We Are Tired, So We Must Take Turns To Rest: Women’s Advocacy During Crisis

By Masana Ndinga-Kanga, 2020

On 8 March 2020, International Women’s Day, thousands of women gathered around the world for the Women’s Global Strike. Clad in red, they marched through the streets to demand “alternative development models that prioritise people and the planet, and uphold human rights, food sovereignty and climate justice.”[1] The 2020 Global Strike was significant as it came 25 years after the signing of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action[2]. Most jarring, on the list of demands, was the assessment of how far the world had come in achieving gender equality in the 25 years since the signing of the Beijing Declaration: while wealth has increased, global trends show that the gender pay gap has increased, women still spend more time on unpaid care work and, inequalities continue to deepen along intersecting identities.[3]

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated inequalities highlighted in the demands from the global strike. Millions were forced into lockdown. Many more were forced into economic precarity, hunger, and isolation. As newsfeeds were dominated by death tolls and predictions of economic doom, think pieces, policy recommendations and coordination calls were organised en masse. The discourse that emerged varied but was strongly reminiscent of the ways in which power concentrates itself: at the forefront of many mainstream debates was a cisgender, heteronormative, ableist, race-blind imagination of the consequences of the pandemic and the resultant lockdown – the very dynamics that the Women’s Global Strike sought to highlight and upend.

Writing in the Financial Times in April 2020, Indian author Arundhati Roy put forward the view that the pandemic could be a portal to a new world free of the “prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas.”[4] Indeed, activists across the world hoped that a new world would emerge on the other side of the pandemic, one that would take us one step closer to an equitable and just world. In an innovative scenarios game, The New Normal, volunteers imagined potential advocacy options that would unleash a more equitable and just political economy built on intersectional justice.[5] With each new scenario, the game helped players carve out responses to an unequal world where power concentrates itself in moments of crisis. Much like witnessed during the HIV/AIDs pandemic, the 07/08 financial crisis or the many other (seen and unseen) crises faced by millions across the world, elite power has further concentrated to create a more inequitable and violent world.

While 40-60 million people could be pushed into poverty and half of the world’s workforce could lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic,[6] billionaires have increased their wealth by 27.5%.[7] The vulnerabilities are deeply gendered and further compounded by race, class, ability, migration status, sexual orientation and many other intersecting identities that heighten the vulnerabilities of already vulnerable groups. Now more than ever, joint advocacy is needed to counter this new wave of concentrated elite, neoliberal power that has already begun to undo the gains made by feminist activists in the past. However, it is not for lack of activists’ policy recommendations, protests, or workshops that elite power has continued to concentrate itself; rather, we see that in a world where inequalities exist, those with resources are able to use their influence to shape policy in their interest. For the majority, however, lack of access to resources compounds their inability to do advocacy.

In recognising how moments of crisis heighten already existing inequalities, it is worth reflecting on how women activists have been able to conduct advocacy during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this time, as advocacy meetings have predominantly moved online within the context of a gendered digital divide,[8] the consequences for women activists and their ability to work are yet to be fully understood.

Drawing on a survey of 35 women respondents from across the world, this think piece contributes to growing literature that unpacks how women have experienced and conducted advocacy during the lockdown period –  the tensions between work, play and rest – and the ways in which those working to support activists can be proactive ahead of future, inevitable crises. The piece then turns to the experiences of women in online advocacy and what can be done to ensure its meaningful inclusivity. It concludes with recommendations for organisers, funders, and allies alike. While there are limitations to drawing conclusive results from such a small database, the aim of this paper is not to make broad conclusions that generalise the experience of women. Rather, the intention is to foreground the experience of women in advocacy during moments of crisis and provide initial reflections for future research, interrogation and verification.


