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The power of activism – Irene Zeilinger

As part of our campaign for this year’s 16 days of activism, we have been interviewing a number of women’s rights activists in order to showcase their work and their values in both written and recorded form. Today, we dive into the world of Irene Zeilinger, Austrian-born founder and current International Affairs Officer of Garance ASBL, a feminist NGO based in Brussels. Irene has been working in the field for around thirty years now, having started practicing feminist self-defence in 1991 and becoming a trainer in 1993.

Garance is dedicated to combating violence against women as a major element of gender inequality. What distinguishes the organisation from many other feminist NGOs is the direction they work from – instead of providing victim support, Garance is focused on primary prevention and provides feminist self-defence classes. Acknowledging that providing help services in the wake of violence is necessary as we are faced with the huge crisis of women and children experiencing violence and needing support, Irene explained that she gets the impression that we get caught up with that, and we lose sight of even the possibility of living in a world where violence against women does not occur. ‘Very modestly’, she said with a smile, ‘the aim of our organisation is a world without violence.’


When Irene moved to Brussels, she noticed that there were no feminist self-defence classes to be found in the capital of European institutions. ‘I am very pragmatic’, she explained, ‘if something does not exist, but I think it should, I’ll do it myself!’ What started out as the small-scale organisation of feminist self-defence classes grew into a bigger collective, which was necessary to defend it from the negative opinions surrounding it. Even within the women’s movement, there is prejudice against feminist self-defence; there is a lack of belief that it could actually work and there is an idea of women gaining a false sense of security and therefore taking more risks. However, such opinions feed into gender stereotypes – women being helpless in the face of violence is just not true and should not be the dominant view, according to Irene. Another important prejudice against feminist self-defence is that it contributes to victim blaming, which is something that the trainers take very seriously: they consistently and firmly place the responsibility for violence with the perpetrator, and research has shown that victim blaming does not increase and often actually decreases due to feminist self-defence classes. ‘And,’ Irene added, ‘if as feminists, we cannot even think about resistance any longer because that might induce victim blaming, then we have a problem as a movement.’

This lack of attention for primary prevention in the feminist movement is reflected in the public authority answers to combating violence against women. Every resource in terms of laws, funding, etc. only exists because the women’s movement fought for it. Since primary prevention has not been fought for as strongly or continuously as other aspects of women’s rights, it means there are no pigeonholes. For instance, in Belgium, there is no single budget line specifically dedicated to the primary prevention of gender-based violence, causing Garance to have a hard time to find funding. Especially basic funding, Irene explained, is difficult to secure – project funding is easier, but this usually only covers one year and must be used for something new, as opposed to something that has already been tried and implemented successfully before.

But why does this lack of attention exist? Irene presented us with several possible explanations. Within the women’s movement, she pointed out, we are much more used to answering to the crisis, to ‘cleaning up after the patriarchy.’ This leaves little space and energy left for preventing the problem. In Dutch there is a saying, ‘dweilen met de kraan open.’ It means mopping up the water while the tap is still running and Irene used this to show exactly what the women’s movement is doing – investing a lot of time, energy, and money into helping women and children after they have experienced violence, which, she highlights, is of course extremely important. However, it leaves little space for dealing with the problem before it starts. Alongside that, violence against women is rooted in the structural inequality of gender, race, class, ability, etc. In order to stop violence against women, it would mean touching upon the fundaments of our society and changing some very basic things, which would provoke much more resistance than cleaning up after the patriarchy.

‘Helping women after violence fits into gender stereotypes. Teaching them how to break noses and yell and punch does not.’

