MAKING the case for SRHR in emergencies

How can we reframe the need for sexual and reproductive health and rights in humanitarian emergencies?


Why is reframing needed?


Who are we going to talk to?


What messages can we use?


Where will we put this into action?

In June 2018 members of Countdown 2030 EuropeEuroNGOs and the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises (IAWG) met to ask: How could reframing help us persuade our target audiences of the need for sexual and reproductive health and rights in humanitarian emergencies?

Why IS reframing needed?

Frames are our mental shortcuts
to make sense of the world

We are not blank slates. We have pre-existing assumptions, emotions, metaphors and mental structures for understanding the world around us. 

Our frames affect how we think about an issue and whether we support it. One experiment found that describing crime as a ‘beast’ encouraged audiences to support tougher law enforcement, but describing it as a ‘virus’ led to more people supporting social reforms.

The way we talk about an issue will always be interpreted by our audience through their existing frames. We can even unintentionally strengthen frames that are damaging to our cause.


The group was gathering because its advocacy experience and independent research was warning us:

  • We should appeal to values of care and compassion which are inside all of us. 
  • Some current messaging strengthens unhelpful frames (e.g. ‘unwanted’ pregnancies or ‘pro-life’)
  • Specifically, neither our messaging of SRHR in emergencies as ‘a matter of human rights’ or as ‘life saving’ seemed to be working well enough with key audiences.
The use of the terms ‘SRHR’ and ‘family planning’ was debated, but no conclusions were reached. Where possible we have used more tangible examples, but in some places have continued to use ‘SRHR’ as the only widely-agreed term for all our goals. 
Outside of emergencies, other colleagues are working on reframing SRHR in general, which we hope to incorporate soon.

In various places on this page are quotes from group discussions and moments of insight from the workshop. One of the earliest ‘breakthrough’ moments was when the group landed on a principle that should guide the whole effort:

Who are we going to talk to?

We mapped our audiences, and prioritised three specific personalities who we could make the most gains with if we improved our framing.

"The frontline humanitarian"

  • Vital first responders in an emergency.
  • Action-orientated, move fast by necessity.
  • Sceptical of anything that looks like ‘policy distractions’.
  • Believes SRHR is a development issue not a humanitarian issue. 

"The unknowingly essential"

  • In the country affected by emergency. In a ministry pivotal for including SRHR in the emergency (health, finance, aid, etc), but does not know that – or much about the topic.
  • Cares about ‘doing the right thing’ but needs it to align with domestic politics.
  • Our current framing triggers defensiveness & risk aversion.


  • In Global North government or funder, very conscious not to ‘impose Western culture’ on South.  
  • May work directly or indirectly on SRHR, but has at least some background knowledge on the topic.
  • Has trouble persuading colleagues that SRHR is critical to each of their areas of work. 
  • Does not like being lectured at about SRHR when they feel we are ‘on the same side’.

We want them to:


That sexual & reproductive health *is* health - in an emergency it is a 'no-brainer'.


Empathy for women's need for SRHR.


Ensure health coordinators include SRHR as part of their assessment and programming.

We want them to:


It would benefit their politics/career to make the case for SRHR in emergencies.


In control of the message. Confident that it feels like the right thing to do and looks right to the people important to them (ministers, voters, etc).


Include SRHR in emergency health budgets and planning.

We want them to:


That having SRHR at the front of emergency response is feasible.


Confident and supported to make the case to colleagues.


Identify potential allies and increase support for SRHR in emergencies.

What messages can We use?

We deconstructed and reconstructed the messages that we use with those audiences, not just in text but all the ways we communicate. 

Many of these ideas are not ready to use yet (unless you spot some Lego in your next meeting room) but part of this project’s legacy can hopefully be to build up a body of creative approaches that others can build on.

Through Visuals...

Through Conversations...

We used improv theater to imagine the ‘inner monologue’ of our audiences when we talk to them

Tailored To audiences...

