Many women’s rights NGOs around the world are working to advocate for the protection of women from all forms of gender-based violence.  Advocacy refers to a process, initiated by citizens or groups of citizens, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to bring about change.  Two broad types of advocacy can be distinguished: individual advocacy and systems change advocacy.  Individual advocacy focuses on changing the situation for an individual and protecting her rights.  Systems advocacy refers to efforts to change policy and practice at the local, national or international level, to change the situation for groups of individuals who share similar problems.  While systems advocacy works to improve the system to the benefit of individuals, it is a long-term approach to problem solving requiring sustained effort.  This section of the website discusses advocacy tools for systems change. 

All effective advocacy strategies will aim to affect change at various levels- including increasing community awareness of the issue, influencing law and policy making and improving the government response to violence against women. 

Because systems advocacy aims to affect long-term social change, it is generally considered a process that addresses strategic needs, in contrast to addressing the immediate and day-to-day needs of victims.  At the same time, however, advocacy is also a tool that is both influenced by practical needs and can be used in conjunction with practical activities.  An effective strategy to address violence against women should incorporate both practical and strategic activities, and many NGO actions function on both of these levels simultaneously.  In planning a strategy, it may be useful to review a broader discussion of the interplay between strategic and practical needs in the context of gender-based violence elsewhere on this website.

This website takes a human rights approach to gender-based violence, which means that the advocacy strategies included here aim to improve respect for and the protection of women’s human rights.  The manual Women’s Human Rights Step by Step defines the main goals of women’s human rights advocacy as the following:

  • To increase the understanding of human rights to include abuses suffered predominantly by women;
  • To expand the scope of State responsibility for protection of women’s human rights in both the public and private sphere; and
  • To improve the effectiveness of the human rights system at the national and international level to both enforce women’s human rights and also to hold abusers accountable.

Within the broad human rights framework, advocacy initiatives vary and should be reflective of specific country conditions.  Advocacy initiatives under the human rights perspective, however, tend to focus on improving the human rights system at all levels, meaning from local government institutions up to intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations. 

An effective advocacy initiative or strategy requires organization, strategizing, information gathering, coalition building and action. 

The following are brief guidelines for advocates in developing an advocacy strategy, adapted in part from Women’s Human Rights Step by Step, Women Law & Development International and Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project (1997).

  • Identify a clear issue or problem that can be resolved through action

NGOs and advocates must begin with an identifiable issue around which they want to promote change.  While advocates must understand the problem in all its complexity, an effective advocacy strategy should be focused on well-defined issue(s) that can be addressed and resolved.  In identifying the issue to be addressed, advocates should ask the following questions:  What are the priorities?  What is the most important thing to accomplish?  What is the most likely to succeed?

In identifying an issue to be addressed, advocates should be informed by the experiences of their constituents- women who have been victims of violence.  Women’s real-life experiences will both determine the nature of the problem and the potential solution(s).  Advocates should understand the term ‘constituents’ in its broadest sense, meaning women of both the majority and minority cultures.  Likewise, advocates must be aware that their constituents’ experiences of violence are influenced by a number of variables, such as their race, ethnicity, socio- economic class or sexual orientation or whether they are disabled or have refugee status.  An advocacy strategy should, therefore, incorporate the varying needs of the constituents.

  • Investigate or research the nature and extent of the problem

After deciding the issues to address, the next step is to analyze whether any research is needed.  Advocates should analyze the strategies and work of other NGOs in their own and other countries and decide what additional information is necessary.

  • Define a clear position and desired outcome

In order to define a position and an outcome, advocates must be thoroughly familiar with the issue or concern, based on fulfilling the steps above.  It is also important for advocates to keep in mind that the key targets of the advocacy initiatives will very likely not understand the issues as well as the advocates do themselves.  This is especially true when the advocacy strategies address violence against women, which historically has received little attention from government bodies.  It is important for advocates to be able to communicate the desired change clearly, articulate why the specific change is required and to respond to questions or proposals that are not in accord with the desired outcome.

In defining the desired outcome, advocates should also discuss potential areas of compromise and outline issues that are not negotiable.  Advocates must be willing to abandon a strategy if the only way to achieve a part of the plan is to compromise on the non-negotiable issues.

  • Articulate the strategy to be undertaken

Advocates should next develop a strategy that includes the goals, the target(s), the actions to be taken and who will complete the specified tasks.  Within the general framework of promoting women’s human rights, there are a number of distinct activities that can be undertaken, all of which are part of an advocacy strategy.  An effective advocacy strategy may combine a number of activities over a period of time.

For example, community education and awareness-raising about a particular issue of violence against women may be an appropriate first step in gaining allies before a more targeting activity is undertaken.  Community education, however, can also accompany legal reform initiatives in order to gain popular support for legal change.  Lobbying and legal reform may be required before test cases can be litigated in national forums.  On the other hand, a possible first step before attempting legal reform is to identify breakdowns within the legal system through human rights documentation and reporting on a State’s failures to protect women from violence.  Finally, women’s human rights training can be employed as a general awareness-raising technique (for example in NGOs, among professionals and in schools and universities) or can be used to target a specific group with the goal to change the way that they respond to cases of violence against women in their profession. 

  • Evaluate selected activities for potential risks to constituents

One aspect of articulating an advocacy strategy, as discussed above, is to evaluate proposed actions for potential negative repercussions.  Because the potential risks to constituents are high in cases of gender-based violence, however, it may be useful to consider this assessment as a separate step in developing an overall advocacy strategy.  In the case of individual advocacy initiatives, it is imperative that advocates ensure victim safety, maintain confidentiality and respect the decision making process of the victim.  Since systems change advocacy is often very closely linked with an NGOs individual advocacy activities, it is also important that advocates apply the same evaluation standards to all of their work.  In order to carry out an effective evaluation, it may be helpful to elicit comments and feedback from the constituents about the proposed advocacy actions. 

  • Build alliances and coalitions for support

Next, advocates should identify allies in the community as well as potential opponents.  It may also be useful for advocates to identify NGOs in other communities or countries that have undertaken a similar advocacy strategy.  These NGOs can provide value information about their experiences and may also be instrumental in influencing the government response. 

  • Develop a public education plan

For the reason mentioned above, that advocates often have much more information about a particular violence issue that either the general public policymakers or even possible allies, an NGO should develop an education plan that will provide needed information about the problem or concern, that will explain the desired outcome, that will address potential objections to change and that will identify potential sources of support.

  • Undertake the chosen activity/activities

The final stage is to undertake advocacy around the chosen issue or concern. 

  • Other points to consider

The human rights approach focuses on systems change and, therefore, targets the human rights/legal system.  While maintaining a focus on improving the human rights system, it is also important to be aware of other actors and institutions that may play a key role in combating violence against women.  Cultural and societal specifics may necessitate an approach that addresses a variety of actors outside of the legal system, such as healthcare providers, trade union representatives, religious leaders and community organizations, for example.  A comprehensive advocacy strategy may, therefore, target a variety of actors and institutions. 

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