How to maintain momentum and build movements in a time of crisis

Written by Valerie Khan, Group Development 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 your work has highlighted learnings on how to maintain momentum and build movements in a time of crisis:

A major focus of our work is the prevention of child marriage, which we consider a form of sexual assault on children. We work on policy and legal reform, legal representation for test cases, community support and engagement to raise the age of marriage using health, social, human rights and religious arguments as evidence.  In lockdown we faced challenges around restricted movement and personal impact, but also found opportunities to progress our advocacy work in these unusual, emergency circumstances.

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

Having to shift quickly from being a development organisation to an emergency organisation presented logistical and human resource challenges, as expected. However, the fact that the government is overwhelmed with the crisis has meant relaxed oversight of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as ours, giving us more room to strategise and a wider area in which to operate. Also, the need to be seen to deliver on COVID-19 response means they are more open to our input, to synergies and some things can move more quickly. We will analyse and disseminate learning through our partnership with Girls Not Brides (GNB) networks and alliances.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

We work from home, have extended mobile communications systems and adopted COVID-19 guidelines (e.g. when helping a child marriage escapee).  We linked our risk-tracking mechanism digitally with community leaders and women. We feed data on COVID-19’s increase of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) violations into GNB advocacy and share widely.  Lockdown led the judiciary and the government to establish our recommended ‘virtual courtrooms’ in child sexual abuse cases. We provided GBV training for government and accelerated input into key government statements, e.g. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

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

  • The sudden concentrated demands from donors, with questions and new formats and operational adjustments on emergency basis. However, at the same time they are open to discussions and adaptation.
  • The need to develop and disseminate relevant, WHO-backed information to a population that is largely illiterate and whose social practices are fundamentally opposed to social distancing.
  • The need to reorganise our briefings and community-based interactions in a totally different manner, whilst clothing is a key element for communication.
  • It is important to remain positive despite tremendous challenges.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

Maximise arising opportunities where possible, as described above.  Also, working at home has proved challenging as family is prioritised and working quietly alone at home is difficult in our anthropological environment. We improved our grievance and feedback mechanisms at community level, and community leaders (male and female) serve as a bridge between us and the beneficiaries even when physical interaction is limited. This maintains an efficient community-based support network and operate a referral mechanism for children at risk.

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

  • Keep in touch with your networks and communities through difficult times.
  • Recognise the challenges your staff face in a crisis and support their individual needs. In our case, maintaining a sense of team was key to motivation and effectiveness. We hold online morning meetings to start each workday.
  • Be creative to provide psycho-social support to team members to cope with multiple forms of stress.
  • Keep your eyes open for the opportunities that a change in situation can unexpectedly reveal.

Did advocates use any external resources to help this solve this issue that you would recommend to other organisations?

Valerie Khan, Group Development Pakistan

Valerie Khan is a development professional and human rights activist with over 20 years of experience in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region (especially Pakistan) in the field of capacity building, child protection (with specific expertise on Violence Against Children, in particular child marriage and child sexual abuse and exploitation [CSAE]), Justice for Children, women’s rights and gender issues (with a focus on worst forms of gender based violence such as “honour” crimes and acid/burn violence) as well as evidence-based legal and policy reform.