Well-being for Defenders, by Defenders: Reflections on the Martin Ennals Award Peer-Coaching Program

June 28, 2023


Human rights defenders (HRDs) are the conscience of the world. If it weren’t for their dedication and sacrifice, where would we be as a global society? Defenders give us the vocabulary to talk about freedom, accountability, justice, equity — and inspire us to demand that these rights be respected worldwide. 

Being an HRD is often a lonely endeavor, fraught with uncertainty and danger.


The intensity of the job and the slow pace of progress can lead HRDs to feel exhausted. They may cope with these challenges in ways that are not effective in the long run, for example, by isolating themselves from friends and family or neglecting their own well-being.  


In recent years, the well-being of HRDs has emerged as a priority for the sustainability of the human rights movement. Believing that fellow defenders were best placed to understand their common challenges, the Martin Ennals Foundation wanted to create a safe space where peers could exchange ideas, learn, and support each other. We envisioned it could be a peer-to-peer space and co-designed it with the Foundation as a concrete opportunity for defenders’ personal and professional growth.  


What emerged as the Martin Ennals Award Peer-coaching Program consists of skills-building workshops, peer-coaching activities, and individual coaching sessions for the participants over one to two years. Leaders Today is pleased to share some thoughts on how we’ve conducted the experience since 2021.   

First, we made self-care a central theme of the program as it’s something which defenders rarely engage in.


During monthly peer group meetings, participants learn techniques that support resilience, including managing stress, focusing on strengths, and setting clear goals for well-being. In addition, they are supported individually by a Mentor Coach. Defenders also learn communications skills during monthly peer group meetings to address topics of shared interest. Besides building skills, the program builds friendships and a sense of belonging among the participants.  


People have asked me about the challenges of such a program, given such a sensitive subject matter.  The only difficulties we encountered were around scheduling. All the key activities are run live, and it’s sometimes very hard to get everyone in the same virtual space, considering different time zones, languages, unreliable Wi-Fi, and the unpredictability of life as an HRD! 


Our remedies were flexibility, patience, and the willingness to accommodate the needs of what we consider our heroes, these seemingly ordinary people leading extraordinary lives.  They are both vulnerable and ferociously brave in the defense of human rights, and one can only be humbled by their kindness, humor, and wisdom in the face of much adversity. 


This is not a project that can be run with detachment. Everyone is deeply invested. It’s hard work for the participants who need to invest energy which they sometimes simply don’t have. It’s hard work for the program managers to keep it on track no matter what. It’s demanding on the Coaches, and we regularly engage in peer supervision to ensure that we are at our very best in all circumstances. 


The rewards are immense. In a world of cynicism, we are privileged to work with the best of humanity.

Unsurprisingly there’s a lot of love being shared amongst everyone involved. Participants in the program have told us that they felt heard, supported, and empowered. What more can we ask for?  


At Leaders Today, we remember that every right that each of us enjoys today was fought for by a defender in the past, maybe on a different continent, maybe at a very high cost. A heartfelt thank you for this wonderful journey goes to the HRDs who are willing to travel with us, the Martin Ennals Foundation team who entrusted us with the project, and to the passionate, dedicated Coaches from Leaders Today, Rim Esreb Bulovic, Sabrina Fares, Beate Giffo-Schmitt, Isabel Prieto Rivero, and Dr. Archana Tyagi. 


Saba Imru-Mathieu
CEO, Leaders Today