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Changing social norms around child marriage: activists share what they’ve learned from Tostan

Community members in Soudiane in the Fatick region of Senegal act out a wedding ceremony during a traditional marriage song. | Photo credit: Kaela McConnon | Tostan

In April, Girls Not Brides sponsored six members from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to learn from Tostan’s community-empowerment programme, particularly how they had successfully replicated their programme to address child marriage and female genital cutting across West Africa. The human rights-lead approach stresses the importance of working with the whole community, and puts social networks at the centre of social norm change.

We spoke to three Girls Not Brides members about their training experience, what they learned, and what advice they would give to organisations working with communities to end child marriage.

Debbie Kangombe (Project coordinator, Young Women’s Christian Association of Zambia)

Debbie Kangombe 150pxWhy I attended the Tostan training: When I was introduced to Tostan’s approach and saw how successful it was, I wondered: what were they doing differently from us? We work directly in the communities, with married girls and their husbands, with chiefs and traditional leaders, which hasn’t been easy. I wanted to learn how Tostan had overcome community resistance, and how we could get communities to embrace and take ownership of programmes to end child marriage.

What I learned: I learned so many things during the training, especially the importance of empowering communities to define their own wellbeing. What do they want to achieve? What do they dream about? Communities are able to build their own vision, identify what they value most, and drive that change forward. That’s critical to changing social norms.

I also appreciated the concept of organised diffusion (note: a social mobilisation process which allows the spread of information and new ideas organically, from person to person and community to community). We cannot do everything on our own. To end child marriage, we need to rely on the power of our networks.

My advice to Girls Not Brides members: If you are working on child marriage, you need to understand the context in which you are working. Communities are dynamic, they hold on to different values and these vary from community to community. Once we understand each community’s values and social norms, then we can work effectively with them.

Racheal Okuja (Programme Coordinator at the Girl Child Network, Uganda)

Racheal Okuja, Girl Child Network, Uganda_400pxWhy I attended the Tostan training: I wanted to meet advocates from other countries, working on child marriage and facing similar challenges to ours, and see how they were working with communities to resolve them. What were they doing that we could do? In particular, how could we better support girls to avoid child marriage?

What I learned: I learned a lot from Tostan’s human rights approach and how it can shape our girls’ empowerment programmes. Human rights education is key to getting girls to understand that they have rights and that they should demand to be treated equally. We should also make sure that girls understand why we are doing work with them from the very beginning.

My advice to Girls Not Brides members: Communities have gatekeepers and influential people. My advice to other Girls Not Brides members would be to appreciate them. Hear what they have to say, what they aspire to for the future. Understand their vision for the community and how ending child marriage can support that vision.

Koshuma Mtengeti (Executive Director at Children’s Dignity Forum, TANZANIA)

Koshuma Mtengeti, Children's Dignity Forum, TanzaniaWhy I attended the Tostan training: I had read about Tostan’s human rights approach to community development in “However long the night” (note: by Molly Melching, Tostan’s Founder and Executive Director). I wanted to learn how we could apply this approach, change the attitudes and actions of community members, as well as managing change within communities. Plus, how they mobilised and involved a whole network of communities across West Africa.

What I learned: I learned about the power of the individual, the power of leadership. Part of working with communities means identifying critical and influential people within them who are in a position to shift minds and attitudes on a larger scale.

My advice to Girls Not Brides members: Ending child marriage is in the interest of a lot of individuals in the community, including local authorities, government officials. We need to make sure that we join hands and work together, that partnership becomes an integral part of our efforts to end child marriage.

Do you work with communities to address child marriage? Share your experience in the comments below!

This article is based on a longer phone interview with Debbie, Racheal and Koshuma. The conversation was edited for length and readability.