Advocacy and Storytelling: A Bridge and Guide toward Women's Health and Rights

Advocacy and Storytelling: A Bridge and Guide toward Women's Health and Rights

 {Photo by Catherine Lalonde/MSH}Youth in Mali, with support from Family Care International, performed plays to tell the stories of persons living with HIV/AIDS.Photo by Catherine Lalonde/MSH

“In 509 days, my country will go to the ballot box, and I will be running for office in Kenya,” announced Stephanie Musho, a law student and staffer at a global health non-profit. Musho made this bold statement while speaking on a panel of young African women leaders during the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March.

“But first, I have to tell you a story about what it means to be a woman candidate,” she sighed. “I’ve worked hard for my campaign. I’ve met with constituents and partners to get their support and raise money. I approached two potential contributors, who were men, and they said ‘With a body like that, you shouldn’t have any problem raising money.’ I knew what they were insinuating, and I can’t believe this is still happening. But I’m not going to let that stop me.”

Musho was one of fifteen advocates from the Moremi Initiative, a women’s leadership institute in Ghana, sharing personal stories of working to effect change in their communities and for the women in their countries. Their stories provided poignant context for the challenges they faced and the triumphs they experienced.

Advocates work to bridge the divide between decision-makers and community members. Storytelling is the guide.

Stories have a beginning—where did we come from, how did we get here? A middle: what are we doing about it and why now? And an end: what do we want to see in our future? How do we succeed? What happens if we don’t? What’s next for us? 

Stories help decision-makers understand where we’re coming from and why they should join us on this journey to achieve sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for all. But decision-makers need to understand what’s in it for them, and why they should care about this issue that is stigmatized, or far from their reality. And this is when we invite them to walk in the shoes of a girl going to school each day, of a pregnant woman journeying to the clinic by boat, of a girl forced into marriage before she’s ready, or of a young woman considering having sex for the first time, but scared she will end up like her neighbor—pregnant, chastised, out of school and heartbroken. Through stories, videos, and conversations, we encourage decision-makers to connect emotionally to what we’re asking.

In this video, for example, women and girls living in urban slums outside Nairobi, Kenya bravely share their stories about accessing and receiving sexual and reproductive health care and speaking up for the health needs of their community:

The MSH-led, USAID-funded African Strategies for Health (ASH) project produced and presented the video last week to African regional stakeholders at a two-day Knowledge Management Share Fair as an example of how storytelling through video can help raise awareness and engage stakeholders in opportunities and solutions to meet the needs of urban youth.

Championing maternal health

The FCI Program of MSH comes from a legacy of championing maternal health: we believe that a woman’s maternal health story doesn’t begin or end with pregnancy. Instead, her story—set at home, the community and health facility—follows a continuum of care from birth to girlhood and adolescence to womanhood, throughout her reproductive life. So we advocate for a woman’s full realization of her SRHR, through equitable government commitments, policies and programs; adequate funding; the strengthening of public health systems; and the meaningful inclusion of civil society, especially underserved populations, in policymaking.

Stories never goes out of style. They humanize an issue, and make us see a reality beyond our field of vision. We have to make the data and the policy tell a story, through accessible language (not jargon), concrete details, and narratives from the people with whom we work. When we go to the people, we have to share stories with colleagues and community members and come back with stories too!

So whatever you do, ask yourself: what is the story that I want to tell? 

This post originally appeared on the FCI Program of MSH Blog