A review by Lyn Ossome

Community activism is acknowledged as being a core component of the work of women’s rights and human rights organisations. As a strategic and long-term endeavour, it carries the objectives of understanding the social, political, cultural and economic contexts within which women’s rights activists work, and seeking to actively change or enhance the viability of working in these environments. Community activism also bears the objective of deepening links with local grassroots communities and understanding the needs within these communities; and thirdly, it is critical for activists to nurture deeper understanding among various stakeholders and interest groups regarding their work, objectives and vision.

The Community Activism Guides (CAG); four papers developed by SIHA network were as such not the work of an individual, nor the organisation alone, but rather, the result of months of conversations, interactions, interviews, and discussions among the SIHA research team and many generous members who comprise the organisation’s network. These papers are the outcome of a qualitative research study that was conducted between November 2011 and July 2012 in four countries in the region: Somaliland, Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

In each of these four countries, the research team conducted interviews with many different groups of stakeholders, ranging from influential individuals in the community, members of local government, traditional leaders and elders, religious leaders, state officials, women leaders of non-governmental organisations and community based organisations, and various compositions of focus groups. This qualitative research process drew richly on various methods, including informal conversations, in-depth interviews and focus group discussions.

The outcomes of this research process –are reflections of the challenges and desires communicated to us by all the men and women who generously shared their work and narratives of struggles with us. Much of what have emerged as activism strategies within these papers is, therefore, a direct outcome of the inputs given to us, complemented by critical analysis on our part. In other words, we have tried as much as possible to retain the organic content drawn from the research process, and hope that each of you shall hear your voices reflected with sincerity in these pages.

While the issues that women in the Horn of Africa are dealing with appear to be remarkably similar across countries, there are, however, many nuanced differences in the ways in which women’s rights and human rights activists approach these issues and are responding to the same issues in each country. For instance, in all four countries, activists are confronted by questions of the law, both customary and formal, which manifest differently depending on the cultural and political environment. In Sudan, criminalisation of personal behaviour and corporal punishment such as flogging and stoning to death of women continues to pose serious challenges to the humanity of women and the realization of women’s human rights. Both these laws are an evocation of deeply patriarchal Islamic doctrines naturalised into formal laws. But while Sudanese women are seeking to challenge these repressive legal regimes through very public campaigns and advocacy, often facing harassment, intimidation and even death, their counterparts in South Sudan stand at a more ambivalent position with regards to women’s human and legal rights. For while a constitutional review process and various state interventions there seek to guarantee certain rights to women, customary law remains the ‘living’ law, undermining the values of constitutionalism, and continue to prevent women from accessing real power to participate in politics, let alone write more gender-positive laws. In Somaliland, the problems with the law relate largely to who can or cannot access legal redress, and also the conflict between customary law and formal law. Thus, while laws exist that ought to promote the rights of all women, those women deemed as belonging to minority groups have virtually no access to legal and judicial protection or remedy, even where such institutions exist and function. In Ethiopia, the Charities and Proclamation Law (CSO Law) of 2005 has imposed far-reaching restrictions on the work of human rights and women’s rights organisations, and many organisations have had to redefine their work, reconsider their strategies and reconceptualise the ways in which they could still achieve their objectives. The barriers created by this law have nonetheless spurred new and ingenious strategies for community organising. But such ingenuity is not restricted to Ethiopia alone, for one of the most significant observations from this study is the ways in which women’s organisation and activists continue to seek creative, resourceful and inspiring ways of overcoming the many hurdles they face on a day to day basis in the course of their work.

Yet a number of significant challenges to community activism and organizing around human rights in all four countries persist, and are a reflection of the inherent weaknesses of women’s rights organisations in relation to existing complex political, cultural and social situations. These issues are intertwined, and are discussed in relation to each other in the sections below.

The NGOization of the women’s movement is a term used to describe the formation or proliferation, not of NGOs per se, but of particular kinds of NGOs. Such NGOs have been associated with a backlash against a feminist agenda and principles which were critical in the organisation of women’s movements not just in Africa, but globally. The rapid rise of NGOs from the early 1990s under political and economic liberalisation and, as Sonia Alvares (2008) notes in relation to Latin America, through the promotion of more politically collaborative and more technically proficient feminist practices were what triggered what she calls the NGO boom. This boom challenged and ultimately unsettled the hybrid identities of many feminist NGOs in that region, leading some of them to place empowerment goals and a wide range of movement-oriented activities on the strategic back burner. They were replaced on the front burner with “demonstrable impact”, short-term projects, large scale workshops and forums, and more overt participation in the policy arena.

In other regions, as Aida Touma (2008) shows, NGOization became visible as women moved increasingly into project-oriented work, delivering services to women, focusing on issue of violence against women and personal issues. Those kinds of activities have resulted in organisations moving away from their own constituencies, from mass organization, and becoming more professionalized and technocratic. The results are the activists are vanishing away from the women movement little by little. This has created a huge gap between the discourses used by NGOs in analysing the situation and the real activism on the ground (Touma 2008). The gap between the grassroots women and the elite women providing leadership in organisations and movements continues to drive deep wedges between women in the Horn region, and the ability to mobilize and organize masses of women when it is crucial and needed is being lost.

The elitism of the women’s movement, observed particularly in Ethiopia and Sudan, also bears a big cost for the specific objectives of pursuing a progressive women’s human rights agenda that is independent of other elite forces and sections in society. In Sudan, this is particularly evident in relation to the extent of influence which the fundamentalist Islamic regime has been able to fund its own cause by compromising numerous NGOs through the leadership, to champion a reactionary, anti-woman agenda. In a funding environment in which traditional funding channels have been deliberately frustrated and restricted, many women’s organisations, desperate for survival, have found themselves at the mercy of the state. It is for this reason that feminists are facing a serious backlash in their attempts to organise against punitive, misogynist laws, and why cultural pundits are experiencing a resurgence of life as scared and intimidated communities retreat further and further away from perceived threats from the ‘international community’ represented locally by NGOs.

A final dimension of the challenges we observed in the course of this study is what could be read as a failure of the women’s movement to see and respond to emerging dynamics that are directly impacting on the status of women in the region which include religion, state politics, international and regional dynamics and corruption. This failure is also manifesting in the relative diminishing of the women’s movements as a relevant political and social force, and poses serious challenges for the work towards empowering women to claim their rights. Women’s machineries in all four countries under the study are increasingly being co-opted by the state, and the leverage of the movement to lobby, petition, advice, and influence policy is substantially weakened.

These are issues that women’s movements must once again take seriously if they are to become effective and survive. Feminist NGOs in the Horn region must, as Alvares (2008) notes in relation to Latin America, begin to place movement work on the front burner. They must seek to rearticulate their agenda and create new bridges, or fortify existing ones, not only within the feminist field, but also with other civil society and social movement activists. This, as suggested in the Community Activism Guides, entails the work of committed documentation and archiving of our struggles, dedicating more resources to critical research activities, sharpening our knowledge of our political and social contexts, and most of all, seeking to once again reconnect with the organic struggles in our communities.

Lyn Ossome is a researcher based in the Political Studies Department at Wits University, Johannesburg. A feminist scholar and activist, her research work has spanned the East, Southern and Horn of Africa countries, where she has also served in consultative and advisory capacities within a number of civil society organizations. Her research interests are in the areas of feminist political economy, land and agrarian studies, postcolonial studies and African politics, on which she has written several journal articles, book chapters and opinion pieces