Intersectional messaging

Toolkit arrow-right Creating a communication and media strategy

"Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes." - Desmond Tutu

Table of content

1: Introduction
2: Creating empowering alternative narratives
3: Recognising context, diversity, nuance and complexity
4: Authentic voices
5: Respectful and intentional language
6: Collective power
7: Intersectional messaging checklist

1: Introduction

It is often said that communication is the backbone of human relationships. Through our words, symbols, images and actions, we exchange messages with others that convey our thoughts, ideas and information. As advocates working towards inclusive sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), our messages are the first and most crucial vehicles for expressing the principles of intersectionality we stand for.

This Intersectional Messaging tool helps advocates transform these intersectionality principles from theory into practice. It provides guidance on developing messages that:

  • Create positive and empowering alternative narratives
  • Recognise diversity and complexity within and between humans and their experiences
  • Centre the voices of those who are minoritised
  • Use respectful and intentional language
  • Build collective power to confront and challenge injustices

By training ourselves in intersectional messaging, we start to intentionally express the complexity of our own identity and the identity of others. This helps us become part of an inclusive solution.


Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities interlink to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. This framework makes us aware of the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as ethnicity, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, etc. It helps us to understand how these overlap to create compounded and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage as well as power and privilege. We must keep in mind that this privilege or vulnerability is not static, but keeps shifting over place and time. Want to know more? Check out the Intersectionality 101 tool.

2: Creating empowering alternative narratives

“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that’s what they become.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Narratives shape ideas, perceptions and opinions, and are thus key for effective lobby and advocacy. A narrative is a collection of related stories, or an overarching story of a person, group, subject or event, with certain recurring themes, beliefs and ideas. These narratives are, in turn, shaped by the existing power dynamics between those who are telling the story and those who the stories are about. The more singular – or one-sided – the narrative about a person or a group of people, the more their image is being flattened into a stereotype. These messages are not necessarily untrue, but they are incomplete. The people who are furthest left behind, those with compounded vulnerabilities that face systemic oppression, are most at risk of having a ‘singular story’. Those stories are often patronising and reinforce the systems of power and oppression.

Changing narratives means changing the way we look at certain issues or people. This involves getting a broader picture of the problem and seeing it from another person’s point of view. Intersectional messaging can do exactly that. It creates an alternative, empowering and contextualised narrative that counters or shifts the current singular narrative. Stories that focus on the subject’s humanity, agency and dignity can help to reframe the issues and rewrite common one-dimensional views. And they enable us to challenge problematic biases and stereotypes, and to deconstruct or disrupt the systems of power.

An example

People with disabilities are often pushed into the shadows, portrayed as victims or a burden to society, and reduced to only one aspect of their identity – their disability. You can change the narrative and alter the way they are represented in the mainstream by making them the main character in your story – a person with agency, independence and a multi-layered identity.

3: Recognising context, diversity, nuance and complexity

“There is so much grey to every story – nothing is so black and white.” – Lisa Ling

Intersectional messages recognise context, diversity, nuance and complexity. Overlapping identities like gender, age, ability and level of education create unique experiences when accessing SRHR. Using general terms and descriptions eliminates the conditions and experiences of those who are most vulnerable to discrimination and oppression. So it is important to incorporate diversity and complexity in your messages, by talking about – and showing – a wide range of people and their experiences.

In practice, you need to ensure you write specifically and accurately about the groups you are working with and for. Minoritised people are often made to be invisible, and using broad, neutral terms will not change that. So, if possible, use specific words for specific groups of people. Appreciate the nuance, complexity and diversity of people’s experiences and circumstances by not using simplifications, generalisations and all-or-nothing words or categories such as safe/unsafe, legal/illegal or right/wrong.

When creating advocacy messages, we must also bear in mind that our target audience is not a single group either. It is very much a diverse group of multiple identities. For more information about target audiences, formats, channels and the use of media, please see Developing an intersectional communication and media strategy tool.

An example

You are telling a story about access to contraceptives in your country, for women and girls in all their diversity. So it is important to mention the specific challenges they face in doing so, as girls, young women, women and girls with disabilities, women and girls living in rural areas, women and girls outside formal education or women in the LGBTQI+ community, rather than generalising about the issues and recommendations.

4: Authentic voices

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” – Bryant H. McGill

When you are writing a message or telling a story, it is important to ask yourself: “Who is affected by this social issue I am addressing?”. The answer to that ‘who’ question, the diverse group of people with this lived experience, should be at the centre of your story. Learn to honour and listen to voices that are different from your own, especially minoritised voices that are often not heard. Collaborate with them, and include them as much as possible. This will help you to represent their lived experiences more accurately.

Ask yourself if you are the right person to be speaking about certain issues – and make space for people to speak for themselves. You can use your position to lift those voices up, give them a platform and learn from them. This will not only inform you and empower those who are furthest left behind, it will also help your messaging to become more authentic and powerful.

An example

When writing an article about girls living in rural areas, interview a diverse group of girls and give them the opportunity to share their experiences. Be careful how you edit their contributions, and send them the article for review before publishing. Better still, let them write the article themselves, so they can bring their own perspectives unfiltered.

5: Respectful and intentional language

“It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.” – Mae West

Words and images carry meaning which impacts perception. So use empowering language that demonstrates the subject’s agency and treats them in a dignified manner. And never further entrench stereotypes or stigmas by replicating conservative, harmful or stereotypical language. Instead, set your own agenda with your own positive framing and terminology. It is easy to unintentionally stigmatise identities through inaccurate or negative and value-laden language. Be well informed about someone’s identity – your level of accuracy will help to correct the misconceptions that exist around these identities.

More information:

An example

Be careful not to reduce someone to just one facet of their identity. So instead of saying “HIV-positive people”, say “people living with HIV”, as their HIV status is not their entire identity.

6: Collective power

“Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Intersectional messaging recognises the importance of community and the importance of building something called ‘power with’. That is the power to confront and challenge injustice by finding, mobilising and joining hands with others who face the same injustice, or care about the same cause, even if they have different identities and/or vulnerabilities. For example, a dark-skinned person and a light-skinned hijab-wearing person could come from different social locations but may have to negotiate with the same systems of oppression. By joining forces in their communication, they can create more impact.

Intersectional messaging acknowledges this connection between and among communities. It also shows the importance of ensuring that all community members are respected, and all their experiences are recognised. By including a diverse group of people working towards the same goal, you invite others to do the same. So create an open, inviting environment where people from different backgrounds can come together to work towards a shared objective. We are all in it together!

An example

To build solidarity and motivate people to join your lobby and advocacy efforts, speak in terms of “we” and “us”, instead of “I” or “they”.

7: Intersectional messaging checklist

Use the following questions to check your own messages:

  • Does your message disrupt, rather than reinforce, existing power dynamics?
  • Does your message create an alternative narrative to the popular one-dimensional portrayal?
  • Are the people affected by an issue well represented in all their diversity in your message?
  • Are the voices of the most minoritised people included, amplified and centred?
  • Did you allow people to tell their own authentic story, regardless of the story you were looking for?
  • Does your story empower, rather than disempower, the subjects?
  • Does your message promote the dignity of the people you are talking about?
  • Does your message break down a stereotype about an identity?
  • Is your message accessible to as many people as possible, for example people with a disability, people with low literacy skills or people with limited internet access? For more information about accessibility, read the Checklist for Accessible Communication

Authors: Oluwatobiloba Ayodele Elizabeth (AMwA), Mubeezi Tenda (AMwA) and Caroline van der Molen (Wemos).


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