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With conflict increasingly shifting to virtual spaces, peacebuilders need to expand their efforts and reach out to conflict stakeholders and peace constituencies offline as well as online. New threats such as online gender-based violence and disinformation and what these altered conflict dynamics impose on the non-digital world have to be tackled, too.
ACFODE’s work on peace building is anchored on the strategic objective of promoting positive social-cultural practices that protect the rights of women and girls. In pursuit of this objective, ACFODE collaborates with duty bearers such as Police particularly the Child and Family Protection Unit, Health workers, Probation and Welfare Officers and local councils to strengthen the gender-based violence (GBV) and Violence against women (VAW) referral pathway and to provide gender responsive services to women and girls including access to justice for survivors. Relatedly, ACFODE collaborates with elected and technical leaders at different levels to influence gender responsive laws and policies. Additionally, ACFODE conducts research to inform programming and advocacy work around peace building. Based on her experience to prevent and respond to GBV/VAW in different communities, ACFODE extended her work in refugee settlements where community structures are strengthened, and capacities of different social actors built to promote peaceful co – existence within the refugees’ settlement and the host communities.
The rapid growth and wide availability of digital technologies in recent years has increased the impact of peacebuilders, altering both peacebuilding practices and conflict dynamics. With the global lockdown and widespread travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the digitalization of peacebuilding received additional attention. Important to note is that ACFODE has used digitalization in peacebuilding even before the pandemic hit; especially while addressing GBV/VAW, human rights and civic education.
While most NGOs have used digital technology for years, the majority of these organizations has struggled to go digital in the low-resource environments they operate. In ACFODE’s case operating within these constraints means upcountry/field staff often have to go to the district headquarters to access reliable power and internet. Such challenges therefore mean often pen-and-paper records are kept, and there is emphasis on face-to-face meetings. Besides most of the target groups live in rural areas with poor electricity, no internet connection, lack adequate gadgets (smart phones) while others especially women lack the necessary digital skills especially the rural women and urban poor whose illiteracy levels are very high (e.g. typing messages and to make use of communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter).
On the other hand, digitalization has greatly helped ACFODE to manage, report and refer gender-based violence or violence against women and children’s cases; whereby records are kept digitally and referred to the Police, Child and Family Protection Unit and this has facilitated follow-up actions aimed at promoting access to justice which is a precursor for sustainable societal peace. Virtual platforms like twitter and Facebook have facilitated awareness raising campaigns and knowledge sharing spaces with both rights holders and duty bearers. This has enhanced accountability among the duty bearers for actions aimed at peace building in some communities. Notably, ACFODE has been able to adopt digitalization in the execution of interventions that compliments the conventional methods such as physical meetings and dialogues, home to home visits aimed prevention of GBV/VAW and promotion of peace at family and community level.
This complexity and sometimes complementarity of digital and analog approaches can be seen in several of ACFODE’s interventions, for instance:
In September – December 2017, ACFODE spearheaded the campaign #Not Another Woman, a campaign that aimed at creating awareness about violations against women in Uganda and called to action the state. There had been series of murders of women that happened in the central region of Uganda, despite the cries by the public and the demand by Parliament to have reports on the status not much was achieved. Hence the #Not Another Woman campaign whereby security agencies were called upon to strengthen and prioritize safety for women. In addition to the usual analogue channels like mainstream media including press statements, poems, local newspapers, TV talk shows, and testimonies, this time we also spread the campaign via digital platforms particularly social media which thrived on the use of vox pops and pictorial messages from the VAW/G photo shoot, twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. These later attracted global news agencies like Al Jazeera, interviews with BBC and human rights organisations (WROs) providing wider coverage. ACFODE organised a physical meeting where the relatives of the deceased shared their ordeal and called upon Government to expedite their investigations as well as to issue a report. ACFODE also used graphics, audio, video, photography and art to create content and draw attention to the safety and security of women while protecting the identity of the victims. As a result, the government became more responsive by briefing security and arrested some of the culprits.
ACFODE has extended its peace building work among the refugee communities in Uganda and has employed new strategies for prevention and response to GBV/ VAW and COVID-19, including house to house visits by model couples, radio messages and ”boda boda talk talk”. Motorcycles are fitted with record players and speakers with pre-recorded messages in the local dialects move in different villages. Low tech tools like radio messages are important but not sufficient to reach and convince ACFODE’s target groups.
