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Tostan’s community-empowerment training: A Q&A with participant Charles Banda from Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO), Malawi

Charles holds a community conversation on the issue of child marriage

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 they had successfully adapted the programme to address child marriage and female genital cutting 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.

Six months on we are speaking to our members to find out how they are applying what they learnt and how it’s helping to inform their work to end child marriage. In the first of three blogs, we speak to Charles Banda, Programme Manager for Radio and Advocacy at Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) in Malawi.

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

The most valuable thing was learning about community empowerment – how to engage communities and get them to publicly denounce the traditional practices which violate the rights of girls. Communities can discuss issues and then decide what to do themselves. That process allows them to come, on their own, to the conclusion of how to change their lives for the better.

Have you shared the knowledge/learnings with others in your organisation and/or the Malawi National Partnership to end child marriage? How was it received?

I was able to share the concepts and activities with the Malawi National Partnership and some of our partner organisations – ActionAid for instance works a lot with adolescent girls, including on child marriage. I also spoke to my colleagues at Youth Net and Counselling. They saw the potential for using some of these new concepts in our five-year programme on child marriage, including how to improve how we engage with community leaders and child protection structures in the communities.

Charles sharing the learning from the Tostan training with members of Girls Not Brides Malawi Chapter

Charles sharing the learning from the Tostan training with members of Girls Not Brides Malawi Chapter

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 now using?

Yes! Since going on the training I have seen that the law is the not the only solution. The majority of local leaders here think the law is the answer but lessons from Senegal tell me that this is not the case. It is about community members taking action themselves. As a result, the focus of our work has shifted. We have moved from law enforcement to community empowerment. We do community “open days” where children and teachers from schools and villagers come together and take part in dance or drama. We also invite policy-makers and traditional chiefs to raise awareness of child marriage. We now do more advocacy with the chiefs, and peer education at community level. We also organise training on child protection structures at community level. Policy-makers can change laws, but we need to focus on what the community can do if we really want to end child marriage.

The Tostan approach is very different – they really take their time, have dialogue with communities on other issues not just CM and FGC which really changes the mentality of that community….the Tostan approach is able to address gaps we have in our community because of the time spent with them and the focus on internal reflection.

Charles conducting meetings with senior chiefs in Mangochi on the need to end harmful cultural practices such as child marriage

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

In the past few months we are seeing more cases of child marriage being reported by community members. I think this is because the community members feel they are involved, they know more about the issue so they want to act.

We have also reached out to people from local health centres to provide information on sexual and reproductive health, and raise awareness of the consequences of child marriage such as fistula.

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

They need to understand the complexity of child marriage and ensure their programming has strong elements of community empowerment – specifically, they should start a dialogue with local leaders and community members. They shouldn’t have a preconceived position when they go to a community – they should take a neutral position when facilitating that dialogue. For example, YONECO has two levels of operation, we have staff who go into communities periodically to conduct major activities and also community based educators who are carry out more frequent training and follow up on reported cases. Where these cases are complex the community based educators are supported by other members of staff.

The other issue is that people need to understand the culture in the area in which they are working. The Tostan model taught us how to use a human rights approach as a way to challenge some of these cultural beliefs without disrespecting community values and traditions.

In November, a further four Girls Not Brides members will be attending the 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.