Every NGO (and probably most other organizations) has its iconic success stories, the ones that make your job feel both feasible and worthwhile. One of Oxfam’s is the ‘We Can’ campaign in South Asia, an extraordinary viral campaign on violence against women (VAW – sorry, another acronym) launched in late 2004, that at the last count had signed up 3.2 million women and men to be ‘change makers’ – advocating for an end to VAW in their homes and communities. It aims to reach 50 million people (via 5 million change makers), a symbolic target equal to the estimated number of South Asia’s ‘missing women’.
What’s different about We Can (apart from its extraordinary scale) is that it is not about policies, laws, constitutions or lobbying the authorities – it aims to change attitudes and beliefs about gender roles at community level. And it’s viral. Each change maker talks to their friends and neighbours, and seeks to persuade them to sign up too.
I’ve just been reading a fascinating new analysis of the reasons underlying the campaign’s success, which explores the process of change undergone by those involved, based on in-depth interviews with 44 We Can activists. Here’s a flavour:
It’s all about power: Both ‘power within’ (first quote) and ‘power with’ (second quote)
“To me change is the killing of fear. For example, someone may know how to sing but will not sing. Someone or something needs to kindle the fire in you and kill the fear that stops you from changing. I have killed the fear of talking and that is a change for me.” Selvaranjani Mukkaiah, Change Maker, Badulla, Sri Lanka
“I also learned that if I position myself as someone who has changed herself, I have maximum impact. So I tell people, I am not here to change you, that is not in my power. But I can tell you how I have changed, and how it has changed my life…” Shaheena Javed, Change Maker, Kolkata, India
It’s about ideas (‘VAW is wrong’) rather than specific actions: Change Makers improvise, intervening with families and neighbours in cases of violence, talking with peers about violence, encouraging families and neighbours to educate girls and allow them greater mobility, acting to stop harassment of girls in public spaces and, for male Change Makers, playing a more active role in household chores.
It uses a broad definition of VAW: ‘The full range of attitudes and practices which hold women back – for example, restricted access to education, to mobility outside the home, no economic independence or decision-making power, early marriage, forced sex, no control over conception and so on.’
Personal history is critical to how people get involved: “Women and men, with a history of family violence often – but not always – described an initial change event in emotional terms, while people of both sexes with a supportive family and background of social activism were more inclined to describe change as a rational experience.”
It involves as many men as women: One surprise has been the number of men signing up as change makers (almost half of those who recorded their gender – keep clicking on the table to expand), and their moving accounts of the impact of We Can on their lives.
A progressive background helps: Although there are numerous stories of people with appalling personal stories who have been inspired to join We Can, “Many of the men and women interviewed described them¬selves as having had progressive and/or supportive parents, good schooling or higher education, and/or prior to involve¬ment with the Campaign, were part of networks and commu¬nity organizations working on a range of social and political issues, including women’s rights and violence against women.”
Why did people join the campaign? Beyond a personal experience of violence (e.g. between their parents), key factors include inspirational individuals (friends, a respected figure and/or We Can activists) and the sense of belonging to a movement. However, would-be activists face real obstacles – threats, ostracism or mockery at the hands of family, neighbours or friends. The pressure often comes via a spouse, whose initial support can be undermined when he is mocked for ‘not controlling your wife’.
Activists find the most effective technique is not haranguing, but telling personal stories:
“Saying that only I was right and everyone must do what I say was not going to get me anywhere. But if I explained different options to people, leaving them to choose, they would be influenced more quickly. I also learnt that if I position myself as someone who has changed herself, I have the maximum impact.” Shaheena Javed, India (pictured).
What motivates people to stay engaged?
1. Increases in self-confidence and self-belief, a sense of empowerment, effectiveness and more control over their lives – which make up the concept of ‘self-efficacy’;
2. Practical benefits, especially for women, such as increased access to education, increased mobility, more contacts and interactions with others, more participation in decision-making;
3. Increased knowledge and greater awareness especially about women’s rights;
4. Improvements in their family relationships, with parents, siblings, spouses, often expressed as a reduction in conflict and arguments, or shared decision-making, shared housework, and more mutual respect;
5. Achievement of higher status and respect in the community as well as amongst their own family members and peers, often expressed in terms of being listened to in important community fora, having their advice, support or skills sought, and being regarded as people able to intervene in family disputes;
6. Observable changes in their family members and/or peers, in their communities, and in the social or professional groups of which they are a part, such as their organizations, religious groups, schools and hospitals.
Fascinating, and very important as NGOs increasingly seek to change public attitudes and beliefs, rather than simply lobby governments to pass or implement specific laws and policies. For starters, Oxfam needs to think about what the GROW campaign can learn from this.
And here’s a two minute flavour of the campaign from a Bangladeshi We Can activist with the wonderful name of Beauty Ara.