Putting Positive Deviance into Practice: A brilliant UN Women initiative on domestic violence

Yesterday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, so it seems like a good moment to post this. 

As part of my scoping exercise on Positive Deviance, I’ve been having some great skype conversations. Monique Sternin put me in touch with Ulziisuren Jamsran (Ulzii) in Moldova, where she runs a 22 person team for UN Women (UNW) that has been a ‘self-declared innovation hub’ since 2015. She is from Mongolia, and has spent several years in Moldova, having just returned from a period in Palestine. She beautifully captures her role as an institutional entrepreneur ‘I am in the scratching business, scratching from within. UN and UNW offices in Nepal, Palestine, Fiji and Bangkok are all now introducing PD.’

PD helped her team realize that they had been overlooking a huge resource – the agency and voice of women who were survivors of domestic violence. It has transformed UNW’s work. Here’s a transcript of part of our conversation:

‘I heard about PD at the end of 2015and fell in love with it immediately – such a huge opportunity to revamp our work from the perspective of those who we try to serve. PD is not an approach, it’s a total mindset that we bring into everything that we do.

We were lucky to have partner organizations that contained many members from left-behind groups – Roma, women with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence. Because we were close to those groups, we were able to share and engage with these women on the need for innovation. It was fertile ground.

PD was the centrepiece of that innovation discussion. We asked our CSO partners to what extent they worked with survivors of violence themselves; how did they learn from them, what did they learn? The answers were absent. We operated on the basis of the assumption  that all the work with survivors had to be incognito – we had never asked the survivors if they could speak up, talk in public. It was totally new for us.

We started experimenting with 4 rural CSOs, including those that ran shelters for women. When we asked survivors if they were willing to speak in public, some said, ‘Why not?’ They were willing to share publicly and tell their stories to other women.

We identified women ready to speak up (‘the PDs’), then we organized one training for them on how to tell empowering stories. We facilitated lots of gatherings between the PDs themselves to share experiences, talk about what works, develop their own initiatives. We fan the meetings ourselves as in order to move as fast as possible.  We learned so much, felt so empowered – It was amazing!

Some women also needed briefing about their rights – not every PD had fully overcome GBV and they needed support. But we helped them to start to talk to each other, further access services and network.

The CSOs realized that they need to change their own behaviour when working with PDs. Together with CSOs we learned how much the PDs had to offer, so much knowledge, courage – it was not about empowering them, just helping them to share their empowerment with others.

Our concept has always been about how we empower victims – we have only that one scenario. But then we started to realize how much knowledge they had, e.g. on how to work with victims and survivors. They already had all the solutions that NGOs and the government together with other development actors were trying to design for the survivors.  No need! All the knowledge was there. But survivors didn’t recognize the value of their knowledge – they see it as basic experience, because no-one has ever acknowledged it.

By the end of 2016 our PDs were ready for more. NGOs started to gather survivors, but the major part of it was done by the PDs themselves. So many women came forward and started to talk with the survivors, such a high level of trust, an immediate connection. Then the survivors started to ask for assistance – so magical, yet so simple. After 4 months of experimentation, we could not believe the impact – the number of women requesting local support services was up 5 times in 4 months!

We had some data from NGO partners: their annual budget for shelters fell by 30% due to the work of PDs, because fewer women needed to be placed in shelters – women spoke up earlier and so didn’t have to leave their families.

What lessons emerged? It is the trust of the victims and survivors that matters the most. Trust towards those whom they interact with as their first critical step towards asking for services and help. In many instances the offers by the competent service providers are denied simply because they are seen as outsiders, as those who are just doing their work. People see the outsiders and ask ‘what is in it for them?’ ‘They are here today, gone tomorrow.’ PDs helped overcome that resistance.

One GBV Initiative was women survivors writing ‘a letter to my daughter’ – a story with an encouraging ending. We recorded videos of them reading their own letters and put it out on social media. It had a big resonance and encouraged more women to come forward. It’s incredible what impact it can have when it’s not the usual organizations speaking.

