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Tostan’s Community-Empowerment Training: A Q&A with participant Saima Toor from Bedari in Pakistan

Saima delivering a session with traditional leaders using techniques learnt at the Tostan training.

Earlier this year, Girls Not Brides sponsored six members from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to learn from Tostan’s community-empowerment programme, particularly about how Tostan had successfully adapted the programme to address child marriage and female genital cutting/mutilation across West Africa. The human rights-led approach stresses the importance of working with the whole community, and puts people and their networks at the centre of social norm change.

In the second of three blogs, we speak to Saima Toor, Program Manager for Bedari in Pakistan, to find out how she is applying what she learnt and how it’s helping to inform her and her organisation’s work to end child marriage.

What was the most valuable thing you learned on the Tostan training?

I learnt so much valuable information during the training. Some of the most memorable learnings were around how to talk about human rights in a more accessible way; Tostan’s model of empowering communities, and the structure of the Community Management Committees which Tostan helps communities to set up.

Have you shared the knowledge/learnings with others in your organisation? How was it received?

So far I have conducted training with two teams of field staff. This involved a half day session discussing my experience of going on the Tostan training and sharing the insights I learnt about how to work with communities as well as useful tools to us.

Are you doing things differently in your child marriage work since going on the training? Can you give us some examples of the activities/approaches you are using?

Yes! I have been integrating many of the things I’ve learnt into our child marriage project which is implemented in three districts in Pakistan.

We have started to use several of the tools I learnt about on the training. For example, when we run sessions on human rights with the Child Protection Committees and community members, we use pictures to convey what these rights are and what they mean for people’s everyday lives. This idea has been really welcomed. We use the same format that we were taught at the Tostan training centre which provokes thought about different rights and what they mean. The pictures make the sessions much more engaging and easier to understand.

We have also started to use the ‘houses of knowledge’ exercise which is proving very useful because this allows us to explore different forms of education, social norms, and religious customs with community members. This exercise allows us to open up conversations about issues happening in communities of which some in the community may have been were previously unaware.

Our Child Protection Committees now also have girls and boys on them, and they are selected by their peers. Our materials on child marriage have been re-designed to be more colourful, visual, and accessible to community members as they are available in Urdu.

Do you feel these changes are making a positive impact/will you continue to implement them?

Yes, these tools are really helping me in my work and making it easier for me to convey important messages around harmful traditional practices such as child marriage.

For example, I recently delivered a session on ‘empowering communities through skills and knowledge’ for traditional leaders and community based organisations in Chakwal district. We had 28 participants in total (20 men and 8 women) and we discussed the role of social norms in changing harmful traditional practices such as child marriage for community wellbeing. We also discussed the role of traditional leaders in setting benchmarks, by demonstrating these new positive behaviours with their own families.

The session was highly participatory with fruitful discussions and the use of role play.

Saima delivering a session with traditional leaders using techniques learnt at the Tostan training.

Saima delivering a session with traditional leaders using techniques learnt at the Tostan training.

Based on what you have learnt, what advice would you give to someone/an organisation working with families and communities to address child marriage?

Working to empower communities, by providing them with the skills and knowledge to make decisions about their own future, allows us to tackle the underlying social norms which cause harmful practices. The issue of child marriage is associated with social/cultural practices rather than poverty in the communities I work in. Having conversations around the intrinsic value of girls and the harmful consequences of these practices helps people to reflect on them and think about whether they are something that they want to continue.

Using culturally appropriate techniques means we are more likely to see positive changes. If we directly challenge communities to stop child marriages we are more likely to face backlash and see little progress.

In conservative contexts or communities where it is difficult to talk about these issues, promoting things like girls education allows us to tackle child marriage in a more indirect way. This way, if girls attend school, then automatically the marriages of those girls will be delayed.

Saima talking with women in the community about the practice of child marriage.

Saima talking with women in the community about the practice of child marriage.

How would you describe your experience in Senegal in three words?

Informative, practical and adventurous.

In November, a further four Girls Not Brides members will be attending a French Tostan training in Senegal, and we hope to build upon previous successes and continue to share learnings with our members working to end child marriage.