How to transform social norms among men and boys

Written by Nega Wedajo, Siiqqee Women’s Development Association (SWDA), Ethiopia

Please describe a situation when your organisation or project has faced challenges that you addressed by working on changing social norms.

At Siiqqee Women’s Development Association (SWDA), we work to transform attitudes towards women and girls to empower them. We believe that changing people’s attitudes leads to better outcomes. When looking at the obstacles to women’s empowerment, we felt that working with men and boys to raise different social issues and track back the root causes of the problem was necessary. Women and girls are the ones marginalised, therefore the problem lies with boys and men and we wanted to address this.

How did you work on this problem and what changes did you make?

We started by conducting a context analysis when entering the community, looking at ethnicity characteristics, culture, population, socio-economics and other vital information, working closely with government in the kebeles.

We deliver our programmes using ‘Community Conversations’ (CCs), alongside female community facilitators. We only have female community facilitators to show that women are capable of being leaders. We also select opinion leaders and influential people – the men and boys we choose to work with are influential in their community. They are oriented to disseminate the message through various spaces where communities congregate, for example at market places. Their position within the community increases the effectiveness of the CCs. 

What did you achieve?

By encouraging the boys and men to discuss the issues affecting women and girls amongst themselves during the CCs, they are able to identify social norms that need to be changed. This has led to developing by-laws to alleviate negative behaviours. The elders are consulted on the proposed by-laws. The long-term changes SWDA wants to see are related to reducing gender-based violence (GBV) – the rationale is that reduction in GBV will also mean the community sees increased value in the education of girls and economic empowerment of women.

What did you learn from this experience?

We see that working at the community level is not enough – more intervention is needed with larger groups. Therefore, we will introduce CCs for boys at schools. We now have a better understanding of how many CCs are needed to see a change; everyone should participate in at least three CCs and the fourth should be a summary of what they’ve learnt. We also see a need for an organised and written curriculum so that facilitators are disseminating consistent messages.

What are your top tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Focus on the causes of the problems, not the problems themselves, through engaging community gatekeepers and leaders
  • Understand the culture you are working in so that people can be receptive and responsive
  • Use the correct communication approach – ‘participant observation’ approach. For example, eat the same food as the community and embed yourself in their culture, otherwise use someone from the community
  • Apply an ‘appreciative inquiry’ approach – do not start by blaming the culture, instead engage educated community volunteers. If working with women, use female facilitators, to inspire your audience that women can be leaders in their community and amongst causes
  • Having mixed gender groups may not be effective, so consider separate groups.

Nega Wedajo, Siiqqee Women’s Development Association (SWDA), Ethiopia

Nega Wedajo has worked with different government, faith-based and local NGOs at different positions in different parts of Ethiopia. Since November 2014, she has worked for a women’s empowerment organisation called Siiqqee Women’s Development Association (SWDA), where she currently acts a monitoring and evaluation specialist. Nega’s work for Siiqqee has included designing projects to help poor and marginalised rural women start village saving and credit through a self-help approach, including facilitating basic business skills training to help them start their own businesses. She has also provided technical support to field staff who work with rural destitute women on how to approach social problems and respond, collect field data and analyse reports, and measure outcomes of project implementations.