[Here’s one example – probably best to have a tissue handy]

[And here are the letters from Rodica Carpenco, Maria Scorodinschi and Natalia Jenunchi, who are also leading the march in the pic below]

We say ‘Positive Champions’ in Moldova not ‘Positive Deviants’, because people don’t like the term, especially in translation!

In 2017 I went to Palestine, and managed to take the PD approach there – it’s a much bigger programme and team. We had amazing results there – the main angle there was through men speaking up on their experiences of stopping violence and early marriage. 10 UN agencies in Palestine are now developing the approach.

We’re working to expand the PD work: e.g. with a tech company (Eon Reality) and a few other partner organizations (WIN, Inland University) to document behaviour of survivors, and maybe of aggressors,  and translate it into VR films to accelerate dissemination of positive behaviour that leads to breaking the violence chain.’

Apart from how wonderful and moving this is, what struck me was that PD can lead in so many different directions. They could have taken a more technical approach, along the lines of the primary education PD work in Kenya I covered last year, and identified households or communities free of violence, and what could be learned from them. Instead, they looked for deviants among the group of survivors, and something like a community organization approach emerged.

More background on the programme here.

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5 Responses to “Putting Positive Deviance into Practice: A brilliant UN Women initiative on domestic violence”
  1. Geoff

    This doesn’t seem like PD, it just sounds like a sound rights based approach, focusing on supporting people with lived experience of violence to have a voice and a role in addressing violence. Great project, but if this is positive deviance then mainstream programs must be way off track.

    • Leslie

      Fully agree with Geoff. This is exactly what we are supposed to be doing- putting rights holders in the driving seat. Of course survivors of violence have the answers, we should really know that by now. The tragic thing is that initiatives like this are still needed to remind people of this basic element of international development/ humanitarian practice. This isn’t to knock this important UN Women initiative in any way. It is sorely needed. And I am very grateful to you for flagging it up Duncan to remind ourselves of this kind of basic good practice. I am wondering if we now need to repackage things (again) as “positive deviance” because we are too afraid to use the term women’s emPOWERment nowadays, or maybe it just got so watered down that it was so far away from its roots that we needed a new term. ….But I agree with the Moldovan women that “deviance” is the wrong label in this case. Congratulations to the “Positive Champions”!

  2. Duncan Campbell

    Dear Duncan,
    Positive Deviance is a real thing, and this blog could have been so good. But it’s pepper with words like “always”, “never”, and “all the solutions”??? Red flags waiving all over the place! Ah, the human infatuation with silver bullets and absolutes. No, rights holders DO NOT have all the answers, and no, NGOs and governments DO NOT always get it wrong. We really do need each other. There are many unsung heroes across the globe who don’t make the news, or your blog, both women and men, governments and NGOs and CBOs, and others, who use a wise and discerning and respectful approach, who ensure all stakeholders get a place and voice at the table, who make sure power and privilege are not abused, and who achieve wonderful, positive, appropriate improvements for poor and marginalised people.
    Positive Deviance is a very important “behaviour” – it’s not actually a “thing”, it’s people, individuals who refuse to be held back by what doesn’t make sense and who forge ahead with right thinking and behaviour, often lived out with grace and diplomacy, and in spite of intense resistance from family and friends and neighbours. When one is conscious of the concept, and looks for it, and helps the PD people to discover, and/or to better articulate and share, their voice, the PDs can become an incredibly powerful force for change. I can site many examples from my 30+ years of working in relief and development.
    (Warning, rant coming!) And guess who are the biggest offenders in muzzling the PDs? The major funders. Their straight jacket systems and procedures – which sometimes talk the talk but rarely, if ever, walk the walk – don’t leave room for discovering PDs and letting them take their rightful place as projects are implemented. Everything has to be know and planned in detail from the beginning, and any changes that the implementer tries to make are bound up by slow and painful forms and approvals, and ad nauseam rounds of Q&A, such that it is virtually impossible to implement them. I have been the victim of this MANY times, and it’s amazing how the funders come up with spin to make it sound like they’re right and the NGOs are wrong! (End of rant.)