Self-Care and Self-Defense Manual

for Feminist Activists

by Alejandra Sardá and Monica Alemán






This important manual developed by Marina Bernal, Artemisa, and Elige, is a valuable asset for all women engaged in the task of constructing and inhabiting a world in which all of us can fulfill our best potential. An indispensable tool, it invites us to stand our ground while attempting to undo the injustices meted out to us, and nurture the inherent resources that are so easily depleted: our bodies, affection, intelligence, creativity, spirituality…and ourselves.

For many of us the word "ourselves" brings a certain sense of discomfort, while the daily battle against discrimination and living life on fair terms leaves us with no time or inclination to deal with any issue that may not be of the utmost urgency. It also seems selfish, unpardonable and even cowardly to focus on ourselves. But sooner or later our bodies are afflicted with migraines or paralytic strokes; or the woman, man, or trans person whom we love, leaves us because he or she is tired of seeing us for only a few hours in a year
or a day. Suddenly, we turn 70 and discover that our activism did not automatically entitle us to a pension…and then we crumble or continue to plod on as mere shadows of ourselves.

A unique feature of this manual is that it talks of realities that are almost always never understood, such as the breach that exists between our discourse on human rights and social justice, and the reality of the labour practices adopted by our organizations and work spaces. It is imperative that we recognize ourselves as workers with rights and duties and break free from the rhetoric of "sacrifice”, which only serves to justify forms of violence that we would never accept in a factory or workshop, yet continue to live with every day in NGOs, collectives, and groups.

During a seminar on women human right defenders in Mexico, Celsa, an incredible environment activist asserted, “It is we ourselves who are violating our human rights”. This manual could serve as an excellent basis in drafting the Convention on the Rights of the Body and Soul of Women Activists, which every person should endorse.  There is a wide range of options that offer a compromise between the selfishness of one’s concern for one’s own body and desires and the supposed altruism which concerns itself with the welfare of the entire universe at the cost of that one person who would never complain to any authority even if he or she were ill-treated i.e. our self. Women of my generation and the one before thank the wise young women who have drafted this
manual to show us these paths and lead us by the hand to explore them. For those even younger than the authors, this manual could well be the passport to a more balanced and pleasurable life.

Five years ago we came to understand that our body is a map where the entire history of our lives can be traced, where every step that we have taken has left its imprint. Now, this manual equips us with the tools to retrace this journey with patience and sensitivity, explore its darkest spaces and reveal the results of the process. It is a guide and invaluable contribution to our histories and journeys, which will help us establish ourselves in the fields we have chosen and at the same time, savour the pleasure of getting to
know ourselves.  What started out a few years ago as a simple guide focussing on the protection and promotion of the human rights of women activists, has been transformed into a remarkable set of exercises that will help every woman identify the varied facets of their human fabric. It opens up multiple paths through which each of us can navigate our personal histories to reconstruct forgotten moments and rejoice in the pleasure they bring or acknowledge the pain they still cause and in the process redefine ourselves as individuals with rights and liberties.

The Self-Help Manual has six chapters:

  1. The first chapter, Recognizing who I am, explores our social conditions and the manner in which we shape our perception of ourselves as women and as activists. 
  2. In the second chapter, Recognizing the violence that we face, we situate the different types of violence that we experience as women and activists. Here, we have attempted not only to talk of recognizable forms of gender violence towards women but have also touched on violence that occurs in spaces that are considered nonviolent—which could even include the organizations that we are part of—or forms of violence that we do not identify as such. 
  3. The third chapter, Lack of self-care: a form of violence, explores the ways in which the lack of self-care translates into self-inflicted violence in the lives of women activists. 
  4. The fourth chapter, Optimizing our vital strengths, deals with the issue of women’s empowerment and the optimization of vital strengths and self-care as indispensable elements for empowerment. It highlights the
    importance of examining the reappropriation of the body, taking care of it and seeking a sense of holistic well being in our lives. 
  5. The fifth chapter, Self-defense, explores some resources to combat violence in its physical, legal, and psychological dimensions. 
  6. In the sixth chapter you will find a section on “Resources” to draw from in different spheres of your life or in situations of crises. You will also find some sheets that you can use to record the experience of using this Manual.

For the manual to be effective, the following points are important:

  • In this manual you are your own material for study and reflection. Your own experience and knowledge of yourself are your resources for moving forward.
  • By looking at yourself, identifying the social orders that affect your life, reviewing your personal self-care, and making yourself aware of the different forms of violence that you face, you will gradually learn to identify the ways in which we as women activists can protect ourselves, taking into consideration the resources we have to do so.
  • But. …careful! This does not mean imposing new demands on your already overwhelming "to do list "; or distancing yourselves and shifting attention away from yourself, believing that you have no problems and that you are here to "empathize with and understand" those who "are genuinely in a bad way". 
  • It is about believing, once and for all, that all that we know, all that we are fighting for and all that we defend on behalf of other women is possible, and thus it is important to start looking at it and making it a reality within us. 
  • Undertaking this journey of self-exploration and deepening our self-knowledge will help us understand our limitations and strengths, what makes us strong and what makes us vulnerable. It will also help us understand why we are victims of certain types of violence and why we react in one way or the other when we are faced with it.

Mónica Alemán is a young indigenous Miskita from the northern Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.  She is a femini
st and a women’s human rights defender. She is programme director at MADRE, an organization that she represents at the international level, and is the coordinator of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (IIWF). She has facilitated the participation of indigenous women in the Beijing process and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

Alejandra Sardá is a psychologist, literary translator, and activist who has been associated with various social movements (women’s, feminist, LGBT, and sexual rights movements) at the local, regional and international levels, for more than 15 years. She lives in Buenos Aires, and heads Mulabi – Espacio Latinamericano de Sexualidades y Derechos.

CREA World Self-Care and Self-Defense Manual