This Work is Not Free: The Constant Balancing Act Required for Women to Do Advocacy During Crisis

In January 2020, Oxfam International released a paper on inequality, highlighting the extent of unpaid care work undertaken globally and its relationship to inequality. Measured in monetary terms, should women and girls aged 15 and over be compensated for their unpaid care work, the cost of their labour globally would amount to US$10.8 million.[9] Unpaid care work is deeply gendered, often falling to girls and women. It is also undervalued (if recognised at all). This begins to explain why Da’Shaunae Marisa, writing for the New York Times, found that even in instances where women earned more than their male partners, the burden of care work during the pandemic increasingly fell to women.[10] Even where women were the primary breadwinners, the functioning of patriarchal norms resulted in many taking up disproportionately more domestic chores than their partners. Even where these were divided, it fell upon many women to coordinate, plan and communicate how care work would be implemented.[11] With schools closed, movement restricted and access to support networks shunned, many women felt sharply the tension of balancing their professional and at-home responsibilities. These dynamics are added to the need for rest and play, and the valid desire to want to continue to do advocacy.

In my experience, the early days of lockdown as a single parent to a five-year old were a blur. I struggled to balance the need to show up for my child, calm her anxieties amidst a rapidly changing world; find time to teach, rest, cook, follow the news; and continue with my advocacy which included defending the rights of women to protest and organise around the world. These tensions were further compounded by the switch to digital advocacy and the blur between personal and professional, as calls took the shape of 3-hour sessions running into dinner time. I could barely keep up and still found myself sacrificing sleep to participate in online coordination calls. Six weeks into lockdown, I suffered a depressive episode and burnout.

This experience is not unique to me. In the survey, 48% of women indicated that they were not able to find a balance between work and at home responsibilities. One respondent noted that,

“[a]dvocacy has felt limited and defeating most times – the shift to both online and lack of physical meetings has felt incredibly exclusionary and often can’t account for “home” and what home looks like, both [in terms of] household dynamics and home resources.”

Furthermore, while all respondents were invited to online calls, 14% of women indicated that calls took place outside of working hours and 60% found that calls were somewhat diverse along gender, race and geographic lines, but to a lesser extent along class and ability. Consequently, 37% of respondents indicated that recommendations emerging from these calls were not intersectional.

The challenges of continuing advocacy during lockdown periods are further pronounced by class inequalities. For example, internet penetration in Africa is estimated to be 39.3% compared to 58.8% in the rest of the world.[12] The digital gender gap in Africa also widened between 2013 and 2019, the only region that experienced increased digital, gendered inequalities.[13] Because of the gendered digital divide, many activists who rely on in-person organising were cut off from their main channels of connection and support. The unintended ripple effect has been the ‘insularisation’ of advocacy channels reliant on in-person coordination and connection to someone with access to the internet. In the absence of these connections, news of the effects of the lockdown and how to coordinate were highly dependent on access to personal internet services. For many, this access was cut off.

Cross-border advocacy (particularly for mobilisation) is one of the many reasons we saw global massive protests led by women from across the world – Sudan, to Chile, to Egypt, to Lebanon, to Colombia, to India, to South Africa, to Zimbabwe and Hong Kong – in 2019. Some of these protests have heavily relied on the ability to freely organize online, through VoIP services like Whatsapp and Signal. For many, as detailed to me by partners in Sudan and Egypt, the use of flyers and word of mouth remain a critical component of organising in the face of online state surveillance. Even in relatively open societies, high data costs also excluded many women from joining online advocacy calls, for example, in South Africa, a partner requested that their travel budget allocation be diverted to buying data bundles to be texted through SMS-services to women who would have otherwise been unable to join online advocacy calls.

What is the consequence of such tensions? In the early days of conceptualising recommendations to the South African government, calls by a group of progressive economists were organised for the evenings. During the calls, I was struck by how few women of colour joined the online calls and how fewer still spoke up during the deliberations. It is no surprise then that the recommendations to the state failed to include necessary resource allocation for gender-based violence. In the weeks that followed, activists and civil society organisations across the country challenged the lack of intersectional resourcing undertaken by the government and its subsequent failure to respond to the high levels of femicide. This is but one of many cases that demonstrate the consequences of non-intersectional advocacy processes. Without asking why women are not present or able to attend or speak within these already violent and masculine spaces, we will never be able to adequately address the root of the problem.

