How to build trust between communities and civil society organisations to create long-term change

Written by Suad Abdi, SRHR activist

Please describe the context in which your research project highlighted the learnings on how to create grassroots legitimacy and ownership on SGBV

At present in Somaliland very few communities see sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a priority issue. In addition, the relationship between civil society organisations (CSOs) and the communities they represent and whose needs they claim to address, is weak.  The fact that international non-government organisations (INGOs) and local CSOs operate mainly on a project-based approach means that they come in to work with communities but then leave when the project ends. This can lead to a lack of trust between communities and CSOs as the communities feel their longer-term needs are not been prioritised or met. CSOs could do more to build trust by listening to the communities and committing to what each community needs. In addition, concerns have been expressed that events/workshops held in urban settings rarely produce long lasting changes in wider society.

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

The lack of connection between CSOs and communities means that advocates do not always receive information from the grassroots about the situation of SGBV at a community level. It also means CSOs lack local legitimacy in the eyes of policy makers. In addition, when CSOs are criticised by other sectors of society (for example, religious leaders) they cannot call on communities to back them up. All of this can leave CSOs quite exposed and isolated.

How were those challenges tackled and what was achieved?

Some CSOs introduced community mobilisers or facilitators as a linkage between communities and their organisations. The mobilisers received training on SGVB and human rights so that they in return could train their respective communities, including community leaders.

Some CSOs also introduced an integrated development approach through which issues of SGBV including FGM were tackled. For instance, where CSOs were already doing income generation activities or, adult/child education or environmental initiatives, they also began to highlight issues of SGBV and FGM at the same time.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

Changing social attitudes and beliefs requires concerted, long term efforts. The current approach of creating linkages with communities is not sustainable as those links usually end when the project ends.

Working continuously with communities, with or without projects, is necessary to bring communities and CSOs into a stronger, mutually beneficial relationship where they work side by side. For instance, had the Somaliland Sexual Offenses Act had community buy-in, the CSOs may well have been able to withstand the challenge brought by religious leaders who opposed the Act and attacked CSOs who had worked on it. As it was, the CSOs couldn’t withstand this challenge and the Act was repealed.

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

  • Create a long-term partnership with the communities with whom you are working. This partnership should be based on the needs and priorities of the communities, not the other way around.
  • Don’t dictate to communities that you know about their issues and the solutions to those issues. To really understand the issues, CSOs need to do a range of things, for example, have on-going and inclusive meetings and consultations with communities about the issues at hand. Involve all key stakeholders and listen to what they say. Out of those meetings CSOs can then develop a plan jointly with communities for the changes needed.
  • Strengthen the capacity of CSOs to mobilise communities and build capacity among target audiences. You can start this process by training staff on community mobilisation techniques and approaches.
  • Use trained staff and social workers when dealing with communities.
  • Form inclusive community committees through which information and knowledge is shared.
  • Create space for communities so that they help develop and own advocacy campaigns. Ensure that communities play active roles in the campaign rather than inviting them as participants.

Other resources:

  • How to build an advocacy movement
  • All of the How to guides under Movement Building
  • How to use advocacy for policy and legal change on SGBV
  • How to work with traditional leaders to set the political agenda

Suad Abdi, SRHR activist

Suad Abdi is a development practitioner with over 24 years’ experience in the areas of civil society capacity building; advocacy of women rights issues, particularly on women and decision-making; and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Very early in her career in working with women rights organisations Suad worked on the analysis of Good and Bad Practices in Advocating the Prevention of Gender Based Violence (GBV) in Somaliland. She also initiated the provision of legal aid programming to SGBV victims and survivors.

Saud is also a Senior Researcher with several published works on gender, SGBV, de-centralisation and non-state actors in Somaliland.