that since the beginning of the pandemic she has reached out to her fellow defenders and friends from Shelter City to check if they are okay. Asha also urged that at this time we need to bring people together to discuss “how best we can cross this crisis together”. Building solidarity with each other, and especially with the oppressed people across the world, is essential in this time of crisis for everyone. Tapping into “the resilience, strength and power of our ancestors” is a powerful way for Asha to move forward, and for other defenders across the world.

How have you dealt with the COVID-19 crisis as a human rights defender? Share your experiences with us by contacting info[at]sheltercity.org.

* Shelter City provides its guest human rights defenders with trainings in holistic security, which encompass a range of topics from physical, digital, legal and financial security, to selfcare and wellbeing. At this time, we are providing online security trainings to 9 human rights defenders who could not be relocated to the Netherlands for their participation in Shelter City due to COVID-19.

** Justice and Peace recently published an article with recommendations how to support human rights defender during COVID-19. These recommendations were provided by three Shelter City guests, one of whom Asha, who spoke at the JP virtual event called ‘Standing Side by Side with Human Rights Defenders’. Read the experiences of the 3 HRDs during the pandemic and find out how you can support them here.