Community Action

What is community action?

Community action refers to forms of collective mobilisation where individuals or groups come together to identify their own needs and determine their own forms of action to meet those needs. A key component is that it sees the responsibility for mobilising to lie not just with those who are affected by an issue but with a broader social network of people and organisations working together to affect positive change. Community action might include mobilising to provide local services, to campaign for changes in policy or the law, or to raise awareness of an issue. Action normally takes place at a community level and is often outside of the normal political framework.

Historically, 'community' has referred to groups of people living and/or working in a similar geographic space. However, community is now used more broadly to refer to groups, both big and small who share a common value, interest or characteristic. Communities may exist across local and national borders and there are a growing number of online communities who may only communicate and mobilise through the internet.

In terms of community action, community refers to the group of people or organisations who come together around a particular issue, or issues, and who share a commitment to create change. In relation to sexual rights, this might be around the interests of particular groups such as sex workers or the wives of gay men, or around issues such as virginity testing or sexual harassment.

In her work with community organisers to challenge sexual violence, Lydia Guy highlights the importance of engaging in dialogue with a broad range of stakeholders and of working to achieve a shared understanding. She reflects that the process of collective dialogue can often result in a solution that doesn’t match what any individual stakeholders expected, but can be exactly what the community needs.

To read more see: An Introduction to Community Development: Activation to Evaluation

There is no 'one-size-fits-all' model of community action but there are a number of key features of successful community action that it are worth highlighting.

Community Action through Coalitions

One way that community action works to affect change is through coalitions. Coalitions are where individuals or groups agree to join forces and work together in joint action. These can be built within the same geographical area or across local and national boundaries. Technology can be particularly important for coalition building and for keeping members in touch with one another and up-to-date on activities.

The case of Dr Paul Semugoma

Dr Paul Semugoma is a Ugandan medical doctor and human rights activist who was detained by South African immigration officials at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg in February 2014. Semugoba has lived in South Africa since 2012, working as a prominent advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In the week that he was detained in South Africa, Ugandan President Museveni committed to signing into law the anti-homosexuality bill. Among many draconian measures stipulated in the bill, including life-imprisonment of all LGBT Ugandans, was the ruling that all LGBT Ugandans would be subject to the penalties held in the law, irrespective of whether or not they lived in Uganda. Concerned that Dr Semugoba would be forced to return to a country where he would be criminalized as a gay man, and likely imprisoned, international organisations (International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission) and national organisations (like the Treatment Action Campaign and its close legal rights’ ally, Section 27, Sonke Gender Justice and Coalition of African Lesbians) managed to obtain a court order to halt Dr Semugoma’s threatened deportation. Despite this court order, the Department of Home Affairs attempted to put Semugoma on the plane to deport him.

Thomas Ndayiragije (left), Senior Program Officer for Africa at IGLHRC, greeted Dr. Semugoma (right) upon his release. Photo courtesy IGLHRC

A call was issued across South Africa’s social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter, and by friends and colleagues working in this coalition of organisations. Hundreds of people travelled to the airport, and stood outside to protest Semugoba’s detention and to call for his release.


This public form of community action, along with the court action undertaken by the coalition of activist organisations described above, brought visibility to the serious implications of the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill and the risks that it would pose to people like Semugoba who are openly gay and who work to challenge the power of the Ugandan government. Through this form of community action - spanning activists and organisations within and outside South Africa - they were able to place pressure on the South African government to issue a visa enabling Semugoba to safely remain in the country. However, the real struggle remains for LGBT Ugandans, and South African activists highlight the importance of continued pressure on political structures, through community action:

The events of the past three days expose serious problems with the manner in which foreign nationals are treated in South Africa. Whereas Dr Semugoma had the support of the medical and activist community, many other foreign nationals have no such support networks. Additionally, we were reminded of the worrying silence of the South African government in relation to anti-gay legislation in other African countries and more specifically the recent developments in Uganda.

Statement by the Treatment Action Campaign, Anova Health Institute and SECTION27.

Click here to read about Sex Work Coalitions and Public Community Action in South Africa

SWEAT / Sisonke march for sex workers rights

In South Africa, sex work continues to be criminalised and sex workers, particularly those working in public spaces like streets, are exposed to arbitrary violence by the state.

In 2011 the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) was joined by a range of feminist, health and education organisations to issue a statement condemning police brutality against sex workers in South Africa. People holding the iconic red umbrellas stopped traffic in Cape Town’s city centre as they marched with SWEAT along the city’s streets, singing anti-apartheid songs and toyi-toying as a collective group, as a community of people who were all in support of sex workers rights to work, free from the risk of rape and other forms of violence from policemen.

In January 2014, members of SWEAT and the Sisonke Sex Workers Movement were publicly removed from the public hearings on the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (WEGE) bill. Holding posters denouncing the proposed bill, these lobbyists aimed to raise awareness of the shortcomings of policies that are poorly implemented, and that do not take into account the intersections of gender, sexuality, class and race.

Nosipho Vidima, National Lobbyist with SWEAT and Sisonke stressed that certain women are more likely than other’s to face barriers:

“Black women, rural women, women with disabilities, sex workers, women exposed to gang violence, and gender non-conforming people continue to experience far greater barriers than white, urban and middleclass counterparts… This Bill does nothing for sex workers. We’d rather they push the law reform process on sex work, which has been stalled for over a decade”.