Class inequalities during crisis also force women to choose between livelihood strategies and their advocacy. In South Africa, casual workers and those in the informal economy were dismissed by their employers and unable to access unemployment insurance. In one instance, a partner had to organise a coordination call late one Saturday afternoon because that was the only time workers were available. However, this was also the time that they had allocated to rest, cook, clean and plan for the week ahead. Many women activists, especially those who are domestic workers or informal traders, already work extended hours and travel long distances to work and back. The tensions of balancing between the need for income and the need to advocate for justice, are ever-present. While weekend and after-hour meetings are not a new phenomenon, the pandemic heightened the urgency of such advocacy in an already-existing context of economic vulnerability, burnout and worry.

The challenges of lockdown have clearly illuminated the seen and unseen barriers for women conducting advocacy across the world, more so depending on how their different identities intersect. The pandemic period has laid bare the choices that frequently face women activists; and, the seen and unseen costs of such advocacy – often taken for granted by those able to externalise their care work. It goes without saying, that without a public policy agenda that addresses the pressures of unpaid care work, digital exclusion and class inequalities, we will continue to replicate the silencing of millions of voices who have been speaking up against inequities.


Why does history keep repeating itself: activism as a lifeline to ignored lessons from women of colour

In October 2020, a group of queer feminists took occupation of an AirBnB house in Camps Bay, South Africa under the name #WeSeeYou. As one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in South Africa, Camps Bay exists in stark contrast to the majority of surrounding areas: where many live in cramped and overcrowded conditions; Camps Bay is filled with vacant mansions used to generate holiday rental income. While the majority must travel long distances from home to earn an income, Camps Bay is close to the city’s hub of economic activity but those who sustain that activity by selling their labour do not live anywhere near there. Lastly, while the vast majority of LGBTIQ+ peoples are forced to live in precarious conditions fraught with violence; Camps Bay has a reputation for being an ‘open’ and ‘liberal’ area – but only to those who have resources. The occupation of the temporary rental housing was a bold form of protest during the pandemic. It revealed that not only were queer activists entitled to protection from violence, but that they were entitled to dignified protection that allowed them space to rest, to take in beauty, and to be comfortable. Furthermore, this occupation illustrated how their experiences of psychosocial, political, economic and physical violence are intimately linked to the ability of a few to extract and concentrate wealth.

Lyn Ossome, writing on social reproduction, explains this aforementioned relationship between violence and extraction in the case of rural women in Uganda.[14] Social reproduction theory argues that for capitalist production of goods and services to occur, care work must take place.[15] For those on the upper end of the income spectrum, this care work is often ‘outsourced’ to others. The cisgender heterosexual man outsources his need for care work to his spouse and workers. For a high-earning woman, care work is predominantly outsourced to (migrant) women of colour. Even working-class heterosexual men are able to outsource their care work to their female partners, who in turn outsource this work to their children or to women more vulnerable than themselves.

For activists who live their activism, there are few others onto whom they can pass the cost of their care work. If they need to be present to a critical process of change, it is not just their professional selves that are engaged in activism; but also, their intimate, social selves. Extending Ossome’s argument, this further explains why those who fall outside of the cisgender heteronormative roles of social reproduction are penalized for their failure to fit gendered binaries. Capitalist extraction requires that women, the poor, children, migrants and people of colour play their role in accepting the burden of production for the benefit of the quintessential ‘homo economicus’ – the white, cisgender, utility-maximising, straight man.

The activists’ departure from neoliberal modus operandi exacerbates the social, political and economic cost of advocacy for queer women. For the feminist activists in Camps Bay, their revolutionary act of occupation was met with an onslaught of violent threats and intimidation. In a country of land injustice and misogynist violence, the activists were implicitly informed that their demand for a dignified existence was of less importance than the surplus extraction of someone not living in the house that the activists occupied. In other words, while the rights to dignity and property co-exist in the constitution; the latter was of greater value in the current political economy.[16] This is a harsh lesson for our advocacy in the time of a pandemic and one of the main reasons that history keeps repeating itself. Activists continuously highlight important changes necessary to avoid crises, but elite interests discredit these recommendations. When the moment of crisis arrives, as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic, many women activists are not able to engage in time-intensive advocacy as they live in precarity, unable to access even the perpetually underfunded social services to which they are entitled.

