Building and Sustaining Communities of Care in our Work to End Violence Against Women and Girls

Leah Goldmann, GBV/KM Specialist, USAID Collective Action to Reduce Gender-based Violence (CARE-GBV) Activity
collective action to reduce gender-based violence gbv

As we continue with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), I am struck by the parallels between healthcare workers dealing with COVID-19 burnout and our community of GBV professionals. With one out of three women experiencing violence globally, the sum of survivors outnumbers those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Thanks to the tireless work of activists, academics, and practitioners, we understand the devastating physical, sexual, emotional, and economic effects of this human rights violation. But we hinder our own efforts by not fully acknowledging the toll this work takes on those responding to and preventing violence on the frontlines.


Feminist and civil rights leaders such as  Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Jessica Horn, and many others have long emphasized the critical need for creating space to care for themselves and their communities to withstand oppressive systems, reflecting upon the trauma experienced living at the intersection of marginalized identities (black, woman, African, queer, among others).  As Audre Lorde famously said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”


Similarly, for many GBV practitioners, working in this space can be traumatizing, challenging, and deeply personal. Evidence shows high rates of burnout and turnover for groups working to end GBV, with many professionals being survivors themselves, experiencing secondary trauma, and/or facing backlash in their efforts to create safe communities for women and girls.


A 2018 study from Perez-Torres et. al. that analyzed health and self-care of GBV professionals found the trauma of the work to be one of the main triggers of the stress and exhaustion they suffered. The study maintained that public and private institutions must include personal and institutional care measures to protect the health of workers and ensure the quality of care they provided.


After witnessing little interest from donors on issues of self-care, the pendulum is now shifting. Over the past few years, there is increased attention on how individuals, organizations, and donors involved in gender justice can build communities of self and collective care. The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) and Mama Cash’s recent report on Moving More Money to the Drivers of Change recommends that funders, decision makers, and program designers “fund activists’ holistic security, safety, wellbeing, and collective care.” Among the notable shifts in this direction is a new budget line for self-care that the UN Trust Fund End Violence Against Women has introduced for all grantee applications.


Integrating the practice of self and collective care into our work to end violence against women and girls is imperative. Priya Dhanani, Sophie Namy, and Sharanya Sekaram identify four ways to start this process in your home, work, and communities:

  1. Be kind to yourself by doing what you can with the resources you can at the time you can.
  2. Practice conscious community care by finding meaningful ways to care for others in your community (and not at the expense of your own wellbeing).
  3. Give yourself permission and embrace your emotions; they are valid.
  4. Create your brand of care that is iterative, dynamic, and works for you when and how you need it. Care is not “one-size-fits-all.”

Contrary to what mainstream culture may tell you, embedding care practices into your daily routine does not have to be lucrative, time-consuming, or obligatorily posted on social media. Prioritizing wellness and self-care strengthens both personal and institutional health and sustainability for addressing GBV.


Making Cents International, Development Professionals Inc, and FHI 360 are supporting USAID in strengthening the Agency’s collective response and prevention, or “collective action,” in GBV development programming globally. One of the key learning questions for our project, Collective Action to Reduce Gender-Based Violence (CARE-GBV), is: “How can addressing needs for resiliency and wellness among staff of GBV programs support more effective programming?” In addition, our small grants program that will be launched in 2021 will promote learning about self-care, wellness, and resiliency for staff of GBV organizations.  We plan to begin disseminating our findings in mid-2021.


If you’re looking to build a culture of care with your team, you can find guidance in resources such as Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s Five Directions for Trauma Stewardship, Hope Chigudu’s Healing through Rituals: A guide for sustaining wellbeing and activism, and the Self and Collective Care Zine from JASS, FURIA and Raising Voices.


During the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence this month, we encourage you, our fellow GBV professionals, to develop your own self and organizational care plans—with colleagues, friends, family—to remain emotionally healthy, grounded, and spirited in your efforts to create a violence-free reality for women and girls around the world.