By John Okandi Kogada – Project Manager and Senior Technical Advisor FGM/C and Anne Gitimu – Programme Director, Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (Amref Health Africa in Kenya)
Violence against women and girls remains a huge global problem that impacts the day-to-day lives of millions of girls and women each year. There are several justifications and drivers for Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and harmful cultural practices, but frequently, these are based on gender norms (social norms) and unequal power. This violence continues to happen in communities that justify the practice in a very noble manner, many times believing it is for the good of the girls, their families or a safeguard to their traditions. This often makes it a difficult practice to challenge.
In the last several decades, efforts to reduce GBV have gained traction with governments, international agencies, donors and civil society organisations setting legal, institutional and policy environments to support ending GBV. GBV prevention interventions have focused on economic empowerment, legislation and policy development, legal protection and rights awareness creation.
However, social norm change toward zero gender violence and elimination of harmful cultural practices requires more than supportive attitudes and awareness creation. These efforts must include an intentional move to tackle the entrenched social norms that place women and girls in the path of harm and discrimination. But most centrally, we must seek to support change from within the communities where these women and girls live. Conversations about the role of communities should be galvanized around rethinking gender norms that promote violence against women.
An emerging body of evidence indicates that in addition to traditional interventions, there is need to develop initiatives that target the transformation of social norms that ground and justify the promotion of GBV. However, challenging gender norms that communities view as cultural assets evokes two emotions: the feeling that you want them to abandon what they know and believe to be correct (antagonising long held realities); and, introducing new and contradicting behaviour (eliciting and building new fears). A powerful way to help communities overcome these suspicions and fear is to engage them in open, guided and structured community conversations. Over the past two years, our work has proven that community dialogues trigger community support for collective change and act as an effective approach to address deeply rooted gender norms that continually see women as subordinates and justify the violence meted on them.
Community dialogues provide an interactive participatory communication process that allows for information sharing, consensus building, reflective thinking, interrogation of assumptions, and group visioning. Community dialogues are based on the principles of respect for the community’s abilities to identify its needs and address its own problems; seeking local knowledge and solutions; recognising diversity; and empowerment of communities to make own decisions. Dialogues around social norms are challenging, but the collective learnings drawn from this process inform the collective efforts necessary to achieve attitude and norm change. Community conversations allow for small steps in collective decision making that leads to a shift in behaviour.
Social norms modify and reinforce behaviour yet they are considerably fragile and can collapse, creating shifts in behaviour when norms are defied and set on a declining path. However, this can also entrench the norms hence the need to engage communities in structured dialogues towards eventual small steps that can be cascaded throughout the community. These shifts allow for the formation of new preferences and ideas. To achieve these shifts, community dialogues must be facilitated not by outsiders, but by community members who serve as community champions.
Community dialogues provide both formal and informal channels to discuss new ideas and expose communities to new practices to which they respond by either contesting and/or resisting this change. Engaging respectfully with decision making structures from the point of entry however makes all the difference. While this may not achieve a total nod, it minimizes resistance and builds a pool of supporters who will sustain the change agenda. New ideas, knowledge and practices are typically spread through continuous communication with the communities and provide an avenue for collective action and social evolution towards accelerated norm change.
Structured community dialogues are designed to normalise discussion around culturally sensitive issues and especially around gender norms that restrict and diminish the advancement of women and girls. This offers a platform for both communities and change agents to discuss issues and gather community suggestions and participation, addressing them respectfully. The long term benefits of community conversations are community involvement, ownership, sustainability and achievement of desired attitude and behaviour changes.
As Nairobi prepares to host the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in November, there is an opportunity for the country to accelerate its efforts to end gender-based violence and harmful practices. Participants at the conference will look into what has worked towards ending the threat of violence and harm.
Our take is that unless we transform our social norms; we cannot achieve zero gender violence.