How to organise an inter-generational dialogue to change social norms

Written by Chioma Ike, Circuit Pointe, Nigeria

Please describe a real-life problem your organisation has faced on this ‘How To’ subject.

Our first project was a campaign against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in four rural communities. At the beginning of the campaign we did a baseline survey and 80% of survey respondents were female, which excited us because these were our target group who are most affected by the practice of infantile FGM. However, 60% of our questions on FGM/C received no responses. By mid-project, we observed youth and adults were early adopters of our campaigns but elders (grandparents) remained bystanders. Even when we increased campaigning activities, we observed that rather than abandoning FGM/C practices trends emerged such as a shift to other forms of infantile FGM such as Type IV. It became clear that a communication gap between generations existed.

How did you work on and try to overcome this problem?

We used the following 3-step approach:

  1. A community study: Focus Group Discussions were held separately according to generation and sex (youth, grandparents (Elders), men, women). We did this to establish trust; collect information on their different knowledge, attitudes and practice of FGM/C, and to increase the willingness of different community members to participate in a forum to discuss the issue of FGM/C.
  1. Inter-generational dialogue: this was first tested on a small scale where both sexes and different generations were represented in project activities, such as advocacy workshops and orientation meetings. We adapted lessons learnt and scaled them up by organising a public forum (Peoples’ Assembly) for the younger generation to interact with the older generation. Our team introduced ‘ice breakers’ to help participants become comfortable with one another, create a relaxed atmosphere, and to break down barriers and hierarchies among community members. In the past, there has been very little discussion about FGM within families and even less within communities, so our team exercised a high degree of verbal and non-verbal cultural sensitivity. We did this in various ways such as the presentation of highly prized kolanuts to the elders; shaking the Chiefs with both hands and the use of local proverbial sayings/quotes to demonstrate our appreciation of their tradition and mark an understanding of their culture. As a result, the older generation felt approached with respect, were less apprehensive and agreed to engage in the dialogue.

Following this, our team facilitated interactive break-out sessions that got participants thinking about FGM/C while survivors of infantile FGM/C shared their experiences with elders/staunch guardians of this tradition who reflected on questions of gender and human rights. In weighing up the newly discovered disadvantages, most of the elders were faced with a painful dilemma while others admitted that they would rather be the first to stand up for a change in this custom. In the end, both generations agreed and unanimously called for an end to the practice because they now knew of the consequences. They also collectively decided how changes to this once respected tradition should come about.

  1. Follow-up: We reached out to community members several months after their participation in the inter-generational dialogue; documented positive stories of change and of unintended outcomes, which then became the drivers of our future projects.

What did you achieve and what changes were made?

The inter-generational dialogue completely changed how community members interact especially between the older generation (grandparents) and the young generation (youth). At the Peoples’ Assembly, men, women, boys and girls reflected on the value of infantile FGM/C; re-evaluated the necessity of the practice and shared their opinions on this tradition with the custodians of their culture such as their Traditional Ruler. We observed effective communication through active listening and a dialogue-based approach. This accelerated their community-led decision to abandon all forms of FGM/C.

What did you learn from this experience?

  • The power of communication: organising a community-wide activity such as a Peoples’ Assembly and including everyone in an inter-generational dialogue:
    • transformed the way community members engaged
    • enabled the introduction of new concepts
    • provided a space to exchange ideas, foster critical thinking and develop meaningful social relations.
  • The power of storytelling: community members shared their personal experiences, and these helped bring the subject ‘alive’ and highlighted the link between some of the health issues they had experienced and FGM/C. This was integral to FGM/C being abandoned. These stories helped shift people’s attitudes and the perception of community members toward FGM/C. They also helped motivate people to reach a consensus for collective action such as a public declaration or enactment of local rule/sanction.
  • The power of relationships: the dialogue between generations strengthened the relationship between all ages and sexes, which created a synergy between the wisdom of the elders and the energy of youth.

 What are your tips for someone facing the same or a similar issue to the one you describe above?

  • Be a good dialogue facilitator: conduct the dialogue in the language that the community uses. This not only sets a positive tone but encourages active participation. Share a campaign message that resonates with the community and help move the conversation forward by encouraging community members to share their personal experiences. Be ready to answer questions and support learning through group interactions
  • Build networks and alliances: the process of social norm change becomes self-sustaining with the presence of key influencers or positive deviants. So, after organising an inter-generational dialogue, identify community support structures, map potential allies and build/ strengthen their capacity to sustain social norm change from within.

Other resources

  • Please look at a number of the How to guides under the transform social norms section of the website

Chioma Ike, Circuit Pointe, Nigeria

Chioma Ike is a change-maker and a women/girls’ advocate. Chioma is the Executive Director at Circuit Pointe, an NGO focused on women/girls’ empowerment and rights movement in Nigeria. She holds a certificate in Project Management, is a recipient of Anita Borg’s 2018 Pass-It-On Award and is currently enrolled for a distance International Action Learning MBA with a major in Sexuality and Reproductive Health and Rights.

Visit Circuit Pointe’s website for more information.