Power continues to concentrate as activists are pushed into survival mode – having to fend for themselves, their communities and loved ones. Their canon of work is also disregarded in elite policymaking circles where few activists are present to make the case again, while trying to survive. Those with economic resources are able to outsource their unpaid care work. Many activists are not able to. Calls, consultations and meetings continue, claiming to be open, without full consideration of the unseen costs of showing up.

For young feminist activists around the world, mobilising and protesting have become critical ways to counter neoliberalism, racism, misogyny, and corruption (among many other ills) with limited resources. While Zoom calls (alongside online and in-person workshops) can be effective channels of communication and advocacy, it is also the shared mobilisation of the masses that has played an immediate role in abating austerity, changing regimes and making real policy demands. This type of advocacy has suffered the most in the pandemic period. I would argue further that it is exactly this type of advocacy that is needed to usher in the ‘new normal’ so deeply desired by many. As such, 20% of respondents found that online calls were not useful. Even for the remaining 80% who found calls useful, in many instances, these were exhausting. One respondent noted that advocacy during the pandemic looked like “throwing as much as we can online and competing with other equally important causes.” Another respondent wrote that,

“[a]dvocacy has meant online engagements [and] campaigns, albeit to partners and stakeholders who were able to adapt and migrate activities and interactions to online platforms,” highlighting the privilege of being able to conduct advocacy online. The same respondent noted that,

“[such online advocacy] has also meant shorter concentration spans for workshops, trainings, etc.” when balancing competing interpersonal and professional demands.

One respondent wrote that they found online advocacy,

“[v]ery different from usual… I find it a lot more challenging to express opinions/positions in online meetings when you cannot respond to cues from others – it is a lot harder to just ‘jump in’.”

It would not be wrong to say that for some there has been an ableist approach to the pandemic-flux of online advocacy that has excluded many critical voices and lessons. In a capitalist world built to extract surplus and undermine collective power, this should be anticipated. The criminalisation of our collective action[17] at a time when our advocacy has become formalised and inaccessible has served to further exacerbate global inequality. In the same breath however, it is the bold and lived activism that builds bridges and actively serves the collective, that has elucidated the continued vibrancy of our activist culture.

Imagining a new normal within reach: the battle ahead is long-winded, but we must take turns to sleep

For so long as our advocacy requires we show up in patriarchal spaces designed to concentrate focus on ‘experts’, we will continue to run into the same problems. This is the beauty of our collective action that removes the homo economicus from centre stage – whether they be researchers, analysts, activists, or lawyers. Many of the policy recommendations for a more equitable, just and safe society (and economy) have already been shared ad nauseum in these spaces – whether online or in-person. Women, and especially Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour (BIPOC) women, have shown the limitations of these types of advocacy by documenting their experiences of silencing, erasure and violence in these spaces. With advocacy moving increasingly online and occurring in the home-space, the violence has now crossed a threshold into the blur of the work-from-home intimate workspace. The work was already challenging – but more needs to be done to make the online advocacy space accessible, safe and inclusive. Some respondents have managed to provide examples of how this can be done, writing

“There were efforts made by organisations that deal with disabled persons to ensure inclusion at virtual platforms through introduction of sign languages…”

Another respondent wrote,

“Personally, and for the community collective I am a member of, the pandemic has opened windows and doors to more feminist solidarity possibilities. There was reluctance to organise in the same old ways and [for advocacy to be] urgen[t], enthusias[tic] [and] to be intersectional.”

In the context laid out above, it is no wonder that across the world, women activists are tired, isolated, burnt out, hungry and stressed; all while still doing the work of imagining new futures. Writes one respondent, “Black women are lonely and burdened. We have taken that for granted that sometimes, the spaces we create for movement and advocacy, mean more to women, women who are Black and poor in particular, than just a means to meeting political goals.” Reflecting on the continued expectation that our advocacy would cost our entire lives or well-being, I cannot help but wonder how we can institutionalise our community care processes in the same way that we have adapted to online advocacy. Are there new ways that we should be speaking truth to power?