"The frontline humanitarian"

Do say

"You wouldn't wait for a cholera epidemic to start, so why would you not prevent an SRHR crisis..."

Don't say

"We don't want to slow down or complicate your job, BUT..."

"The unknowingly essential"

Do say

"This is what the women want, and it can improve the whole situation..."

Don't say

"SRHR is as important as food, water, shelter..."


Do say

"Here's an example of how we persuaded these people to work together and it worked..."

Don't say

"Experts agree that..."

...but with one consistent message

We can tailor the message to different audiences, and we should vary the format of our messages (visual, conversational, in person, etc), but our core message should be consistent. Everybody needs to hear a message more than once for it to sink in (especially our audiences ) and changing our messages each time could be confusing or contradictary.  

Think of it like the first half of your sentence, which is always the same, even if your second half changes depending on the specific point you want to make at that time. You probably recognise this from election campaigns:
“This country needs fresh leadership, and that’s why…. I will fix the economy/education/health”.  


Overall principles for what you should do and not do in your communication & three messages to test


  • Articulate the positive change you can achieve together with your audience.

  • Put the real lives of people you are talking about at the front of your message. Use their stories, quotes, and have them speak direct to your audience where possible.

  • Make it universal. Most of your audiences may never experience the specific horrors of a humanitarian emergency – but they can relate to similar emotions and values felt during the more common emergencies we all experience at some points in our lives.  


  • Begin with the negative ‘myth’ you are trying to counter – you will end up reinforcing it.

  • Isolate your audience (either as a ‘leader’ or as ‘lagging behind’) – instead show them they can stand together with others.

Three Messages to test

We agreed that our objective was to show that SRHR is essential to the basic primary health care in any emergency response: ‘part of what you do’. But simply making this assertion wasn’t working as well as we wanted with these audiences. So we need messages that tap into frames that our audiences already believe, and reframe our ask to convince them. 

Why test this message?

  • To be believed that SRHR is ‘part of what you do in an emergency’ we need to combine it with a frame people already associate with emergencies.

  • The emotion of ‘feeling safe’ is universal. The focus is on ‘safety’ because it creates empathy with the person in the emergency, rather than ‘protection’ which is carried out by an outside actor (the ‘protector’ on ‘the protected’)

  • Safety for yourself, for your loved ones, and for your future is something no one could argue against. By breaking it down to those essential parts we can show how SRHR is vital to all three – allowing our audience to embrace it as something they *already believe*. 

  • There still needs to be an ask – if we agree that safety is the prime responsibility of emergency response, and that safety requires sexual health services, then the logical conclusion is that not providing them is not doing the job correctly.

  • Note: This message contains an assertion that – by itself- may not already exist with your audience (e.g. that a sanitary kit ‘keeps you safe’). It must be combined with tangible demonstrations of the needs for SRHR, as in the example presentation. 

What does it look like in a paragraph?

In an emergency, you need:

Safety for yourself,

Safety for those you care about,

Safety for your future.

We cannot provide safety for people in emergencies without providing sexual and reproductive health & rights.

What does it look like in a Presentation?

Why test this message?

  • IPPF’s work on reframing SRHR has led them to emphasise a frame of ‘freedom from reproductive coercion’. 
  • The message below is not as comprehensive as talking about all forms of SRHR for all people. But there is power in being specific: it is women who are most under threat, and it is their reproductive freedom that is most contested. We should say so. 

  • IPPF’s work is looking at how to combat coercive politics in the public arena. This messaging is more advocacy-focused, so it does not name *who is doing* the bullying. The focus in the ask is that ‘we stand together’ to prevent it.

  • Note: This is about ‘freedom from’ as opposed to ‘freedom to’. To motivate some audiences to act we may need to combine with other, positive messages. 

What does it look like in a paragraph?

