Hesperian Health Guides

Community organizing builds support and solidarity

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HealthWiki > Health Actions for Women > Chapter 1: Taking Action for Women's Health > Community organizing builds support and solidarity

Working to improve health brings people together around a common concern. As you and your community identify and break down obstacles to good health, you will build organizations and movements that bring women together, give them the opportunity to share their stories and experiences, and begin to take action. When focusing on women's health, many of your actions will address gender inequality and other root causes of women's health problems. As you join with others to make change, people will experience the power and excitement of solidarity, which can lead to more people participating, more organizing, and more ambitious strategies for change.

You will find the joy of success but probably also the discouragement of failure along this path toward improving women's health. But even failures can contribute to long-term success. Both challenges and failures provide important opportunities for reflection. With each action and reflection, you will learn more and understand better what the next step should be, and you will be able to use the activities in this book to bring others into agreement that change is possible. The goal, therefore, is not to settle on one action, do it, and then decide if you "won" or "lost." Rather, the goal is to build a community that works together in an ongoing way, routinely identifies problems, plans actions, reflects on those actions, and keeps building a larger and larger grassroots base that can fight for health and justice.

Activities that lead to action

a man painting a cartoon mural about using condoms to fight HIV.
All kinds of media can help groups reach out to others. Even if they can't read, most people love to make and see art. You can take information from the board game about sexually transmitted infections and create a mural together.

You will find many different activities in this book. All of them have been developed, shared, and tested by health organizers around the world, but it is up to you to decide what will work best in your community. Try them out. Be creative. Adapt them and combine them to suit your purposes.

an older woman speaking.
Our grandmothers' group meets each week at the market. The book suggested we do skits to raise awareness about violence against women, but we decided to sing songs instead. We knew this would engage men and women best.

Many types of activities

Guided discussions: To have a shared understanding of problems and solutions, people need to talk to each other. A guided discussion is a way for a group of people to talk to each other and to ask and answer specific questions.

Games: Board games, guessing games, and movement games are fun ways for groups of all ages to test and draw on what they already know, explore and learn more, and to start discussions. Games promote laughter and energy! The can provide a good change of pace after a long discussion or after a group has addressed a very serious subject.

Role plays, storytelling, and theater: Drama is a way to explore problems and propose solutions while entertaining and having fun. People can act out their own experiences and imagine the experiences of others. Some issues and conflicts may be easier to consider if they are portrayed in another time and place through stories or theater.

Community mapping: Community mapping is an activity in which people make a map together based on what they see and know about their community. Making a map can help people see patterns in health problems or see how conditions in the community have changed over time. A map can also help people identify important community resources and strengths they may not have been aware of.

Drawing and art: Making and looking at drawings can help us see solutions to problems that we might not see otherwise. Drawings can be used to start guided discussions, and drawing can be a way for people who cannot read or write well to express themselves and to participate. Public murals can call attention to problems, remind people of their strength and achievements, and provide visions for a better, healthier future.

Alternative media: Short videos and photographs can be used to record and share testimonies about gender-based violence, the need for decent jobs, the dangers of industrial pollution, etc. Community radio can open a regular channel of communication in both rural and urban areas about issues important to women. These forms of outreach can spread information about problems more widely to build support and call people to action.

Popular education for building movements

Remember that the purpose of these activities is to help the people in your community decide what they want to do about women's health and how they need to do it. How can you make sure to bring everyone's thinking into the process and develop everyone's leadership?

Popular education is founded on the idea that people directly affected by problems are in the best position to identify the causes and find the solutions. All participants are both teachers and learners, whether or not they have had the opportunity to go to school. It is easy to see how this works in the area of women's health. For example, consider how much direct experience women have with the stresses of working outside the home as well as doing all the cooking and cleaning for the family. They are the experts on managing so many tasks, and they have a lot of information about how overwork affects their health. And, if they had a chance to share their experiences, they could both teach and learn a lot about the effect that stress has on their health.

