How to advocate for the inclusion of marginalised groups in a pandemic response

Written by Zia ur Rehman, AwazCDS-Pakistan

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which you developed these learnings.

Pakistan went into strict lockdown due to COVID-19, with citizens allowed to leave their homes only for buying groceries and hospital visits.

The government launched emergency measures and created a ‘Tiger Force’ to support the population, but these often exclude marginalised groups. For example, information has not been available in accessible forms for disabled persons; transgender communities are isolated from their families and communities; and religious minorities are excluded from support by some religious charities.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

Our Ujala programme of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) work through 50 civil society organisations (CSOs) nationwide had to halt activities immediately because of the danger of COVID-19 and government policies to prevent its spread. 

This left many communities without support, in particular those with special needs or without access to mainstream services and sources of financial support. The primary issue we faced was how to deliver field-based advocacy whilst working within strict physical-distance restrictions.  

Another challenge was the toll that the stress of the pandemic was taking on our staff and workers, both personally and with regard to their work.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

Our network adapted its work to meet emerging needs. Together we generated evidence on the exclusion of people living with disabilities, women-headed families, transgender communities and religious minorities from the government’s COVID-19 stimulus packages, and then we advocated for remedy. 

We raised awareness of these needs and about keeping healthy during COVID-19 (including mental health and anti-GBV awareness) through banners and media, extending reach through community influentials. We also monitored enhanced sexual and GBV due to economic burden, uncertainty, stress, anxiety and depression.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

After a stressful initial period of being unable to work, we realised that we must not let fear stop us. We had to think outside the box and carry on. 

We are social beings who need to communicate and support each other, so we shifted our focus to ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing’. We returned to our offices when permitted and used digital technologies to communicate with our partners and think creatively about how to support our communities.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  1. Ensure you include representatives of all communities in response planning. Disability charities, for example, are the experts on the needs of people with disabilities. Without listening to all voices, communities will fall through the cracks.
  2. Recognise the burden of stress that the emergency places on staff and workers. Support their mental health and allow double time for everything; do not push them too hard.
  3. Personal protection is paramount. Follow government guidelines, take care of yourselves first and then you can serve the communities.

Would you like to tell us more about the challenges you saw advocates facing in this situation?

Civil Society Organisations were facing challenges due to strict policy environment and regulatory frameworks. We called for easing the regulatory frameworks for NGO/INGOs through a statement which was widely published and finally heard by the authorities. The Economic Affairs Division gave permission to NGOs/INGOs to act without necessary Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs). The power of our togetherness for a cause worked well here.

Zia ur Rehman, AwazCDS-Pakistan

Zia ur Rehman founded AwazCDS-Pakistan in 1995 and has been central to the success of their Ujala movement, centred around building support for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Pakistan. He is a well-known development advocate and lobbyist, community-level civil and political rights activist, writer and poet. He led the Leave No One Behind Campaign for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Pakistan, and was among the finalists for the SDG Actions Award in 2018. He has represented Pakistan and spoken on behalf Pakistani and Asian CSOs at various local, national, regional and global conferences, including at the United Nations.

AwazCDS-Pakistan website