How can LGBTI activists working in a hostile environment such as Uganda combat the dangers of burnout and depression? To answer that question, Kikonyogo Kivumbi, the correspondent of Erasing 76 Crimes in Kampala, Uganda, interviewed Douglas Mawadri, a Ugandan human rights lawyer and LGBTI activist with a passion for self-care and wellness.
Mawadri is the founder of Associates for Health Rights Uganda (AHAR). These are excerpts from the interview:
Q: You’ve come out to strongly advocate for self-care and wellness of LGBTI activists. Why?
A: In my line of work and interactions with other human rights activists, I noted with great concern that activists are involved in perilous tasks that expose them to trauma, physical dangers, violence, persecution, and extreme injustice in pursuit of human rights. Witnessing human rights violations directly or hearing about them second-hand impacts the mental health and wellness of activists. New activists are not trained to handle the violence many activists are exposed to.
It’s time to face the reality, and advance vital discussions about the subject matter of mental health.
Q: Why is managing burnout important for LGBTI organizing in Kampala?
A: Burnout arises when activists are faced with doing the same thing over and over again without getting better results or when they become frustrated by the system. This can make activists feel overwhelmed and worthless.
Managing burnout in very important to activists, who need to re-evaluate themselves so they can become productive and results-oriented. Managing burnout equips activists to strategize to prevent and alleviate harmful effects. Burnout management helps activists bounce back.
Q: What can activists and human rights organisations do to combat stress and burnout and to promote healthy attitudes, relationships and lifestyles?
A: Activists involved in such kind of work need to regularly take time off to reflect on their mental and emotional state. Human rights organisations need to bolster the resilience of their staff and to help the staff see that their own well-being is imperative for building sustainable movements.
Q: In your observations, which groups of people in your community are more predisposed to un-wellness related to sexual orientation and gender identity or expression (SOGIE)?
A: Generally speaking, the problem affects LGBTIQ activists, who by the very nature of their work witness human rights violations directly or second hand and who must seek solutions to mitigate the abuses.
However, transgender persons are more affected by the particular nature of their identity, which draws attention. This frequently decreases their feeling of well-being. Many exhibit paranoia and anxiety.
Q: Do you think substance use, rejection and stigma attached to one’s SOGIE contributes to overall mental un-wellness?
A: LGBTI persons are often treated with ridicule and contempt. Many have been banished from their homes by parents. They lose their sense of belonging. It is a very painful experience, which leaves a scar in the heart and in the mind. As a result, many endure emotional hardship. They feel worthless. Depression kicks in.
Substance use therefore becomes a way to forget those problems and cope with life.
SOGIE activists and LGBTI persons are largely stigmatized. Persecutions and inequalities among SOGIE activists breed rejection, further affecting mental un-wellness. The work of SOGIE activists is often hazardous. The challenges of criminalization as well as religious, cultural and societal challenges affect the mental status of activists.
Q: Any other information you want to share?
A: The mental health and well-being of advocates have been neglected too often. Human rights organisations should start exploring the risks that advocates face and how they might be mitigated. Human rights organisations need to understand, reflect and connect; listen and allow activists to be heard; and finally get to the issues that matter most.
- LGBTI activists at risk of burnout; what can we do? (
- Uganda: Why Val Kalende ‘renounced lesbianism’ “[Several activists] sympathized with Val’s action, saying there is no clear support mechanism for activists suffering depression and burnout after having worked for years in the highly hostile and stressful environment of Uganda.” (July 2018, 76crimes.com)
- Oppression of queer activists by queer activists by Mariam Armisen (March 2018, 76crimes)
- Admitting the flaws of LGBTI activism; seeking solutions (May 2016, 76crimes)
- Where do we go from here? (May 2016, Pambazuka News)