The process of popular education will collect the community's knowledge of a problem, push the community to examine why the problem exists, try to uncover the roots of the problem, and decide on what actions they might take to address the problem.

a health worker giving a lecture to a group of bored women.
What Stress Does to Your Body
  • Stress is the body’s generalized physiological response to environmental stressors.
  • Stressors activate the autonomic and the endocrine systems as a part of a 'fight or flight' response.
  • Involuntarily affects heart rate, blood pressure, respiration.
  • Cortisol, aldosterone, epinephrine, norepinphrine, and thyroxine are produced during this process.
Now class, after my lecture, I will quiz you on the material to see if you have absorbed all the information about how stress affects the body.
What a waste! I could be washing clothes right now!
This is not popular education.
a group of women and men having a discussion.

How do women experience stress?
Ever since I was 13, I've been getting up at 4 in the morning to cook for the family before I go to work. At night I get dizzy spells, but what can I do?
I've never seen my mother take time out to go to the doctor… or even sit down when she is tired. Why do women have to keep serving others even when they are sick?
When I broke my wrist, I couldn't tell my boss because he might have fired me. It didn't heal properly, so now I can't use my hand well. I heard about people in another factory who fought for sick time.
Let's talk with other women in the community to find out how they handle stress.
With more information, maybe we can figure out what to do to work for changes that would make a difference.

You will find that the popular education techniques in this book help to bring people together and get them talking about how to improve their lives. With that as a goal, learning about women's health does not feel abstract.

As a group works to explore the problems they experience and to understand why they face these problems, they begin to see that many of their personal struggles are actually widely shared by others in their community. They find out that their personal problems are not so personal after all. They begin to develop action steps that address the problems at their roots, which benefits everyone in the community!

Learning from and inspiring each other

We have already mentioned that organizers from many countries greatly improved this book by reading it, trying out the activities, and sending us their comments and opinions. But something more happened in that process as well. Organizers drew lessons and inspiration from the stories and activities. For example:

In Pakistan, a group of men reviewed Chapter 8: Healthy Pregnancies and Safe Births and became engaged and inspired by the story from Tanzania about how a man organized emergency transportation for birth emergencies. The men who participated in that session have continued to meet and are now organizing rapid response to birth emergencies in their own community.

In Liberia, a group working in urban slum areas field-tested Chapter 6: Ending Gender-based Violence and Chapter 7: Protecting Women's Health with Family Planning. Inspired by the stories from Nepal and Ghana, they too took actions to promote the health of girls in their own community by working to organize forums for schoolgirls, parents, and teachers to discuss sexual exploitation and the importance of girls' education. They also carried out a successful campaign targeted at young people to encourage the use of birth control methods to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

In India, a group of men and women reviewed Chapter 3: Gender and Health. They found the activity A day in the life and their discussion about women's workloads to be especially engaging. After the workshop, they raised the issue of equal pay for men and women with their local lawmakers, especially for agricultural work.

a woman and a man speaking.
Men get 150 rupees per day while women get less than half that — 70 rupees per day. In fact, women put in more work than men!
We decided to raise this issue with our Tanta-Mukti Committee (a village-level dispute resolution committee) and the representatives of Gram Panchayat (the local self-governance institution) to discuss this issue at the village meeting.

Our hope is that your community, too, will draw ideas and inspiration from the stories and strategies in this book. Together, the combination of our efforts will bring us closer to the day when women everywhere can enjoy full access to health care and to the life conditions that promote good health.

Working for this vision will take time and courage. It can be a long, hard struggle for people with different life experiences and perspectives to find common ground and work together. The challenges may sometimes seem complex, even overwhelming. Yet women and men, young and old, from all walks of life, are accepting the challenge and taking action to improve the health and rights of women and girls. We are inspired by their example, and we think you will be too.

Every meeting you hold, every action you take, is a step on the path toward achieving Health for All. Sometimes we see only our local struggles, and we feel that change is too slow or too small — but change is happening. Each of us, no matter how limited our role may feel, makes a difference.

Like the many stories in this book, our actions as individuals and groups are like threads that, when woven together, create a colorful, sturdy fabric of a global movement for community empowerment for health. These stories of people working together to promote women's health in their communities have taught us, and can help you teach others, that by joining together in a caring and demanding movement, we can change the world.

women from different parts of the world joining hands while holding signs that promote health care for all.