Why Activism? How “16 Days” Highlights Tools to End Gender-Based Violence


by Milkah Kihunah

Milkah Kihunah is a Senior Policy Adviser on Gender and Empowerment with CARE USA. In this role she conducts policy analysis and advocacy on issues of women’s empowerment, gender equality and gender-based violence globally. She has more than 10 years’ experience in research and advocacy on human rights, conflict and governance issues, with a particular focus on East and Central Africa.

For those working to end violence against women and girls around the world, including myself, the past year has seemed like a watershed. Widely reported incidents of violence against women in India, the United States and elsewhere have captured unprecedented levels of attention from the media and public and provoked widespread outrage around the world. More importantly, the attention has fueled discussions at various levels and in various contexts about what change is needed to address the problem of gender-based violence (GBV). Such discussions are particularly pertinent during the ongoing “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence,” when the global work of activists, advocates and campaigners takes center stage.


Activism at all levels is a critical component to ending gender-based violence, and channeling outrage into social change. It allows people from all over the world, from any part of society to express their needs and push for changes that will improve their lives.


While it is often difficult to pinpoint the exact role that activism and advocacy efforts play in creating change on issues such as GBV, there is no doubting their importance. A recent study analyzing government action to address violence against women across 70 countries reveals by women’s groups activism to be the most important factor in getting policies passed to address violence against women, including legal reform, public education campaigns, and support for shelters and rape crisis centers.


Such findings resonate with me because of my work with CARE, where I have been fortunate to witness and support the work of women’s rights activists and advocates in various countries and to have a role in documenting their stories. As I write this, I am in Burundi attending a meeting of CARE staff and partners involved in the Great Lakes Advocacy Initiative, which has worked for several years to support activism against GBV in the Great Lakes region of Africa. In Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and DRC, the project is building the capacity of community-based case workers and activists to assist and refer GBV survivors and to mobilize and sensitize communities and leaders to influence norms and policies against GBV.  The evaluation of the initiative is still in process, but preliminary findings point to local activists being better able to engage with authorities and to influence policy frameworks at country and regional level.


Another example is Benin, where CARE implemented a project called EMPOWER that sought to strengthen GBV policies and services for survivors. The project implemented an advocacy and mobilization strategy that rallied a wide range of stakeholders, including national and grassroots groups, media, health workers and community leaders, to promote change at various levels. Working with RIFONGA, a national network of women’s rights groups, the project supported thousands of activists across the country to carry out community dialogues and awareness raising activities, while simultaneously working at national-level with government agencies and lawmakers to influence the drafting of new anti-GBV legislation.  Using tactics such as media campaigns, mass action, peaceful protests and lobbying the initiative ultimately contributed to the Benin legislature adopting a strong law against GBV in November 2011. (Read more about the experience here). While the law’s passage is only the first step, it lays a foundation for increased government action and accountability to address the problem.


The stories above cannot completely capture the long and complex processes of social change, or the challenges and setbacks faced by those working for such change. But as we commemorate the “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” with activities aimed at raising awareness and visibility around this global problem, let us also use every opportunity to celebrate and support the often unheralded efforts of the activists themselves, whose work reduces the silence and shame that allows injustice to thrive.

Find out more about CARE's work to bring an end to violence against women >