Louisa and Asha: defending human rights in Nigeria and India during the COVID-19 pandemic



June 24, 2021

Louisa and Asha: defending human rights in Nigeria and India during the COVID-19 pandemic

Louisa from Nigeria and Asha from India shared with us the challenges they are facing in relation to the pandemic and ways to overcome them. Despite the difficulties, they continue their important work. What gives them strength is that they are not alone in this, and that there is hope for the future.

Louisa is a Nigerian women’s rights defender, whose work revolves around mobilizing 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: she contributes to monitoring cases of cast crimes, especially crimes of sexual violence, against Dalit women and girls, and to defending this marginalised community. 

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 encouraged her fellow women defenders to “keep writing, keep documenting as usual.”

The two activists also highlighted the importance of finding new strategies to engage with the communities they support on the ground, given the physical restrictions related to COVID-19. Asha and her team are in constant contact with the women victims over the phone, and are monitoring their situation.

Facing the challenges the future comes with

One of the biggest challenges that Asha, Louisa, and many other human rights defenders are facing is that of limited access to technological equipment, especially if grassroots defenders or defenders from marginalised communities. As mentioned by Asha, “access to mobile phones, laptops, internet connection – we don’t have money for those kind of things”. This creates 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.

However, there is hope. Louisa urged the defenders around the world not to give up and give in to the uncertainty.

“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

Louisa also 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)”. At this special time, we at Shelter city provide online security trainings to 9 human rights defenders who could not be relocated to the Netherlands due to COVID-19*.

Taking care of their own wellbeing

Asha and Louisa also reflected on the importance of human rights defenders’ wellbeing and mental health, which is essential for them to continue carrying out their work now and in the times following the COVID-19 pandemic. Asha argued that “often when we look at human rights defenders 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.” – Asha

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 urged 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.” 

Building resilience and going through this crisis together

The two women defenders highlighted 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 also a powerful way for Asha to move forward.

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