How to use the media for law or policy change

Written by Brian Ligomeka, Centre for Solutions Journalism, Malawi

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

In Malawi, abortion is only permitted if the mother’s life is in danger. Despite that, around 140,000 women and girls in Malawi experience abortions each year (Guttmacher, 2015), the majority of which are unsafe.

Abortion legislation is currently under review, and this could broaden the range of conditions under which abortion services can be provided. Media can play an important role in bringing about change. This is why we decided to use the media as a tool to advocate for a revised abortion bill.

How did you work on and try to overcome this problem?

We provided hands-on training to diverse stakeholders (religious and traditional leaders, women activists, health professionals, etc.), on how to write articles on safe abortion and talk about abortion on the radio and television.

Participants then worked on their own stories, which we edited for publication. To ensure consistency in the coverage of abortion issues, we paid for space in The Daily Times – a national newspaper – where we ran a weekly column.

We first ran articles on youth sexual and reproductive rights and family planning, before moving on to articles focusing more directly on abortion. This phased approach helped us to avoid backlash.

What did you achieve and what changes were made?

We have measured real changes in abortion perceptions. Our survey amongst students showed that 60% had changed their views after being exposed to our media content.

Previously opposing religious leaders now mention thinking that abortion is acceptable on some grounds. We gained support from 40 Members of Parliament who made public statements or signed anonymous commitment forms in support of law reform.

Today, the bill is with the Ministries of Justice and Health, and they will present it to the cabinet before it can be tabled in Parliament. This is a work in progress but we can now count on public support!

What did you learn from this experience?

  • Offering media training is a way to address existing knowledge gaps on abortion issues
  • It is important to give opponents the right facts, even though they may not completely change their minds
  • Although we run our Daily Times column in English to reach decision-makers, it is important to produce content in local languages to reach the broader public
  • To keep the momentum, we need go beyond one-off projects and engage media practitioners in the long run for ongoing advocacy

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

  • It can be helpful to have abortion survivors tell their own stories to help convince opponents and overcome barriers
  • Choose a phased approach, and bring about topics in a progressive manner instead of tackling contentious issues all at once
  • Engage different groups of actors and not just journalists to ensure that a wide range of voices are included in media advocacy
  • Remember to involve communities as they can play a key role in holding decision-makers accountable. That is why we are increasingly working with girls and women to amplify their voices via TV and radio programmes

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

  • Roots of Change: A Step by Step Guide for Expanding Access to Safe Abortion – IPAS
  • How to talk about abortion- A Guide to Rights Based Messaging – IPPF
  • It’s All One Curriculum: Guidelines for a United Approach to Sexuality, Gender, HIV and Human Rights Education – Population Council

Brian Ligomeka, Centre for Solutions Journalism, Malawi

Brian Ligomeka is a communications expert and sexual and reproductive health and rights activist currently serving as a Programmes Advisor for the Centre for Solutions Journalism (CSJ).

Brian has led in the implementation of projects advocating for decriminalization of abortion and the promotion of sexual minority rights in Malawi. Brian has addressed hostile audiences on several occasions when discussing ‘taboo’ issues.

Centre for Solutions Journalism website