How to develop support for a movement when tackling controversial issues

Written by Tom Mulisa, Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD), Rwanda

Please describe a situation when your organisation or project has faced difficulties gaining support for your movement’s cause due to its controversial nature.

We have worked on topics which have been seen as controversial, such as advocacy for unsafe abortion, support for sex workers and representing sexual minorities. This has received opposition from the church, some members of civil society, and also individuals who are less understanding of the potentially negative implications of such laws like the criminalization of abortion.

How did you work on this problem and what changes did you make?

We submitted the report to the minister of Justice to discuss why decriminalization was important as part of Rwanda ‘s constitution. We presented the issue and explained that it is not the result of Western influences, even explaining that someone who had never even taken a bus to a big city can be LGBTI. We prepared draft reports for the Geneva and African commissions with our findings so that they can be discussed by government institutions.  

What did you achieve?

The Penal code provisions criminalizing LGBTI were removed. The penal code provisions seeking women to have a court order to get an abortion have been removed.  Female sex workers are now not criminalized, but their clients are. Rwanda has accepted to implement all recommendations from the CEDAW committee and have put in place commission to ensure implementation.

What did you learn from this experience?

Dialogue with the government is important, and especially using language that the government understands. Individuals in governments are opposed to issues when they have no facts and understanding of issues. Once you design your campaign in line with national agenda and not just the international human rights agenda you will have more success.

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

  • Use evidence from research and involve the government institutions.
  • Learn how to adjust the language of your campaign to the national agenda.
  • Endeavour very hard to get at a table and talk to those who are opposed to you, this can be done informally or formally. There must be a talking. Remember that everyone has the right to an opinion, even if they have a different opinion to you.
  • Avoid divisions between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Create an environment for mutual discussion.

Tom Mulisa, Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD), Rwanda

Tom Mulisa is the Executive Director of Great Lakes Initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD). Tom is also a lecturer of International Human Rights law and Constitutional law at the University of Rwanda. Throughout his career, Tom has been involved in preparing and presenting shadow reports to human rights bodies and has been active in the decriminalizing of laws affecting the LGBTI  community, sex workers and abortion.