The Cost Of Virtual Advocacy On The Marginalized

Illustration by Ové Pictures on Fine Acts (Modification made: Added translucent background)

BY SIBUSISO MALUNGA

COVID 19 continues to change and affect different aspects of our lives, and in an effort to adapt to the prevailing changes, the national, regional and global advocacy spaces have looked for other ways of gathering to deliberate and influence action points. While this has provided an opportunity for most to carry the work forward, there are some considerations which have not been made that further exclude historically marginalized persons from meaningful participation. Notably, I agree that the digital era of conducting meetings and forums has provided an opportunity for more people to access these spaces without leaving the comfort of their homes. However, it has also birthed challenges that could reverse the gains made if the barriers to meaningful participation are not addressed. 

For me, I observed and experienced some of these challenges from my recent experience in virtual advocacy, namely the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, Commission on the Status of Women(CSW) and the Generation Equality Forum(GEF), all of which were held in 2021 on virtual platforms. 

I agree that the digital era of conducting meetings and forums has provided an opportunity for more people to access these spaces without leaving the comfort of their homes, it has also birthed challenges that could reverse the gains made if the barriers to meaningful participation are not addressed.

Activists and human rights defenders often face risks and threats pre, during and post engagements. These security risks involved in participating have significantly increased, especially that these virtual forums/platforms have not taken the safety and security of activists, who are likely to face backlash from their states, into consideration. This, in turn, reduces the visibility of contentious issues such as sexual and gender diversity, SRHR and economic justice, as activists and Human rights defenders have a reduced sense of safety, leaving priority interventions excluded. 

As an activist who advocates for the social and reproductive justice of marginalized groups, I have grown to appreciate physical spaces because they have provided me with an opportunity to identify allies for support on the often so-called contentious issues. The shift to online organizing has made solidarity support difficult. In spaces that usually have reduced representation of marginalized persons, solidarity and support from other activists are key in ensuring an amplified voice for the often voiceless. This, coupled with the restricted participation that only one or two people are given an opportunity to speak and contribute, makes forums’ outcomes significantly lacking in the input from those most affected by social injustices, discrimination, and violence, amongst other forms of oppression of marginalized persons. 

Add the time differences between the country where the forum is being held and the attendees country of residence; most activists find themselves working during the day and attending meetings and forums up to the early hours of the morning.

Online platforms have for sure allowed for an increased number of meetings. While previously, people would attend a limited number of meetings a day, nowadays, activists have continuously spread themselves thin due to the number of priorities. This has left most activists battling with increased workload, and self-care has not, yet again, been prioritized. Add the time differences between the country where the forum is being held and the attendees country of residence; most activists find themselves working during the day and attending meetings and forums up to the early hours of the morning. This, if left unchecked, has the potential of increasing burnout cases among human rights activists and Human rights defenders.

If we are to leverage the gains made in the past and push for different advocacy issues in various regional and global spaces, deep reflections and strategies around participation, representation, and online virtual advocacy burnout need to be addressed with a very strong emphasis on community care.