How Do No Harm Frameworks Can Reduce the Risk of Backlash in GBV Initiatives
By Renu Golwalkar, Senior Director for Gender Equality and Social Inclusion, EngenderHealth
The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) campaign aims to raise awareness of GBV and spur individuals, organizations, and governments to take action to end GBV in their communities, countries, and around the world. While initiatives focused on preventing and responding to GBV are carried out with the best of intentions, they still have the potential to cause unintended consequences and harm to clients, staff, and others.
Consider the following scenarios:
In Burundi, 40-year-old Abida* has tested positive for HIV and now must disclose her HIV-positive status to her husband and his family. Abida fears that, like other women, she too will face violence from her husband after he learns of her HIV status and may be thrown out of the house and not allowed to see her children.
In India, 16-year-old Radha participates in an adolescent group meeting, where the peer educator discusses the negative impacts of child and early marriages on girls’ overall health and wellbeing, noting that the legal age of marriage for women is 18 in India. Radha is worried about retaliation from her elder brother who warned her never to attend these meetings because they might cause her to rebel and protest her own marriage, which is fast approaching.
In Tanzania, 35-year-old Merry has been attending a mothers’ group meeting organized by a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) that discusses topics around intimate partner violence and marital rape, including that women always have a right to refuse sex and to protect themselves from any kind of violence. Merry feels empowered and resists violence from her husband, telling him that she can report it and seek legal recourse. As a result, Merry faces even more violence from her husband, who also bars her from attending the mothers’ group meeting, saying they are “brainwashing obedient wives.”
Those of us working in GBV prevention and response frequently encounter situations like those faced by Abida, Radha, and Merry. When planning and implementing GBV prevention and response interventions we must consider the potential unintended harms, such as violence and backlash, survivors, their families, service providers, and others may face as a result. In a 2019 white paper, the nonprofit organization Dasra defined backlash as “a reaction by those who hold positions of power to attempts to change the status quo by those in less powerful positions,” (Dasra, 2019, 4). GBV is deeply rooted in the social and cultural fabric of our societies, across all continents and countries. When we try to challenge these underlying gender and social norms without considering and engaging all of the stakeholders involved, there is a strong risk of resistance in the form of more violence and backlash.
While our “impact population” may be those vulnerable to GBV, including women, girls, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, our “target audience” needs to be the much broader group of stakeholders, which often includes community gatekeepers, intimate partners, families, peer support networks, and service providers. Effective GBV programming needs to reflect this reality and incorporate appropriate safety plans and mitigation strategies.
Over the past several years, EngenderHealth has integrated a robust Do No Harm Framework (DNHF) into all of our programs, including our GBV initiatives. We continue to adapt our Do No Harm approach as we reflect on our program results and impact and learn from our experiences and partners. Below are eight lessons EngenderHealth has learned through this process to support integrating a comprehensive and robust DNHF into GBV programming.
Include risk assessment as part of your gender analysis: At the start of each program, we apply our comprehensive Gender, Youth and Social Inclusion (GYSI) Analysis framework and toolkit, featuring a Risk Assessment Matrix (RAM) tool (pages 10-12). This tool is used as part of the GYSI analysis to simultaneously identify the prevalent social, political, cultural, religious, and other risks or deterrents present in the community and map the enablers and disablers (those who may support or hinder our work) around issues of gender transformative change and GBV.
Consult and engage with communities: The voices and experiences of the affected communities and their diverse populations, need to inform the RAM findings. EngenderHealth strives to include as many stakeholder groups as possible in this process, including women and girls, youth, men and boys, religious and community leaders, community-based health workers, and socially marginalized groups. This process includes engaging with an initiative’s “target audiences” in addition to the “impact populations” to ensure a comprehensive analysis.
Include staff safeguarding in the Duty of Care Framework: Staff and service providers who provide GBV screening, services, and referrals are also at risk of experiencing backlash from the perpetrators of violence and communities. This is why EngenderHealth incorporates safeguarding for staff, including partner staff, health facility staff, and community health and extension workers, into its Duty of Care Framework and partners with community leaders and gatekeepers to ensure a swift response to any safeguarding threats.
