Activism & Social Transformation; Does Our Behavior Matter?

By Onen David Ongwech, Programme Manager - Gender & Sexuality (Published 21st April 2016)

Sometimes people and cultures are more impacted by what is done than what is said. I personally find it hard to breathe when, for example, I see police officers walk passed people fighting, when a medical doctor drives past a tragic accident scene, when a community leader organizes a meeting that excludes women, when a child protection officer contributes to the marriage of a 15 year old girl, when a law enforcement officer is arrested for selling drugs, or when a person makes a U-turn upon reaching a cul-de-sac but tells no-one heading in the same direction. These are just a few examples of how some professionals in a range of spheres become complacent and even complicit when confronted with issues that should instead bring out the best in them. 

As humans whose levels of knowledge, experience and exposure increase over time, we can play crucial roles in transforming our society, and it is essential that we pro-actively question things that affect us, both personally and professionally: Activism is not innate, neither do we simply wake up and decide to become activists. It requires being cognizant of injustices, having the passion and courage to say ‘STOP!’. Injustices are perpetrated the moment we stop talking about and questioning issues we are confronted with. Complicity and tolerance to injustice is expressed in attitudes and behaviors, either through inertia or through actively participating.

Whichever way we engage with given situations, our behavior potentially shapes that of others, especially the younger generation. Why, one wonders, would a public figure who undresses before a crowd make news for weeks? Why would a medical doctor kneel before a witch doctor? When they behave like this for their personal reasons, are they thinking about what society expects from its leaders and people in authority? Even if it is their life and therefore their rights, such behaviours bring to mind the saying “Do as I say but not as I do.”

I would argue that walking the talk is crucial for personal, interpersonal and societal progress. It’s crucial that we give back to community through exercising our personal, social and professional strengths to educate people on issues that we believe are important. Community policing by a police officer, primary health care education by a medical worker and much more should be what a state expects from its citizens.

Behavioral scientists assert that depending on personality and the situation they are confronted with, people toggle between flight, fight and freeze modes when confronted with issues that challenge them. Irrespective of the quest for personal safety, personality types, cultural, political & religious beliefs, it is imperative that professionals live by their codes of ethics and serve their community as required by their professional codes of conduct.

Community-led arrangements such as mothers’ and fathers’ unions, local council committees for the youth, elderly, women and PWD groups, SGBVP taskforces and Village Health Teams (VHTs) offer some important entry points for nurturing and upholding essential values as well as inspiring others to live within the expected realm free from human rights abuse and discrimination.

Achieving social transformation requires sacrifice to start from where we are and with whatever resources we have. It demands that we begin to question and discuss what might seem normal, immoral, unusual, unpleasant and difficult to talk about such as issues of gender and human sexuality. This requires us to self-audit our deeply held assumptions, perceptions and attitudes rather than simply displacing challenges to the state, systems and structures which are anyhow created, nurtured and perpetrated by people themselves.

If you and I collectively inject our ideas and resources for a common cause, this world would be a better place for us and we shall leave it an inclusive, safer, and accommodating planet for future generations. 

As Tony Judt (a British Historian) once said, “We need to start talking about inequality again; we need to start talking about the inequities and unfairnesses and the injustices of an excessively divided society, divided by wealth, by opportunity, by outcome, by assets and so forth.”

The writer (David Onen Ongwech – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is Gender Activist working with Refugee Law Project on conflict-related sexual violence.


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