How to do advocacy in election periods

Written by Sunungurai Dominica Chingarande, SRHR activist

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

Before November 2017 advocacy on abortion in Zimbabwe was a closed, challenging space due to a highly conservative, religious society and the high levels of stigma surrounding abortion. There was also the widespread belief that abortion was illegal. Abortion is legal in Zimbabwe but only under the limited grounds offered by the Termination of Pregnancy Act. Those grounds are: rape, incest and if the pregnancy presents a risk to the lives of the woman or the child. These limited grounds combined with the administrative challenges of accessing safe abortion have led to many unsafe abortions taking place in the country. There are many diverse CSOs working on safe abortion advocacy in Zimbabwe, and multiple different coalitions on the issue.

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

There were numerous challenges for advocacy in this situation. The election was unexpected (it followed the surprise departure of Mugabe) and because there was insufficient co-ordination amongst CSOs and a lack of agreement on advocacy messaging, the CSOs were not prepared with a strategy to take advantage of the opportunities which arose. Opportunities for influence were missed as politicians did not receive clear, high level demands and were left confused about what the safe abortion advocacy ‘ask’ was. Also, many progressive MPs lost their seats in the election, so the CSOs had to start again to build new alliances as they did not have established relationships with technical ministry staff, only with politicians. 

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

During the election period there was, unfortunately, no time to tackle the challenges effectively.  However, after the election, the CSOs reflected carefully on the shortcomings of their election advocacy. As a result, they made direct contact with the President, clearly stating their goals and following up on his election commitments – this drew a positive response from the President. The CSOs also quickly got to work to establish relationships with new MPs and began engaging key personnel on Parliamentary committees and technical ministry staff to make up for time lost during the election. 

What did advocates learn from this experience?

  • Preparation and having an agreed strategy across a movement prior to an election is vital – there is no time to do this once the election is announced.
  • Timing is critical – key advocacy events were left until too late in the campaign to be effective.
  • Advocates also learnt how important it is during election periods that advocacy messages are especially strong, clear and coherent across a movement. Elections can present good. opportunities for influence, but these opportunities can be missed if advocacy demands are unclear or not pitched at a sufficiently high level.
  • They also learnt that working with technical staff in ministries can provide continuity – MPs may lose their seats at elections, but technical staff remain in post.

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

  • Always be prepared for an election – they can happen quickly and if you are not prepared then you will not be ready to take advantage of opportunities.
  • Timing is important – don’t leave key advocacy events until late in the campaign: hold them earlier for maximum impact and to give you the opportunity to follow up on contacts made.
  • Advocacy demands must be clear and high level – an election may make politicians more open to engagement with CSOs as they need to build up support for re-election. BUT, advocacy messages must be strong and simple to make an impact.
  • Build relationships with technical staff – this will help sustainability if politicians lose their seats at an election

Other resources:

  • All the How to guides under Movement Building
  • How to work with traditional leaders to set the political agenda
  • How to use the media for law or policy change
  • How to maintain campaign momentum when decision makers change
  • Various How to guides under Transform social norms

Sunungurai Dominica Chingarande, SRHR activist

Sunungurai Dominica Chingarande is a professor of Sociology, with experience in gender and women’s empowerment issues including women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. She is the author of several publications including a book chapter on the women’s movement and the struggle for land in Zimbabwe, which traces the development of the women’s movement around land issues in the country. She has also written a training manual on the inter-linkages between culture, gender, women’s rights and HIV and how advocacy in highly sensitive cultural contexts is developed.

University of Zimbabwe website