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Defending Human Rights Takes a Toll. This Retreat Puts Advocates First.

At Casa La Serena, human rights defenders learn to care for themselves so they can keep up the fight.

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Defending Human Rights Takes a Toll. This Retreat Puts Advocates First.

Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

Coordinator Nallely Tello, far right, facilitates a group discussion about emotional health and self-care with activists from Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos at Casa La Serena, in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico.

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OAXACA DE JUÁREZ, MEXICO — In January 2022, the results were in. Eleven human rights advocates had undergone a series of medical tests, paid for by their organization, to better understand their general health after the pandemic. The tests included biometrics, blood chemistry, a gynecological exam and a psycho-emotional assessment. Every single member had at least some type of physical condition that needed attention.

Each of the activists, members of Grupo de Estudios Sobre la Mujer Rosario Castellanos (GESMujer), a civil organization in Oaxaca that treats cases of violence against women, received her own diagnosis. In general, the results showed elevated levels of cortisol and triglycerides, hypertension, lack of sleep, poorly controlled diabetes, and different forms of anxiety and depression.

“We were so surprised when we saw our results … that we looked for a way to take care of ourselves and improve our health,” says Tania Melchor, who has been an advocate for women’s rights for 32 years.

Human rights defenders are constantly under stress due to their systematic contact with people who have experienced violence. This pressure impacts their physical, psychological and emotional well-being. To prevent it, some visit spaces that specialize in strategies for self-care, which allows them to continue their work by preserving their mental health. And they are sharing their knowledge with other activists.

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Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

Casa La Serena offers meditative and therapeutic activities to help human rights defenders cope with the stress and trauma they encounter in their work.

After they learned the results of their clinical tests, the advocates at GESMujer, along with a consultant, requested an eight-day stay at Casa La Serena, “a rest house for advocates like us,” in the city of Oaxaca, Melchor says.

The space was founded in 2016 by Consorcio Oaxaca, a civil organization that promotes women’s rights and protection and care of women advocates’ mental health. It came about as part of an initiative that civil organizations in Mexico and Central America launched to respond to the challenges facing these professionals in the region.

“As of today, over 350 people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil have been welcomed and cared for, as well as a delegation from various countries in Africa,” says Nallely Tello, the coordinator of Casa La Serena.

“The level of violence against human rights defenders in Latin America is alarming. More defenders are murdered in the region than anywhere else in the world,” according to a December 2023 press release issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States, which is responsible for promoting and protecting human rights in the Americas.

The commission also reported 126 killings of advocates in the region in 2023.

Recognizing the emotional toll

Tello says it’s common for guests who come to the rest house to spend their first few days sleeping. “Sometimes, exhaustion and the amount of responsibility for casework can come to be so intense in their daily life that, when they arrive here, they finally rest.”

According to a study published by academics from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Metropolitan Autonomous University, close and systematic contact with those who have survived violence can cause emotional distress, which can present as recurring memories, emotional numbness, isolation, insomnia, inability to concentrate and irritability.

Tello believes generating strategies to protect mental health is a way to support human rights advocacy.

“Sometimes, exhaustion and the amount of responsibility for casework can be so intense in their daily life that, when they arrive here, they finally rest.”Casa La Serena

Angélica Ayala, an advocate at GESMujer with more than 40 years of experience, says that, before learning about self-care tools, she did not set aside time for herself or take breaks.

She adds that she had not been aware of the emotional burden her work placed on her until she stayed at Casa La Serena. However, catching her breath from her daily activities allowed her to assimilate the helplessness she feels toward the cases she closely manages. “Violence has increased. And the amount of impunity is a constant frustration for us,” Ayala says.

Between March and April 2023, 74.6% of the Mexican population over 18 years of age thought living in their state was unsafe, according to the 2023 National Survey of Victimization and Perception of Public Safety, conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

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Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

Beatriz Ramírez, center, leads group meditation with activists from Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos at Casa La Serena.

The survey also shows that during 2022, over 21.1 million people at least 18 years of age had experienced crime in Mexico. The figure is lower than the previous year by 1 million.

For Ayala, focusing on self-care at Casa La Serena was challenging at first. “I noticed a lot of resistance during the sessions they give us at the place. But when I let myself go and allowed myself to be conscious of what was happening to me, it was a very powerful moment for me, and after that moment I had total immersion and could acknowledge the emotional burden I’d had for years,” she says.

Ayala remembers that during her stay, there were entire therapeutic sessions where she would not stop crying.

Ana Hernández, the founder of Casa La Serena, explains that for human rights defenders, it is difficult to be vulnerable because their work often requires them to shoulder the care of others.

Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

During their stay at Casa La Serena, human rights defenders take part in a variety of activities focused on their mental, emotional and physical health.

Tello, the space’s coordinator, says that each group is given a unique plan for tending to their needs, “but in general, the treatments range from individual and group psychological [therapies], yoga classes and dietary care to massages, self-portrait exercises in ceramics and guided meditations. Plus, since we’re in Oaxaca, we use traditional medicine with practices like cleansing and temazcal.”

The cleansing practices are procedures utilized in some Mesoamerican cultures to reharmonize people with their surroundings, while temazcales are ritual steam baths that served health care, religious, political and social functions among pre-Hispanic civilizations.

During their stay, each advocate creates their own self-care plan to maintain their well-being after they return to their regular activities.

The advocates at GESMujer, for example, received tools for healing their work relationships and help in creating workplace policies with clear and comprehensive communication.

Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

An altar displays a photograph and self-care plan at Casa La Serena.

As a result of their time at Casa La Serena, the members of GESMujer now have one group therapy session a week and monthly talks with specialists in various fields. They also created a guide for self-care and collective care for advocates, which they share when they give workshops.

“A year later, we had [medical] tests done again, and all our results had improved,” Melchor says.

Now, when a new member joins the organization, the staff explain the need for self-care and the team’s collective care.

Rosario Martínez, president of GESMujer’s governing board, says, “We tell them that, rather than being a mandatory task, it is a human right we have ourselves.”

Ena Aguilar Peláez is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mexico.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.