Media: A Formidable Advocacy Ally during the Pandemic
By Somto Atuanya, Irene Choge, Diana Kabahuma Muhwezi, and Sarah Whitmarsh
In mid-March, as nationwide lockdowns and stay-at-home orders descended, we had just returned home from our project’s annual partners meeting — a week where we gather to share our accomplishments and lessons learned from the past year and chart our plans for the next. At the time, we could see COVID-19 on the horizon but it still seemed distant, and we couldn’t yet imagine how much it would change our lives.
Our plans for the year weren’t exactly scuttled. In the best and worst of times, advocates adapt. Sexual and reproductive health advocates like us are no strangers to adversity. Advocacy asks that would usually happen in the offices and hallways of power moved to phone calls and virtual spaces. Members of our advocacy working groups learned to coordinate efforts remotely over Zoom instead of in-person over coffee.
However, the same lockdown orders that kept us safe also hampered our ability to glean critical, on-the-ground information about the availability of sexual and reproductive health services during the pandemic. We wanted to ensure that women and girls could be protected against both the virus and an unplanned pregnancy.
This is when one component of the Advance Family Planning (AFP) initiative — media advocacy —became a lifeline.
A media pilot turned lifeline
For four years, we’ve engaged journalists to better understand and report on family planning policy issues. Efforts started modestly — a pilot in Kenya and Tanzania in 2016 — and have since expanded to four additional countries: Nigeria, Uganda, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Journalists have been critical allies along the way and shown us that media coverage can not only make policy issues more visible but also hold policymakers to account (see one example here).
During the lockdown, the media’s importance to our work only grew. Journalists in nearly all AFP countries were deemed essential workers, meaning they could leave home, move around in cities and communities, and even break curfew to report on urgent stories. We knew our journalist allies were passionate about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), but we were blown away by their willingness to put their health at risk to continue to report on these stories during the pandemic.
One senior reporter, Gillian Nantume, from NTV Uganda, put it best: “Because COVID-19 is highly contagious and can be deadly, the government felt the need to institute a lockdown. However, the SRHR needs of millions of women never stopped. Many of them could not access commodities and information they needed. If journalists went to sleep during this time, instead of highlighting the SRHR needs of the country that were being neglected, a number of women and youth would have been in danger.”
We equipped journalists with information on how to remain safe while reporting, using guidance from the Committee to Protect Journalists (here and here). We packaged information and lined up experts and spokespeople as sources for stories as usual. However, unlike normal circumstances, we relied on them to bridge our own information gaps—to go into communities and clinics and find out where family planning and other essential services weren’t available and why—and to partner even more closely with us to find solutions.
Media partnerships in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda
One notable example was in Kakamega County, Kenya, where advocates, journalists, and government officials developed telephone hotlines, an idea initially shared in our media advocacy WhatsApp group, to link women in need of essential services with officials who could grant curfew passes. Journalists then highlighted the initiative on NTV, broadcasting it nationwide.
In Nigeria, journalists reported on the need for sustained funding for family planning at a time when states were reviewing and revising budgets due to COVID-19. In Gombe and Nasarawa States, this coverage helped the local advocacy working group obtain an invitation to participate in the budget town hall. There, they made the case for family planning. As a result, state family planning budget allocations were maintained in both states.
Even as pandemic-related economic pressures strained resources in newsrooms, journalists helped us and even each other rise to the occasion. In Uganda, for instance, journalists at the national level stepped in to engage and build the capacity of our journalist allies at the subnational level.
The journalists’ greatest allegiance by far remained to their fellow citizens: to tell their stories, inform them of the facts and counter misinformation, and catalyse action by their policymakers.
As restrictions ease, it is unlikely that advocacy will look like it did before, and the stakes are high. A recent analysis by the Social Progress Imperative estimated that due to the pandemic and current trends in health, human rights, and climate change, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals might not be achieved until 2092. According to the Guttmacher Institute, just a 10% decline in short- and long-term reversible contraceptive use would result in an additional 15 million unintended pregnancies and leave 49 million women in low- and middle-income countries with an unmet need for modern contraception.
Our foundation has shifted, but our reliance on media continues—to reach the public and policymakers on the importance of mask wearing and social distancing; on sexual and reproductive health as an essential health service; and, hopefully sometime soon, on the benefits of a safe and reliable COVID-19 vaccine.
Somto Atuanya is the Communication and Media Officer for Pathfinder International Nigeria.
Irene Choge is the Media Advocacy Manager for Jhpiego, based in Kenya.
Diana Kabahuma Muhwezi is the Communications Coordinator for Reproductive Health Uganda.
Sarah Whitmarsh is the Communication Manager for Advance Family Planning, based in the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.