Civil society peacebuilders increasingly use crowdsourcing technology that gathers real-time conflict data with relatively few resources. Crowdsourcing technologies allow the local population to report on violent incidents using simple ICTs, such as mobile phones. This not only expands the information base but also gives a voice to local communities’ experiences (Schirch 2020). One of the first initiatives to make use of this technology to map local violence was on WhatsApp & Twitter, an online platform in Uganda in 2020 that gathered data from text messages, emails and social media to map violence hotspots, provide data visualization, and manage data. Besides monitoring election violence in Uganda, WhatsApp and twitter has been applied in many other conflict contexts, for example to report on violence in Northern Uganda. Building on this experience, ACFODE’s designed its response to expected gender-based violence in the context of the Uganda 2021 General Elections. These took place against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Political candidates did not hold physical campaigns or mass rallies but rather used media platforms to campaign. This was coupled with restrictions in movements and meetings; the COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures were often violently enforced as could be observed as early as during the events of November 18 and 19 2020.
ACFODE is part of the Women’s Situation Room (WSR) which played a critical role in promoting peace during Uganda’s election. The WSR is a women-led early warning and rapid response mechanism to electoral violence in Africa recognized by the UN Security Council as a best practice; having successfully promoted peaceful elections in many African countries and demonstrated women’s effectiveness in peacebuilding. As a member of the steering committee of WSR Uganda, which included 15 women’s rights organizations, ACFODE worked with Eminent Women (EW) in mediating conflicts, advising electoral stakeholders to ensure that each played their role in a manner that promotes peaceful elections. The WSR Uganda hosted four Physical Situation Rooms across the country and ACFODE was in charge of the Western region. 1,778 calls were received through the WSR call centers, threats and incidences of violence were reported to the authorities, thus contributing to peaceful elections. The analog response by the authorities to threats and incidences were an important building block for the mechanism’s effectiveness. In addition, this initiative, trained 4,500 women and youth were trained who acted as peace advocates and election observers in 30 districts of Uganda.
Through a multimedia campaign, the WSR Uganda used peace messages and a mobile application called ‘Amani’ which means peace in Kiswahili. Both encouraged citizens to prioritize peace and avoid any situations that would threaten peace. The WSR mechanism has demonstrated that the mitigation of electoral violence played a big role in maintaining peace before, during, and after the elections.
During the same elections, ACFODE recorded and aired community dialogues to raise awareness on peaceful elections and gender equality. Through listener clubs, community members came together to listen to pre-recorded radio and television talk shows on the social, economic and political issues that deter women from participating in leadership and peaceful elections. Thereafter, community members would have discussions over the issues and this contributed to positive attitudinal change. ACFODE also used mobile vans that moved through villages playing recorded messages on prevention of election violence. It is important to note that the use of both radio and television shows, mobile vans (digital) and in-person meetings (analog) complimented each other and reached a wider audience and not leave anyone behind; which is a principle of peacebuilding.
ACFODE has worked with youth both in tertially institutions and schools to promote peaceful co- existence. The young children from selected primary schools have been tasked to express their understanding of peace through art, music, dance, drama and formation of peace clubs. Through the British Parliamentary debates, students interrogated issues of GBV/VAW including sexual harassment and have championed such discussions in the institutions and other spaces they occupy. However, these were disrupted by the pandemic and we hope to resume the interventions in the near future. Highly sensitive issues like GBV/VAW rely on the comfort, trust and personal acquaintance of analog meetings. They cannot be replicated appropriately in the digital space.
With conflict increasingly shifting to virtual spaces, peacebuilders need to expand their efforts and reach out to conflict stakeholders and peace constituencies offline as well as online. New threats such as online gender-based violence and disinformation and what these altered conflict dynamics impose on the non-digital world have to be tackled, too. Digitalization is important if civil society is to remain relevant, it has to adapt to new ways of working while remaining cognizant of the challenges and dangers such transformations bring. Civil society’s broad experience with digitalization also shows that digital interventions have to fit to the context in order to have an impact. Low-Tech might be more effective than high-tech given the context. If appropriate, they have to be complemented by analog tools.