How to develop civil society advocacy for policy and legal change on SGBV

Written by Suad Abdi, SRHR activist

Please describe a problem your organisation has faced on this subject.

In August 2018, a law against sexual violence was passed for the first time in the history of Somaliland. For more than a decade, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) had been working continuously on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) issues and after seven years of concerted advocacy, especially by the Nagaad Network (a Somaliland women’s NGO), the Somaliland Sexual Offences Act was finally passed.

However, this success was short-lived. The new law immediately met with very strong opposition from religious leaders and the public and after only one month it was repealed. The CSOs who had worked on the Act also suffered attacks from opponents of it who wished to discredit them. This was a very big blow to the CSOs after all their efforts to get the Act passed into law for the women of Somaliland.

At the time of this guide being published – March 2020 – it is not clear whether the law will be reinstated or not. 

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

Despite the rise of SGBV, particularly rape, in Somaliland the issue was not seen as a priority either by the government or by the wider public. The low commitment from decision makers to change the use of a centuries-old legal framework that allowed the practice of three parallel laws (Sharia, customary and statutory laws) also made it very hard for SGBV cases to be tried in a formal court of law, blocking justice for survivors of SGBV.

In addition, the lack of availability of SGBV data and poor information sharing amongst CSOs were also major constraints to civil society advocates making their voices heard by policy makers and being taken seriously.  

Another challenge was there was a lack of political/situational analysis about the scale of the problem, the context and the stakeholders, especially the limited stakeholder engagement on SGBV issues. This was because the CSOs did not conduct a thorough analysis at the start of the initiative.

How were those challenges tackled and what was achieved?

Not all of these challenges were tackled. However, a shared platform between the Government and CSOs working on SGBV hosted by the Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs (MESAF) was established. This platform was intended to offer a space for discussion and information sharing between actors, and to some extent its creation has helped to create an increased understanding of the importance of addressing SGBV issues.

A CSO task force was also established and members of the task force worked closely with MPs on the possibility of developing a law to address SGBV.  It was finally agreed that a Sexual Offences bill would be developed, and the Nagaad Network led the process of drafting it. It took seven years to get to the point of tabling a draft law for discussion in parliament, and in 2018 the Somaliland Sexual Offences Act was finally passed. However, as mentioned earlier, shortly after being passed the Act was repealed.

Despite this set back the efforts of CSOs to address gaps in policy and law around SGBV were seen by many as a significant development because they had brought SGBV issues more out into the open.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

Before embarking on policy change initiatives, CSOs need to do a thorough political/situational analysis of the scale of the problem, context and of stakeholders. It is also essential that they engage all stakeholders in the process from the very beginning. They also need to develop and put in place well defined advocacy strategies and plans.

Current SGBV policies in Somaliland are made in a very top-down way, with little or no engagement or consultation at the grass-roots level, and this needs to be changed if future policy initiatives are to succeed.  CSOs have an important role in helping to facilitate this community engagement.

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

  • Availability of data and analysis as a basis for advocacy is important. CSO’s should consider doing research on the issues at hand before any advocacy takes place.
  • Engagement of all stakeholders – particularly potential opponents of policy or legal change, in this case religious and traditional leaders, in the debate on introducing/changing of laws is very important in conservative societies.
  • Familiarity with the policy making process and with relevant laws is essential, as is the engagement of all policy stakeholders so that, once new policies are made or laws passed, implementation becomes the responsibility of all.
  • Context, language and advocacy messaging must be appropriate and culturally sensitive.

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

Determination and commitment are essential to advocacy for policy change especially for CSOs involved in promoting human rights. However, CSOs are often project-oriented and this can disrupt ongoing advocacy – when a certain project ends then advocacy efforts end too, but policy and legal change are long term endeavours which require long term, sustained efforts.

Competing interests between stakeholders is another hindering factor. It is hard to build understanding and trust amongst CSOs, and to establish strong coordination and collective efforts. Both local and international organisations (as well as government institutions) compete over who gets credit for the achievement of getting a new law passed. This kind of attitude can lead policy makers to view CSOs as not being genuinely committed to local work, and to criticise them for being too project oriented.

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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.