How to build an advocacy movement

Written by Sunungurai Dominica Chingarande, SRHR activist

Please describe the context in which your research project highlighted these learnings about building an advocacy movement  

Before November 2017, advocacy on abortion in Zimbabwe was very challenging 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 life 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. To try to change this situation, many diverse civil society organisations (CSOs) were working on safe abortion advocacy in Zimbabwe, and there were multiple different coalitions on the issue.

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

Despite positive pressures from the international community as well as from some communities within Zimbabwe, the closed space around abortion made it very difficult for advocates to make progress on safe abortion. This changed when Mugabe left.

Although having a diverse range of CSOs with different expertise was in many ways positive, it also made it difficult for them to agree on shared goals; on advocacy messaging; or to form a coordinated strategy for influencing policy makers. The existence of multiple coalitions on safe abortion, each with their different priorities and strategies (often related to funding), was also a challenge to effective co-ordination of activities and information.

How were those challenges tackled and what was achieved?

With Mugabe’s departure, CSOs took advantage to have more open conversations at a community and policy level.  However, with their differing goals and approaches there were several instances during the 2018 elections when the lack of coordinated messaging and activities resulted in key opportunities to influence policy makers being missed.

This experience made the CSOs realise how much work they had to do if their safe abortion advocacy was to be effective – they had to build a movement and be much better coordinated, presenting united and streamlined messages. Lessons were learned from this and, despite advocating from different perspectives, the CSOs built consensus around the need for advocacy to focus on the expansion of the grounds for abortion in the Termination of Pregnancy Act. This shared goal has now become the rallying point for safe abortion advocacy in the country.

There are still challenges ahead with the government showing little interest in changing the law now the elections have passed. However, with a stronger, more cohesive advocacy movement CSOs are in a much better position to change the situation.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

What they learnt was that when trying to influence busy policy makers, the following are key:

  • Advocacy messages must be streamlined and consistent otherwise they are very confusing for target audiences.
  • All members of the advocacy movement must agree with those messages, and with the overall shared advocacy goals.
  • All members must also be willing to further those goals, but they must be able to so in ways which use their own distinctive organisational styles and expertise – this can be a hard balance to strike.
  • Advocacy messages must be tailored to different audiences in order to meet those audiences’ interests and/or concerns.
  • Co-ordination of activities and information is important so as not to cause confusion to target audiences (or within the movement).
  • Building trust leads to a much stronger, more effective movement.

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

  1. Establishing shared advocacy goals are essential, especially where there are many CSOs with different approaches – otherwise it is very confusing for policy makers.
  2. Different stakeholder audiences require tailored messages – one size doesn’t fit all.
  3. Consistent framing of messages is important.

Other related resources

Please also see the How to guides on:

  • How to develop civil society advocacy for policy and legal change on sexual and gender-based violence
  • How to create grassroots legitimacy and ownership on sexual and gender-based violence
  • How to build a successful communications strategy for advocacy projects
  • How to transform abortion social norms through values clarification and attitude transformation (VCAT)
  • All of the How to guides under How to build a movement

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