Women deserve the freedom to love, to have a family, and to be themselves. In emergencies, their freedom is at risk from assault, indignity, and being deprived of care or bullied into pregnancy. 

We must stand together to protect women’s freedom from coercion in emergencies.

What does it look like in a Tweet?

Why test this message?

  • In reframing SRHR work, step 1 is ‘reclaim the life frame’. 

  • In our context, the word ‘life’ still unavoidably triggers the association with the ‘pro-life’ reproductive coercion lobby, but we can reclaim the life frame by reframing it as the ‘lives’ that are the reality of the people in emergencies. 

  • We can draw inspiration from how the Equal Marriage movement reframed from ‘the family’ (traditional, solely man+woman+children) to talk about ‘all families’ (diverse, and actually representing the majority of their public).

  • We should specify the daily life processes that happen in an emergency (especially if they are unrelated to behaviour, like periods). This leads us from obvious facts that people already know, but forget, to the implication: these life processes need attention just like food, water and shelter. 

  • Note: This can be used as a retort to the ‘pro-life’ lobby, but the association probably won’t be as obvious for audiences who aren’t in this sector – so focus on the positive message.

What does it look like in a paragraph?

Our lives do not stop in an emergency.

 Periods do not stop in an emergency.
Sex does not stop in an emergency.
Pregnancy does not stop in an emergency.

 Having sexual and reproductive health & rights
makes sure emergencies don’t stop us living our lives.

What does it look like in an Advocacy brief?

WHERE WE put this into action

Framing is only as good as the mission, messengers, and movement that use it.
Here are some practical ways to use this framing straight away, as well as initiatives that are in progress which you can help with.


We will all have preferences for which message to use – and the situation is so urgent that it will feel like there is no time to test. But if we only use the opinion of the people who attend a workshop like this, we will be repeating the same mistakes.

Any testing is better than no testing. Here are some basic steps and there 

PICK a question to test - and stick to it

Which message is most effective at persuading priority audiences to think, feel, and do what we want them to?

(Note: This is not the same as testing which messages are most popular with colleagues, and it is more specific than asking audiences which message they think is best)

Use the best testing method you can deliver

At the minimum, try out the messages on someone from these audiences who you trust, getting their feedback in an email or a meeting.

Could you also set up a small focus group of a specific audience? (this may be just taking 20mins out of the agenda at the next opportunity where 3-8 of them are present, and bringing structured questions to test what they would think, feel and do, individually and in response to their peers)

Could you 'play telephone'? (Present a message to someone, ask them to pass it on, etc, until it comes back to you)

Continue Tracking the impact when it is 'for real'

One problem with testing is that it is hard for people to be completely honest (or even aware) of what frames they hold, and whether a message is effective, or just acceptable.

Can you decide on some indicators that match up to your testing question (positive advocacy outcomes after meetings, evidence of others using your messages themselves, etc), which you can honestly review every few months?

List of actions happening now - and Who to talk to about them

Key upcoming advocacy moments

  • Nov 2018: EuroNGOs Annual Conference in Brussels
  • Nov 2018: International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) in Kigali
  • Apr 2019: Commission on Population and Development (CPD) in New York
  • Jun 2019: Women Deliver Global Conference in Vancouver

Using the messages in our advocacy & Campaigns

  • Countdown 2030 Europe, as part of their advocacy towards European donors, and in their BecauseSheCounts campaign
    – Contact Joke Lannoye (
  • EuroNGOs, including through a session at their Annual conference
    – Contact Helena Szczodry (
  • Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises (IAWG), including through the development of new messages around the updated Minimal Initial Service Package (MISP)
    Contact Sarah Knaster (
  • FP2020 and IAWG joint advocacy on family planning in crisis-affected settings (including at the ICFP)
    Contact Jennifer Schlecht ( and Christina Wegs (

This project was led by Countdown 2030 EuropeEuroNGOs and the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises (IAWG) . Communications facilitation and design by Sho Konno.