Community dialogues from Shinyanga, Tanzania – Actively involving communities in the fight against child marriage

In the Shinyanga region of Tanzania, Firelight is partnering with a cluster of 13 community-based organizations (CBOs) that are fighting against the scourge of child marriage and to protect and uphold the rights of girl children in their communities. Firelight and its partners chose Shinyanga because it has the highest rates of child marriage in Tanzania.

What is participatory research?

Participatory research is an approach to research in communities that emphasizes participation and action. It seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and following reflection. Participatory research emphasizes collective inquiry and experimentation grounded in experience and social history.

Why community dialogues?

Firelight believes in the power of community-based organizations to effect real change for the children and youth of Africa. But we also believe that systemic change does not occur without the active participation and leadership of community members in their own change. Based on this belief, we support community-based organizations to engage in exercises like participatory research and human centered design before we even begin an initiative, and we seek to build the capacity of our CBO partners in these kinds of participatory research so that they can use them long after we have gone.

Community Dialogues in Shinyanga

Firelight has developed and refined Community Dialogues as a set of participatory methodologies to surface community perspectives on issues affecting children. In 2015, and again in 2016, Firelight supported our community-based organization partners to engage in participatory dialogues with their communities to understand how people, things, and spaces in their community were affecting children’s well-being.

Together, Firelight and its CBO partners asked two key questions of both adults and children in Shinyanga -

  • What do communities identify as their challenges and assets in supporting children?
  • What are the factors in children’s lives that support and harm them?

Through the Community Dialogue process, our CBO partners worked with their communities to explore:

  1. Physical contexts in which children spend time in their communities
  2. Community factors that protect and support their safety and wellbeing
  3. Community factors which endanger and harm their safety and wellbeing
  4. Perspective differences between adults and children
  5. Potential for community mobilization to build on strengths and to address challenges in improving children’s safety and wellbeing

Why are Firelight’s Community Dialogues Important?

Firelight’s Community Dialogues process include a variety of participatory methods—for both children and adults—that our partners can choose from according to what they feel is appropriate for the context and the participants. In Firelight’s Shinyanga funding cluster, the community dialogues were conducted before the rest of the work even started because they provide an important way for communities to question their existing paradigms, construct their own solutions and sustain them over time.

Body Mapping 2For children, one example activity is a body mapping exercise, where children draw a “body map” by tracing the outline of a child on a large sheet of paper. A vertical line is drawn down the middle. On one side, children are asked to write or draw factors which contribute to a “happy child,” and on the other side, factors which contribute to a “sad child.” Different parts of the body are used to probe children’s responses on different aspects of wellbeing. For instance, in the outline of the child’s legs and feet, children are asked to reflect on the places they can and cannot walk, and the places that they go to that make them happy or sad. This exercise is intended to create a safe space, with a visual element, in which dialogue can comfortably emerge around aspects of their communities that affect children in positive or negative ways. Other exercises for children included in the Community Dialogues are community transect walks and H assessments.

For adults, our Community Dialogues process includes community mapping and focus group discussions. During the community mapping exercise, adults are asked to collaboratively develop a map of their community, specifically identifying the spaces in which children spend time—where they live, learn, interact, play, move, travel, sleep, get care, and care for others. Adults discuss how these spaces support or harm children’s safety and wellbeing.

What did our CBO partners learn from the Community Dialogues?

Our partners conducted Year 2 of the Community Dialogues with their communities in mid-2016. Their notes were qualitatively analyzed for themes relating to the key questions, and the following major findings relevant to child protection emerged:

  1. The home and school contexts—where children spend most of their time—remain key spaces to target in child protection efforts.
  1. Adequate provisions, resources, and facilities are fundamental to supporting children’s health, safety, and wellbeing. Within the home, this means ensuring the presence of basic physical necessities and positive socio-emotional relationships between parents and children. At school, this means promoting a sense of belonging, clean and safe environments, recreational activities such as games and sports, and good interpersonal relationships.
  1. Social-emotional climates and interpersonal relationships should be a key target area for child protection strategies.
  1. Girls and children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by harmful factors in their environments. Girls are particularly harmed by sexual abuse at school, sexual activity and early pregnancy, gender-specific barriers to educational achievement, and gender-specific norms at home. Children with disabilities are ignored and sometimes even abused in their environment. Strategies to protect children and improve wellbeing must address these factors.

Our findings clearly indicate that strategies that are multi-faceted and community-based are the best approach to address the myriad of protective and risk factors affecting children, and thus improve overall child protection and wellbeing in these communities.

Why is this important?

Engaging community stakeholders – including both adults and children – in discussion and reflection is a core part of examining cultural norms and addressing factors that may be supportive or harmful for children’s wellbeing in a community. Through this process, the stage is set for community members to define and lead relevant and impactful strategies to address the myriad of protective and risk factors affecting children, and thus improve overall child protection and wellbeing in these communities.

Following these Community Dialogues, Firelight has been continuing the conversation with our partners to understand and to facilitate systemic change for children—to break cycles of poverty and harmful practices like child marriage and to encourage supportive environments for all children. We recently supported our partners to carry out Year 3 Community Dialogues, in which they continued the conversation with their own communities, assessing progress made over the last year and areas still needing impact. We were honored to be accepted to the Pathways to Resilience conference in South Africa, where Program Officer Tomaida Banda will be presenting findings from the Year 2 Community Dialogues.

To read Firelight’s presentation at the Pathways to Resilience conference, please click here.