02 femplatz's pilot for resilient roots

Organisation

FemPlatz

Location

Serbia

Recommendations

01 03 05

Innovation Category

Strategy

Renewing trust from the roots up through a new concept of accountability.

Summary

This case shows how a civil society organisation can adapt communication tools and tactics to bring its primary constituents closer to what it does and strengthen its resilience in a populist context that challenges the legitimacy of its work and goals.


Main Features of the Populist Context

The populist conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in 2012 on the basis of a “backlash from voters buffeted by the economic crisis”, and subsequently under the leadership of Prime Minister and then later President, Aleksandar Vučić. The two core elements of populism are present in Serbia as follows:

anti-elitism: Serbia has a long history at the “vanguard” of populism, most recently deploying a complex mix of socio-economic and nationalist narratives: using rhetoric which promotes the EU integration agenda and economic reform, but also borrowing securitarian discourses from Western governments fighting terrorism. Populists and right-wing parties have used austerity measures, worsening economic conditions and nationalistic framings as political opportunities to undermine overall gender equality in Serbia. Opponents, especially independent media, are cast as “traitors” and “foreign mercenaries”.

anti-pluralism: Increasingly, Vučić has been exercising almost autocratic control over the country’s affairs, symbolised by his iron grip on the media. This was part of the reason for big protests sparked around the country for several months in early 2019.

In recent years, new national policies in Serbia have been characterised by serious gender stereotyping, traditionalism and patriarchal discourse that promotes and “protects” highly conservative ideas about family and traditional gender roles (“women as mothers”). The adoption of the new Law on Gender Equality has been stalled for almost three years without meaningful public dialogue, and the responsible government ministry has even stated that “forcing gender equality is not good for our country, especially if we want to draw new investors in Serbia”. In other words, the use of anti-gender rhetoric and traditional “Serbian national family values” are often conflated with fear-mongering socio-economic populist narratives.

Gender stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory statements are widely present, perpetuated and continuously reinforced in the media and across Serbia’s political spectrum, very often by powerful public officials such as ministers, state secretaries and even the President. These discriminatory and sexist statements are not isolated incidents but clearly portray longstanding patriarchal attitudes in governmental authorities, that shape public policies about women’s rights and influence their positions in Serbian society.

This populist language is inflammatory, offensive and above all dangerous, as it is capable of shaping citizens’ attitudes and influencing a “public backlash in the perception of gender equality”, and is fast becoming a mainstream narrative. It also reinforces a culture of acceptance and impunity to (online) gender-based violence. Threats, intimidation and harassment of female journalists, women’s rights defenders and female public figures and opposition leaders have become normalised.

In recent years, CSOs publicly criticising the government or working on sensitive issues have been threatened and harassed. Serbia is currently classed by the CIVICUS Monitor as having narrowed civic space.


Role of Digital Media

The digital sphere has become filled with online gender-based violence, targeted towards civil society. A study in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia 4 in 2018 showed that 54.3% of activists in non-governmental organisations/ non-formal groups (working in the area of gender equality, social exclusion and discrimination, youth, LGBT+ rights, Roma rights, rights of persons with disabilities) had experienced online violence. Well paid “netizens” are also employed to scan online social media, commenting in favour of the government and against anyone with opposing views.


Main Features of the Innovation

Through its primary constituent accountability pilot for Resilient Roots, FemPlatz has focused on building stronger relationships and trust with its primary constituents to shape and strengthen its advocacy demands for gender equality. Together with a diverse group of 120 women and 10 women’s rights organisations in Serbia, FemPlatz discussed the meaning of advocacy, the benefits and challenges in policy-making, FemPlatz’s accountability to them and their active participation in its work. The main features of the innovation include:

FemPlatz recognised the need to change its language and communication methods in order to build trust with the community it was working for. Civil society organisations often react strongly in public to misogynistic statements, but the impersonal and highly technical expert language they use often serves to disconnect communities of affected women from the issues at stake.

First, FemPlatz changed the way it talks about gender-based discrimination and women’s rights so that women could relate to its stories and start deconstructing anti-feminist populist narratives. To provide evidence-based information and build a community of support, FemPlatz tested different methods to explain its advocacy work. This included providing details on policy adoption processes in Serbia, discussing their impact on women’s everyday lives and drawing connections between seemingly benevolent statements and official public policies. FemPlatz encouraged women to share their own stories and opinions.

To be truly representative, FemPlatz opened all communication channels and methods to its primary constituents. This included phone calls, office hours, email, chat plat – forms and even tools for sending audio feed – back recordings for women who have writing or speaking difficulties. FemPlatz adapted each approach to address specific needs, such as simplifying surveys for women with learning disabilities. It has also facilitated small group meetings with elderly women, art workshops with young feminists and initiated home visits to rural women.

FemPlatz’s objective was to initiate meaningful dialogue and spark the co-creation of programmes, even though the content and formats can vary. To achieve this, FemPlatz created a toolbox of online and offline instruments to collect feedback and provide communication guidelines, as well as new internal procedures for how to course-correct its work in line with participant feedback.

FemPlatz’s primary constituents expressed a preference for short, clear and visually appealing information sent by email or posted in closed chat groups that were organised by topic or theme. FemPlatz responded by producing topic-specific learning materials, user-friendly versions of its reports, more visual and less written content, infographics, two-page policy briefs, human interest stories and more.

FemPlatz designs communications materials with mobile phones in mind, incorporating simple content that can easily be accessed, responded to and shared. Acting on another suggestion from its primary constituents, FemPlatz also occasionally organises thematic meetings to directly discuss women’s feedback. It regularly thanks female participants for their engagement, time, dedication and discussions.

Directly demonstrating these changes within the organisation’s tools and tactics itself as a result of this engagement helps build the capacity and confidence of its primary constituents that they can be active agents of organisational (or “institutional”) change more broadly.


Key Takeaways

  1. An organisation like FemPlatz must never assume what is best for its primary constituents. Instead, it is important for organisations to be responsive to their constituents’ changing needs, and adopt a flexible and iterative approach. FemPlatz has recognised that accountability to primary constituents must be embedded in its everyday work, across its programmes and as part of its organisational culture.

  2. Meaningful change came from these investments in actively seeking input from FemPlatz’s primary constituents. By responding, and showing these changes as a result of the feedback, FemPlatz not only built stronger relationships with its key audiences, but the responsiveness of the process also empowered constituents as agents of change, thereby strengthening their confidence.

  3. Although many traditional advocacy activities are being implemented to fight populist anti-gender discourse, FemPlatz has shown that building trust among primary constituents, engaging them through meaningful communication and shaping programmes with their input, have helped forge lasting communities of support and empowerment for women. This approach has helped women feel more connected to the organisation, empowering them to share their stories. The process has forged an important shared platform from which to question conservative and patriarchal public discourse together.


Innovation Categorisation

We have categorised this as an established, core/adjacent innovation. With an explicit focus on engaging the organisation’s core primary constituents/audiences, it demonstrates incremental and adaptive use of existing tools and tactics in response to their feedback.

This is an established innovation as of 2020, as the pilot has now been implemented and evidence is available to assess the impact it has achieved for the organisation (see infographic).

 


Innovating Organisation

FemPlatz is a feminist advocacy organisation operating in Serbia since 2017. It empowers women and girls, advocates for gender equality policies and women’s rights, strengthens the capacities of relevant stakeholders and changes negative attitudes about gender equality and social inclusion. Its work focuses on the rights of women from disadvantaged groups who are exposed to multiple and intersectional discrimination.


Innovation Report     2019

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