How to transform social norms through parent-child communication

Written by Constance Kekihembo, Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation (CDR), Uganda

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

Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Uganda is currently implementing project on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), targeting 400 deaf girls. During the project implementation, social norms have created exclusion, discrimination and marginalisation. This affects the deaf girls and their families/parents. As result of social norms, deaf girls are marginalised in aspects of access to control over decisions, health services and rights. These social norms disempower deaf girls, violating their SRHR. We find that the health workers have negative attitudes towards deaf girls and cannot communicate with them effectively.

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

Through the CDR awareness programme, we engage parents of deaf girls to allow them to take independent decision in relation to their SRHR. We have trained the girls, their parents and health workers on key aspects of reproductive health and we developed parent-to-child communication tips.  During the community outreach clinics, we sensitise parents of young people with disabilities on SRHR but we are also able to refer them for specialised services. We were able to form parents’ groups which helped a lot on negative attitudes and confidence building.

What did you achieve?

We are in the process of developing sign-language directory; this will complement the awareness exercises.

We found the use of dialogue, information dissemination and training parents and their children are powerful approaches to change parents’ mindsets. Community dialogue processes are a productive approach able to unveil stereotypes and discriminating gender norms. We appointed deaf girls as ambassadors to promote positive attitudes; they were able to share successful stories.

Lastly, we are demanding for policy makers to clarify at policy level the issue of access to contraceptives by deaf girls.

What did you learn from this experience?

The first lesson was that the knowledge gap among deaf girls themselves, their parents, communities and service providers affected the communication of sexual reproductive information. Therefore, it was clear to the CDR programme team that we needed to develop tips for effective communication. We have also focused on more visual and pictorial packaging to support our sign-language communication. We have learnt that outreach and the formation of parent groups enables us to have more in-depth engagement.

We have learnt that social norms and practices are shifting due to increased knowledge and sensitisation on the dangers of social norms and practices, however other social norms persist as part of deep-rooted value systems and people not believing in change. This continues to subordinate deaf girls, reducing them to reproductive roles and limiting opportunities for voice. Communities take a long time to accept change so, with continuous engagement, we can work with individuals who originally did not believe in change to overcome harmful social norms.

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

  • Respect the family and their decisions. It is their right – imposing on them will be a barrier to communication
  • Families often have high expectations (you may be the first ones who offered help); remember to set clear goals, timelines and be clear about what you are going to do
  • Each family is unique; take time to observe, get connected and be close to them
  • Seek the children’s consent and involve them in the decision-making process; SRHR is about rights
  • Communication is not simply about speech; consider body language, eye contact, the voice, smile, etc.

Constance Kekihembo, Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation (CDR), Uganda

Constance Kekihembo is the Chief Executive Officer at Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation (CDR) Uganda – a parent-led organisation working towards access to sexual reproductive health information for young persons with disabilities.

Constance has 20 years’ experience in the disability-rights sector, during which time she has worked closely with local, regional and international disability-rights organisations at different levels. As a parent of a deaf 18-year-old girl, her positions overtime enabled her champion the conversation of young people with disabilities.