SIHA as a knowledge and advocacy institution for gender equality and women’s rights in the Horn of Africa
For nearly two decades, SIHA has been actively engaged in the production of knowledge – through research, documentation of human rights violations, production of films and radio shows, and political analysis. The dissemination of this knowledge, grounded in strong political analysis, is the foundation of SIHA’s advocacy work with state and non-state actors. Documenting the harsh realities faced by women in the Horn, as well as the remarkable actions of women human rights defenders in response, has proven invaluable over the years. Within the oppressive regimes present in so many countries in the Horn, having the courage and savvy to be a whistle-blower remains critical – especially in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, and the two Sudans where SIHA is one of very few with this capacity. SIHA is well experienced at walking the line between security and advocacy – preserving its space to manoeuvre alongside uncompromising messages on women’s human rights. SIHA will continue to exercise this ‘soft’ influence, using strategic entry-points and allying with local government officials. Where advocacy potentially compromises SIHA’s ability to operate in highly scrutinized countries, SIHA will collaborate with international human rights advocates and organizations, which are less at-risk of fallout.
SIHA intends to place as much emphasis on dissemination of advocacy products as on production. Research and advocacy messages will be disseminated in multiple formats targeting strategic key audiences. SIHA will engage more effectively in social media advocacy and campaigns, where possible and without compromising security or operational space. In the coming years, SIHA will produce more visual testimony alongside reports and articles, such as short documentary films and stories, striving to be flexible to shift between forms and formats based on the context. This will require more extensive media training, as well as clear guidelines for appropriate and safe external communication for SIHA staff and members. When SIHA launches significant publications, such as the annual Women in Islam journal, SIHA will work with local media to draw press attention in countries where it is safe to do so. SIHA will continue its engagement with regional platforms, including its observer status at the ACHPR, which has proved extremely useful for raising key human rights issues.
SIHA as a membership platform for exchanging experiences and lessons-learned
SIHA’s vision has always been collective – in order to build a world in which all women and girls in the Horn of Africa have the right to live in a peaceful, just environment where they are able to exercise their equal rights as human beings, bringing women’s voices together through the network is crucial. SIHA continues to see growth in membership. SIHA has also seen diversification among its membership, with newer members coming from cooperatives, associations, umbrella organizations, and youth movements, in addition to SIHA’s more traditional membership of community-based organizations. Members see SIHA as their microphone, a way to amplify their voices. Membership retention is strong, and members have access to women in marginalized communities in dire need of support, which enhances SIHA’s grassroots legitimacy. Yet working as a network has its challenges. Civil society organizations in the Horn tend to be polarized, frequently divided, and can be culturally traditional in their mind-sets and approaches. Communication and solidarity across the wide range of members is not easy and SIHA’s growth in membership in unmatched by financial and human resources.
In order to retain and maximize SIHA’s ability to bring women’s voices together across the Horn, investments in strong communication between the secretariat and country focal points, between different countries, and between members and SIHA staff. SIHA will focus particularly on strengthening internal communication, which will have a ripple effect for SIHA members. In order to enable improved communication, SIHA intends to take advantage of adaptable technology that works in each country rather than relying only on phone and email. SIHA will maintain regional activities and secure resources for annual face-to-face time for coordination purposes. In response to the diversification of membership, SIHA aims to adapt its network approach to respond to the needs of new forms of civil society, such as youth associations, women’s cooperatives, survivor associations, and voluntary organizations, reflecting its ambition to move from the centre to the margins.
SIHA working with female and male youth for gender equality
Poor economies, unrest, and strict political regimes often mean youth have very limited opportunities to direct their own futures and exercise democratic rights. Across all of the countries in which SIHA works, youth alienation and marginalization are drivers of social violence, violence that frequently assumes the form of VAWG. Where young people are frustrated and restricted, they are also turning to militant Islam for answers. Investing in youth is especially important for countries coming out of conflict in order to pull them out of these cycles of violence. The potential for transformation is massive. In SIHA’s experience, a human rights approach works well in the engagement of youth, and rights education is important for social change. SIHA has also seen success in dialogue with Muslim youth on gender justice in Islam. Both approaches work toward long-term transformation.
In the coming years, active engagement with female and male youth will be even more important. SIHA will recognize youth as a vast and diverse group of people, striving to reach the marginalized and alienated ones of all ethnic and tribal backgrounds; privileged youth as well as those living in poverty. SIHA will move toward engaging youth in political activism and building their capacities for wielding influence even within the restricted space available to them.
SIHA negotiating with men
The Horn of Africa in particular has seen women’s inequality enforced and entrenched through cultural norms, religious dictates and state policies, implemented by and through men. Negotiating with men and engaging patriarchy is essential to the path toward equal human rights for women and men. SIHA approaches the issue of negotiating with men with caution, being wary of the risks of recreating men as gatekeepers – that only through them, their engagement, and their changes in behaviour or attitudes can women achieve equality. During the prior strategy cycle, SIHA saw the value of a contextual approach to negotiating with men. Although the countries in the Horn of Africa share many similar dynamics, each has its own nuanced context and socio-political dynamics of patriarchy and violence; where SIHA has seen success, engaging men in frank discussions of gender and patriarchy, it was largely due to contextualized approaches that enabled the root causes of violence to emerge. SIHA will use participatory approaches to develop contextualized ways of engaging men that are accountable to the women and girls SIHA represents. SIHA sees male youth as an especially critical population to engage in changing negative social norms about women and girls. SIHA will also look for opportunities to do research on masculinities in different countries in the coming years.
SIHA supporting Women Human Rights Defenders in the Horn
SIHA has at the core of its mandate an obligation to act as an advocate for WHRD throughout the Horn of Africa. SIHA will continue to engage with women community leaders, activists and human rights defenders to contribute to their skills development, protection, and promoting their roles inside the countries and communities in which they work. As the backlash against human rights discourse continues, and as space for civil society and rights-based approaches continues to shrink in so many countries in the Horn, SIHA’s solidarity will help sustain the work of WHRD. Strategically, SIHA will work to influence and enhance the work of WHRD and activists on the ground, lending institutional collaboration to their efforts against cycles of violence, bad governance and poor democratic practices, and criminalization of women in public and private realms. Specifically, SIHA will work to sustain acts of activism for women’s rights through creating a platform for diverse generations and backgrounds of WHRDs to share knowledge and reinforce each other. SIHA will strive to strengthen WHRDs’ abilities and improve available protection mechanisms for them such as support services, legal aid, psychosocial counselling, and training opportunities. SIHA will support WHRDs and activists to develop counter-actions against beliefs and practices that seek to violate women’s rights by availing opportunities for them to develop small interventions to strengthen their positions inside their communities. SIHA will sustain its work on documenting and monitoring the regional and international engagement in the Horn countries as well as to provide support on integration and strengthening women rights.
SIHA as a sustainable force for change
Given that many of the constraints SIHA faces in its work are resource-based, the sustainability of the work is contingent upon sustainability of resources. Resources are not easy to come by, especially as national governments restrict access to international funding for human rights interventions and as international donors tend to prioritize funding for humanitarian aid over civil society in fragile states. Because SIHA’s advocacy footprint is by necessity less visible than that of similar international organizations, SIHA’s advocacy work does not always garner the attention of funders. Additionally, gender equality does not receive funding as a stand-alone issue in most cases. SIHA aims to continue diversifying funding sources.