Yet these questions fall short of recognising that our struggles in advocacy are deeply connected to the political economy. Much like the #WeSeeYou activists who were implicitly informed that their dignity was less important than the protection of individual property rights, activists are gaslit daily into believing that their advocacy is not as critical as the maintenance of exploitative macroeconomic policies that defund public services. The truth is not that we are not trying hard enough, but rather, that we are being forced to constantly re-imagine a new normal in a dispensation that is comfortable with our discomfort and burnout.

Advocacy processes that foreground community care, humanisation and recognition of power – even amongst activists – is the low hanging fruit that can provide an indication of what may be needed to sustain future advocacy led by queer BIPOC women: recognising activists as full humans in work, in play, in care and in rest.

We are tired, but must take turns to rest.


Masana Ndinga-Kanga is the Crisis Response Fund Lead at CIVICUS, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is a senior professional with over 10 years’ working experience in economics, human rights, peacebuilding, conflict resolution, law and international development.

Masana is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics (LSE). She has extensive experience in advocacy and grant-making. She is also a published researcher whose body of published work includes editorials, policy briefs and journal articles. Her vision in life is to be happy, bold and courageous.


[1] Women’s Global Strike. 2019. “Our Political Statement”. Accessed 25 October 2020: https://womensglobalstrike.com/our-political-statement/english/
[3] Ibid.
[4] Roy, A. 2020. “The Pandemic is a Portal”. The Financial Times. Accessed 7 April 2020: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
[5] The New Normal Game. 2020. Accessed 20 October 2020: http://www.thenewnormalgame.co.za/
[6] United Nations Development Program. 2020. “Coronavirus vs. Inequality”. UNDP Feature. Accessed 27 October 2020: https://feature.undp.org/coronavirus-vs-inequality/
[7] Rupert Neate. 2020. “Billionaires’ wealth rises to $10.2 trillion amid Covid crisis.” The Guardian. Accessed 27 October 2020: theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/07/covid-19-crisis-boosts-the-fortunes-of-worlds-billionaires
[8] According to a 2018 report by the OECD, there 327 million fewer women than men worldwide with access to a smartphone and the internet. Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. 2018. “Bridging the Digital Gender Divide: Include, Upskill,  Innovate.” OECD. Accessed 27 October 2020: http://www.oecd.org/digital/bridging-the-digital-gender-divide.pdf
Mara Bolis, Anam Parvez Butt, Emma Holten, Leah Mugehera, Nabil Abdo, and Maria Jose Moreno. 2020. “Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis.” Oxfam International. Accessed 15 August 2020: https://indepth.oxfam.org.uk/time-to-care/
[10] Da’Shaunae Marisa. 2020. “Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers.” The New York Times. Accessed 15 September 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/business/economy/coronavirus-working-women.html
[11] This is in alignment with the comic series, “The gender wars of household chores: a feminist comic” by Emma (2015) that found that emotional labour is a critical and under recognized component of unpaid care work.
[12] Internet World Stats. 2020. “Internet Penetration in Africa: 2020 – Q1 – March.” Accessed 27 October 2020: https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm
[13] Koliwe Majoma. 2019. “African Women Face Widening Technology Gap.” Association for Progressive Communications. Accessed 23 October 2020: https://www.apc.org/en/news/african-women-face-widening-technology-gap
[14] Ossome, L., 2019. Myths of development: Democratic dividends and gendered subsidies of land and social reproduction in Uganda. In Postdevelopment in Practice (pp. 217-230). Routledge.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Zaza Hlalethwa. 2020. “We See You: Court gives queer artist collective days to vacate Camps Bay mansion.” News24. Accessed 5 October 2020: https://www.news24.com/arts/culture/we-see-you-court-gives-queer-artist-collective-days-to-vacate-camps-bay-mansion-20201005
[17] Which has been formal (through legislation that criminalises public gatherings) and informal (through public opinion, social media smear campaigns and heightened surveillance).

Masana Ndinga-Kanga is the Crisis Response Fund Lead at CIVICUS, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is a senior professional with over 10 years’ working experience in economics, human rights, peace building, conflict resolution, law and international development.

Masana is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics (LSE). She has extensive experience in advocacy and grant-making. She is also a published researcher whose body of published work includes editorials, policy briefs and journal articles. Her vision in life is to be happy, bold and courageous.