Seizing the Moment: A Successful Campaign on Domestic Violence in Malawi

June 23, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Here’s an example of successful advocacy at national level, which is becoming an increasingly important part of Oxfam’s work. In 2005, Oxfam’s Malawi programme along with its partners mounted a campaign to eliminate gender based violence which led to the passing of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill in Parliament in April 2006.  How did it happen?

In 2002, the Malawian chapter of a regional women’s rights NGO, Women in Law Southern Africa (WILSA) was leading some work on domestic violence with the aim of developing a bill against domestic violence.  The Bill was drafted but the process completely stagnated when the bill got into government offices. 

Three years down the line, towards the end of 2005, the media started reporting incidents of violence from across the country. Between January and March 2006, the Daily Times and The Nation newspapers reported over 80 cases, ranging from wife killing, wife battering to grievous bodily harm and rape.

After two weeks of such brutal stories, Oxfam decided to put out a press statement condemning the violence and calling on key leaders (the Government, Judiciary, Police, Chiefs, and Church leaders) to take action.  The statement struck a chord, resulting in calls from a range of different groups, commending the initiative and offering to be part of a solution to the problem.  The most striking response was from the Malawi Police in Blantyre – they arrived at Oxfam’s offices in a van with loudspeakers on the top, broadcasting messages against gender based violence.  NGOs and the government’s Ministry of Gender also got in touch.

Within a month of its press release, Oxfam was ready to move to the next level of action.  With the Malawi Police, it mounted public campaigns in over half the districts in Malawi to disseminate the current legal provisions against gender-based violence (GBV), and the existence of Victim Support Units.  It worked with media partners to hold radio and television debates with different stakeholders on all the radios in Malawi. Every weekday for two weeks, radio stations were blocked from 5 to 6 pm with debates on GBV, and everyone from judges and lawyers to chiefs, church leaders, women’s rights NGOs and government officials took part.  Public reaction was mixed, but one thing was clear – the silence on violence against women and children was broken.

With public opinion now mobilised, Oxfam staff and the Ministry of Gender spotted an opportunity to reintroduce the abandoned Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill. Working with allies, they identified the people that needed to be influenced, tried to understand their feelings about GBV, and how they were likely to react if approached.  The Members of Parliament were the primary targets.  They were aware of the issues, but most of them held traditional views that condoned domestic violence.  The general consensus was that MPs were more likely to listen if approached by the Ministry of Gender rather than a civil society organization.  Members of Parliament also respect chiefs, who were in some cases sympathetic on GBV issues, so a well-connected NGO volunteered to lobby the chiefs to attend Parliament on the day the bill was to be tabled.  The charismatic Minister of Gender Hon Joyce Banda, personally lobbied alongside the President to garner support from cabinet colleagues, and arranged a meeting with the Leader of the Opposition.

Activities included working dinners with MPs, individual lobbying of MPs during the sitting of parliament, mobilisation of chiefs, translating briefs on the Bill into Chichewa, and public campaigns through faith-based groups, media, women’s rights NGOs and women lawyers. The Ministry and Oxfam staff also developed technical notes and lobby materials on GBV to support MPs in their debates for the Bill. The Malawi Police even produced fliers in support of the Bill that were circulating among parliamentarians.

Following a very difficult debate in parliament, with opponents accusing the bill’s supporters of attacking Malawi’s culture, the Bill was passed.

What did Oxfam learn?

1. Spot opportunities for change and seize them

2. Engagement with non-traditional partners, (like the Malawi police) can deliver real results, especially if you can build a coalition with a shared sense of purpose

3. Knowing when to let go is crucial – if some other organization is better placed to approach a particular target, you have to take a back seat and forego the glory

4. Power Analysis: campaigners needed to understand where the MPs stood on the issue, how they felt about each one of us, and what/who would influence them to change. 

5. Get the campaign tactics right: The adoption of a non-confrontational style and language (not always the case with NGOs in Malawi), and placing various organisations in roles they would play best, helped in building the dialogue with MPs and ensuring that a sense of mutual respect prevailed. 

To which I would add a couple of things I recognized from the other episodes of social and political change I explored in From Poverty to Power:

– dusting off an existing proposal for legislation can save huge amounts of time, allowing a campaign to build momentum rapidly (as in the case of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act)

– getting insider champions on board is often crucial