Create tailored DNHFs and update them regularly: Different communities and groups have unique challenges, needs, and risks. Because of this, we create highly tailored and contextualized DNHFs for each program to plan and respond appropriately. Sometimes we even develop regional DNHFs for a program working in different areas of the same country to address each location’s specific challenges. We also regularly review and update each DNHF to ensure they are current and applicable and incorporate lessons learned from any incidents. In development contexts, this review occurs quarterly, but in humanitarian contexts, DNHR reviews are done monthly to keep pace with rapidly changing conditions.
Plan the activity calendar in line with the DNHF: One of the big lessons we have learned over the past years is that it is not sufficient to merely align activities with the DNHF. The timing and chronological sequence of these sessions must also be considered to reduce the potential for unintended harm or backlash. In order to create an enabling environment, we may first need to work with communities, families, and others before working directly with those vulnerable to GBV.
Establish a DNHF focal point and reporting system: While a robust DNHF will reduce the possibility of unintended harm and backlash, it will never fully eliminate the risk. Teams must be prepared to react swiftly if harm or backlash does occur with assigned DNHF focal points for each program and an established system for reporting and resolving the incident. For EngenderHealth projects, the project director or manager serves as the focal point accountable for ensuring a swift and adequate response and is actively supported by the GYSI focal point for the project and region.
Ensure internal accountability: At EngenderHealth, we use our ongoing monitoring tool, the GYSI Marker, to hold ourselves to high standards of internal accountability. Using this marker, we assess projects quarterly on five key criteria, including their DNHF, and grade them on “Gender and Youth Integration continuum,” from “harmful” to “transformative.” If the DNHF criteria are not met, the project can only earn a maximum grade of “potential to be harmful,” even if it meets the other four criteria. Data from the assessments are shared on a GYSI Marker dashboard across the organization to promote transparency and learning.
Invest in staff sensitization: The stigma and silence around GBV hide the fact that it is prevalent and accepted in our societies. Therefore, we invest considerable effort in looking inward to reflect upon our own personal biases, prejudices, and stereotypes around gender and GBV and challenge them in our own lives. Once we do this, we also find the integration of a do no harm lens to GBV programming easier. You can refer to EngenderHealth’ s GYSI Staff training manual to learn more about and use the training tools for staff, and stakeholders.
EngenderHealth has worked to enact these practices across our programming. Here are a few examples of how this works in practice. As part of our regional GBV initiative Ensemble, implemented in partnership with local feminist grassroots organizations representing survivors, we are in the process of engaging with a variety of stakeholders and communities in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. We are also consulting governments, NGOs, and community stakeholders to inform programming focused on ending all forms of GBV in these countries over the next decade. Ongoing consultations with partners and GBV survivors in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso are now focused on a “survivor-centered GBV response.”
In Mali, our USAID-funded, Kènèya Nieta program, led by University Research Co., LLC, has three separate DNHFs, one for each of the three different regions in which the program is working. These were developed to address the differing needs and contexts of each region and were informed by the findings of the gender analysis and risk assessment, and stakeholder consultations.
Finally, in India, while working on a UNICEF-supported initiative to engage adolescent girl champions for newborn girl care, we first organized gender sensitization sessions for community gatekeepers and parents before engaging with the adolescent girl champions. This allowed us to establish an enabling environment to discuss newborn girl child survival and reduced the risk that the adolescent girls would receive backlash for their participation.
When working on GBV initiatives, we must always consider the potential unintended consequences of our work, which can include real harm to individuals we are aiming to help. While no approach, framework, or strategy can ever completely eliminate these risks, developing and employing appropriate planning, safety, and mitigation practices can go a long way in reducing the chances that clients, families, staff, and others will experience harm and backlash.
*Names have been changed to protect clients’ privacy and safety.
Dasra. 2019. Action Reaction: Understanding and overcoming backlash against girls’
exercise of agency in India. Mumbai: Dasra.