Finally, how would politicians sell it? How could they explain that they’d be spending money on this and how would they get votes? Primary prevention is not a good sell; it takes longer than one election cycle to see results, therefore it is not interesting for politicians. And Irene noted something else they have been thinking about recently at Garance – doing primary prevention with women and girls is great, but they are not the problem. The problem is violent men and boys but doing primary prevention with that group is a lot harder, as there is no intrinsic motivation for them to participate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented huge challenges for the practice and progress of primary prevention. While in many countries additional support was given to help services such as shelters and helplines, which was highly necessary, no extra support was provided for primary prevention. This was not considered essential, therefore many people that were already working in precarious circumstances lost their income and had to seek alternative jobs, meaning that at the other end of the pandemic there will be fewer trained prevention workers. There will also be a two-year gap in prevention work, which Irene estimated could mean a setback of around ten to fifteen years in terms of resources.


‘A lot of bloody noses and broken knees that I can claim indirect credit for!’ was Irene’s initial answer to our question about her proudest achievements. Jokes aside, she explained that while she is not the most patient person, she is still working in this field after thirty years and that has a reason – she can see change happening before her eyes. Women and girls move, speak and hold themselves differently after they have discovered what they are capable of, and this is the biggest achievement. Equipping them with the skills and confidence to defend themselves is a rewarding kind of educational work. Irene uses an analogy, comparing it to archaeology. She and her colleagues dig up what is already there, they do not put something there that must grow afterwards. 

At an organisational level, Irene said she is very proud of a recent development in Belgium, which she has been working on for fifteen years – feminist self-defence has finally been mentioned in several different action plans in Belgium, for the first time in the country’s history. It marks a historical moment, according to Irene, where supporting women and girls’ resistance against violence has more space, in the public arena and within the women’s movement.

Resources and awareness

A good point to start is the feminist self-defence guides that Garance publishes, mostly in French but some also in English. ‘We all know those situations, in the family or at a party or in the workplace, where you meet people who are not feminists and have all kinds of ideas about it, and it is good to know how to answer and how to protect yourself emotionally.’ These guides can be found on Garance’s website, linked below. There are safety guides for different groups of women: for older women, for migrant women, for LGBTQ people, etc. There is a new one for women with disabilities, which is available in English and in easy-to-read, the EU format of accessibility of written language for people with learning difficulties, as well as in International Sign Language and in audio description.

Something else interesting to do is to start talking to people around you about violence against women and ways to deal with it. ‘It would be so cool to learn from your grandmother what she did against street harassment or to learn from your friends how they left a violent partner or from colleagues at work what they are doing to stay safe when they go out.’ These stories teach us that anything is possible, that often the simple things are enough. In Irene’s view, we undervalue these success stories, and should place more emphasis on them. It is important to hear stories from a different perspective than the mainstream narrative, which often focuses on the perpetrator. Garance collects success stories and publishes them on their website. Reading or listening to these stories can be very inspiring.

Additionally, Irene encourages us to start noticing the impact of fear on our lives. Compare how men and women feel, what they do to stay safe, how they organise their lives around that. Seeing the differences between men and women and the time, energy, mental space and sometimes money that women, but often not men, use on safety, could be a motivation to start thinking about a world without violence.

The power of being in the WAVE network and plans as a new board member

For Irene, WAVE conferences and meetings are spaces where she does not, for the 130th time, have to explain what violence against women is, its structural nature, the fact that women-only approaches are useful and necessary. It feels like a relief, a space to share ideas with likeminded people and it gives energy and resources, which Irene deems necessary for survival as an activist.

‘WAVE feels like coming home.’

As a new board member of WAVE, Irene aims towards getting primary prevention put on the agenda, anchoring it more firmly within the network. She also strives to make WAVE more inclusive and more accessible, and to partner with other social movements, such as the anti-racism and LGBTQ movement. All these different social movements develop strategies against violence, meaning there is a lot of common ground. To share ideas and work together would make us all stronger, better and more efficient, in Irene’s opinion.

We would like to warmly thank Irene for her participation in our 16 days of activism project. She brings an interesting insight into the world of primary prevention within the women’s movement from which we have learnt a lot and we hope all readers do too.

Written by WAVE Intern India Stotesbury 

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