How to transform abortion social norms through values clarification and attitude transformation (VCAT)

Written by Jess-Alfred Nondho Ombenny, GVP-MASAR, DRC

Please describe a situation when your organisation or project has faced challenges with regards to social norms affecting the work you do.

In South Kivu, a war-torn area of the DRC, rape continues to be used as a war weapon. This makes the demand for abortion services a reality for a large number of women. However, traditional and religious beliefs prohibit induced abortion, and thus provide a major challenge with regards to social norms surrounding access to abortion. Access to abortion is highly stigmatised, which makes open discussion about it with traditional and religious leaders and local authorities practically impossible.

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

To address negative social norms surrounding abortion, we took a strategic, multi-pronged approach, using the values clarification and attitude transformation (VCAT) methodology.

First, we gathered data and information from the community by facilitating meetings with community members on their views about abortion to gain better understanding of the key issues. We then conducted literature reviews on the state of abortion and gathered data on the rate of unsafe abortion in the DRC.

With this information in place, we began working with influential leaders to disseminate facts on the rates of unsafe abortion, the consequences of illegal and unsafe abortion, as well as the benefits of access to legal and safe abortion on an individual and societal level. 

What did you achieve?

Firstly, we’ve seen a marked decrease in general stigma towards girls and young women who seek safe abortion services.

Secondly, the majority of the community-based committees we organised to disseminate information on available safe abortion and post-abortion care are attended by members of the community, especially by girls and young women.

Thirdly, our social-norms change work using the VCAT methodology has led to behaviour change amongst the leaders we worked with. They are becoming co-advocates and supporting us in sensitising other leaders on the benefits of access to safe abortion.

Finally, our organisation has become known as a reference organisation on the implementation of VCAT.

What did you learn from this experience?

The VCAT training material has been invaluable in sensitising leaders on the importance and benefits of safe abortion. We also learnt that facilitating spaces for dialogue on such a taboo topic as abortion through community-based committees is effective in changing behaviour and reducing stigma.

Crucially, we have learnt peer-to-peer dialogue is an essential part of desensitisation to combat stigma and taboo. Deep-rooted social norms held by traditional and religious leaders can be effectively reversed when they are presented with the facts and realities of unsafe/illegal abortion by their own peers.

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

  • Please consult us at GVP-MASAR for support and assistance on abortion social norms change;
  • Understand your target group well;
  • Build a strong knowledge base on national and international abortion legislation;
  • Make use of existing state-of-the-art training material such as VCAT.

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

Yes, we have used the VCAT materials developed by IPAS. In addition, we used publications developed by IPPF and external consultants. We also sent staff and facilitators to participate in VCAT training.

Jess-Alfred Nondho Ombenny, GVP-MASAR, DRC

Jess-Alfred is a Project Coordinator at Groupe de Volontaires pour la Promotion de la Maternité sans Risques (GVP-MASAR) in the DRC. Jess-Alfred is an obstetrician with a master’s degree in epidemiology. He also coordinates GVP-MASAR’s initiative on HIV and AIDS management in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Jess-Alfred has a university degree in the care of people living with HIV and marginalised women.