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Change must come from within: West African activists discuss community-led development

Tostan training participants attend a community dance. Theatre, dance and art can convey powerful messages on child marriage and FGM/C. | Photo credit: Tostan.

In November 2016, Girls Not Brides sponsored four members based in West Africa to learn from Tostan’s approach to community empowerment. Tostan works across six countries in the region, using human rights to help communities develop their own vision for development and address harmful practices like female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage.

Attending the training were Sali, Roseline, Diénabou and Mayi, from Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, southern Senegal and Togo. They tell us what they learnt.

“To change social norms, one must be very careful to work with all groups and adapt to each of them”

Our four participants met the chief and imam of a village that participated in Tostan’s three-year programme. To change the way communities see practices like FGC and child marriage, he told them, we need to involve everyone, including those opposed to change.

Roseline explains: “It is important to work with people who are obstacles because once you have their support, it is much easier to dialogue with the whole population.”

Tostan - Workshop session - Photo credit Tostan

Participants during the Tostan training on community-led empowerment. Photo credit: Tostan.

Involving relatives in other villages is equally important. We are all part of social networks that carry expectations and influence our behaviours, our members explained. So “to change harmful social norms and end child marriage, we must work with the whole social network”.

Of course, working with different groups of people asks us to be flexible, and consider aspects like gender, age, local and cultural contexts in our approaches. The village chief explained: “There is no strategy that is set in stone when it comes to addressing child marriage. You must be able to adapt to the population.”

“We shouldn’t impose but rather dialogue with people”

Banning top-down approaches was a key learning for Diénabou who works with rural communities in the south of Senegal. After ten days of training combining theory and practice, Diénabou told us that listening to, and understanding, communities is part of the social change process.

This also resonated with Mayi and Sali, who promote women and girls’ rights in Cameroon and Togo. “To be able to expect positive results and succeed in our activities, we must take community needs into account and work together with the community.”

Choosing the right words matters too. Tostan uses positive language. They avoid blaming people for their actions and focus on understanding the values behind their practices. In local languages, they use channels that people are familiar with (e.g. theatre, poems, images etc.) to talk about sensitive issues.

“When I came back from the training, my vision and approach to field work had changed”

Back in Cote d’Ivoire, Roseline’s vision has changed. “Before, I would mostly sit in the office to design a programme. As practitioners, we sometimes use methods that are not participatory enough. After the training in Senegal, I realised that harmful practices are based on values that are important for the communities we work with. Everything needs to start from communities. If we do this, we will realise that communities have the potential to raise their own awareness and only then, will we be able to really support them.”

Back in their home countries, Mayi, Sali and Diénabou will organise workshops to share what they have learnt with other organisations. For Mayi, “such model of change where communities are at the centre is really worth experimenting in Togo.”

At Girls Not Brides, we believe that we are more effective when we work together. Exchanges like these will allow our members to make connections, spark collaborations and replicate successful ideas across West Africa.

Tostan - group photo - Photo credit Tostan

Participants take a group photo at the end of the training organised by Tostan on community-led development. Photo credit: Tostan.