How 4 million people signed up to a campaign to end Violence against Women: case study for your comments

May 28, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Next up in the draft case studies on ‘active citizenship’ is the story of an amazing campaign from South Asia and beyond. Please comment on the draft paper We Can logo[We Can consultation draft May 2014].

We Can End All Violence Against Women (henceforward We Can) is an extraordinary, viral campaign on violence against women (VAW) in South Asia, reaching millions of men and women across six countries and subsequently spreading to other countries in Africa, Europe and the Americas. What’s different about We Can (apart from its scale) is

  • It is not primarily concerned with changing policies, laws, constitutions or lobbying the authorities. Instead, it aims to go to scale, by changing attitudes and beliefs about gender roles at community level. A special feature is the ‘Change Maker’ approach, which comes with a ritual in the form of the “We Can” pledge to reflect on one’s own practice, end VAW in one’s own life and to talk to 10 others about it.
  • It seeks to involve men as well as women, with remarkable success
  • Its origins lie in a South-South exchange: We Can’s methodology was developed from VAW community programmes in Uganda.


Launched in 2004, by 2011 We Can had signed up approximately 3.9 million women and men to be ‘Change Makers’ – advocating for an end to VAW in their homes and communities. Unexpectedly, about half the Change Makers were men. An external evaluation in 2011 conservatively estimated that ‘some 7.4 million women and men who participated in “We Can” and related activities, have started transforming their perceptions of gender roles and VAW, as well as their behaviour.’

Why do such numbers of women and men sign up? Beyond a personal experience of violence (e.g. between their parents), key motivating 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.

As for what such changes in perceptions actually produced in terms of behavioural changes, a regional assessment found that:

‘Within the family, the most common changes, according to the Change Makers, are the reduction or ceasing of physical and emotional violence and abuse, sharing of housework, lifting of restrictions on female mobility, allowing girls to continue in education and denouncing of early marriage. Outside the family, the most common changes include not restricting girls and women from moving outside the home, allowing them to pursue education, not engaging in ‘eve teasing’ (harassment) of girls and greater discussion on the subject.’

Theory of Change

We Can starts from the premise that ‘real change can come only from within, from sustained action at an individual level, born of personal reflection and understanding and replicated on an ever larger scale through demonstration and mutual support. The premise is that people change when they recognise the problem for themselves, see alternatives, and – through understanding, freedom of choice and peer validation – feel empowered to act.’

We Can ToCThe campaign adopted the “stages of change” model, based on the work of the NGO Raising Voices in Uganda (see diagram). We Can sees its work as falling into four ‘phases’, corresponding to the phases in the model, although in practice these phases overlap and sometimes converge.

We Can’s approach differs from “traditional” Oxfam campaigns, which tend to focus on rallying popular support for specific objectives in policy advocacy. Unlike other OGB campaigns, “We Can” was not Oxfam branded and not formally Oxfam-led. Although Oxfam and ex-Oxfam staff have played an important role throughout.

For the campaign itself, change started with the Change Makers themselves, who in an exercise known as ‘clean the broom before you sweep’ were ‘encouraged first to recognise, understand and address the acceptance of violence in their own lives, attitudes and behaviour before seeking to persuade others to do the same. [thus] the campaign brought the goal of eliminating gender-based violence within the sphere which individuals can hope to influence.’ Even minor changes in attitudes (a boy no longer demanding that his sister bring him water) were seen as significant.

This includes ‘naming as violence actions that are commonly tolerated or accepted… to point up and challenge the action and the attitudes which underpin it, rather than the individuals involved.’ We Can deliberately promoted a broad definition of VAW to include not just physical violence, but exclusion, intimidation and early marriage.

We Can was about ideas (‘VAW is wrong’) rather than specific actions. Change Makers improvised, 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.

A great deal of thought and effort went into designing communications materials that could reach millions of women and men: From posters to story booklets; street theatre to poetry and songs; seminars to public rallies; bags, caps, t-shirts, badges, stickers, pencil cases and keyrings with the ‘We Can’ logo; comics to television spots; puppets to kites; murals to billboards – a huge range of formal, informal, traditional and popular media is used to bring ‘We Can’ messages to its great variety of potential audiences and activists.

The campaign consciously targeted men. It avoided pointing fingers, focusing on the actions, not the person and enabling men to become Change MakersWe Can Shaheena Javed who acknowledge that they have been violent but can change. The campaign also focussed on youth and depending on alliances and contexts, that meant young men too.

One unexpected finding emerging the campaign was that changes in attitudes to domestic violence, particularly among women, were more complex than a simple move from acceptance to rejection. Surveys and interviews found that the beliefs related to violence were more resistant to change than those relating to equality or general statements on women’s rights.  ‘While general principles – non-tolerance of violence, community support for women – were upheld, when the issues were more specific, people’s attitudes were less coherent. Just over one third of interviewees did not agree that a man was never justified in hitting his wife, and 37-40% thought that an occasional slap does not amount to domestic violence.’

What seems to have taken place is a shrinking of the space within which VAW is deemed acceptable, but not its total eradication. But these changes are subtle and complex. According to Michaela Raab, who has evaluated the campaign and contributed to developing its strategy development:

‘A whole lot of people have been given a chance to reflect on their attitudes, and some used that to add extra attitudes to the ones they had, or to strengthen some attitudes over others. Maybe some people also abandoned a few ‘old’ attitudes. But people hold many, diverse and often contradictory attitudes. That is normal. You can be against VAW but beat your partner, because, say, you are in a wild rage or because you think you must punish behaviour that could harm the community. One can be a supporter of human rights while committing human rights violations.’

Conclusion? The We Can campaign in South Asia offers an inspiring example of how to work at scale to change entrenched attitudes and practices. It combines a deep understanding of the nature of power, nuanced approaches to local context, and high levels of ambition to achieve real changes in the lives of millions of men and women. It is no surprise that it has inspired similar campaigns around the world.

And here’s a two minute flavour of the campaign from a Bangladeshi We Can activist with the wonderful name of Beauty Ara.

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And in case you missed them, previously posted case studies were on Labour Rights in Indonesia, and Community Protection Committees in DRC.