What do safe spaces mean?

Johnson Mayamba

What you need to know:

When a workmate or junior falls short in delivery, are we quick to criticise or do we take time to listen to and  understand his or her condition?

The Nation Media Group (NMG) Uganda is currently running a mental health awareness campaign to encourage everyone to speak up and find help. It is letting us all know that “it is okay not to be okay” and that finding a safe space such as talking to a friend, family member, therapist, going to designated shelters or calling a crisis hotline can save a life.

The NMG campaign coincides with Men’s Health Week which runs from June 10 to June 16. This annual observance aims to raise awareness about the health challenges particularly faced by men and how to promote strategies for better physical and mental well-being. The aforementioned events come less than a fortnight after two men died by suicide in Kampala.

While we encourage everyone to “come out and speak up”, it is vital to understand the practical meaning of what we are calling for. With the ever evolving legal environment, changes in social norms and varied viewpoints, what does creating a safe space actually mean beyond the rhetoric? The Oxford Dictionary defines a safe space as “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm”.

Fundamentally, the idea of a safe space is based on trust and the understanding of the particular difficulties and vulnerabilities that individuals or marginalised groups encounter. Safe spaces provide a haven from the ever-present forces of discrimination and exclusion for people dealing with mental health conditions, stigma and trauma.

Having benefited from these spaces before, I know people seek connection, acceptance, belonging, validation, and value for their individuality and authentic self rather than being defined by what makes them different. They desire to freely express their worries without necessarily stressing about being negatively judged. Like someone said on Mr Robert Kabushenga’s X Space last week, sometimes people just want somewhere they consider safe to pour out their hearts, cry and release their long-held pain.

At this point, you may be thinking that I am encouraging complacency and protecting survivors from opposing ideas. No. Having a safe space does not equate to the silence of opposing viewpoints or the stifling of thought. Instead, it entails creating an atmosphere that upholds the values of confidentiality, empathy, active listening and respect for one another. It involves finding a careful balance between the rights to free speech and safeguarding the interests of those who are more susceptible to harm, which calls for emotional intelligence. That’s what makes a safe space safe beyond ticking the boxes.

Women’s movement throughout history has and still thrives in safe spaces where members share experiences and support one another. Our political leaders meet and caucus within their political parties because it is where they consider to be safe to freely express themselves. The floor of Parliament and courts of law are safe spaces because they are legally protected.

Before the anti-gay law was passed, members of the sexual minority community would meet in welcoming bars and community shelters to socialise, organise and find acceptance and support. Penitence in the Catholic Church is considered a safe space for its confidentiality, non-judgemental and forgiveness. Technological advancement and the internet have enabled us to connect and find support in virtual safe spaces such as forums, chat rooms, X spaces, and WhatsApp groups. Mental Health Uganda has also provided a toll free hotline 0800212121 where we can call in to get help.

But let’s come back to our smaller settings too. As couples, how do we approach each other’s flaws when we notice them? Is it always about us or about empathy, support for each other and willingness to adapt? When a workmate or junior falls short in delivery, are we quick to criticise or we take time to listen to understand his or her condition? As parents, if our children are not free to share their worries with us, where do we expect them to find safe spaces?

As a friend, when you hear about another’s struggle, does it become your next topic for gossip and ridicule or are you willing to support him or her to see a better future? The essential goals of safe spaces are empathy (ability to understand and share the feelings of another without actually saying it), trust and support to enable mental health survivors to navigate discomfort rather than shielding them from it. Does their freedom of expression still mean freedom after expression to you? What are you doing to give people around you the resilience and assurance to actively navigate life?

Mr Mayamba is a journalist and media trainer