How to transform social norms through theatre

Written by Beatrice Yamikani Chiphwanya, Malawi

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

Changing behaviour by transforming social norms is central to Theatre for A Change’s methodology. But we don’t dictate to the community what they should or should not do. We use theatrical storytelling to help community members unpack the issues facing their communities and come up with solutions themselves. Not only is our participatory approach effective, it is also sustainable since solutions are based on community members’ own ideas.

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

In Malawi, talking about many issues related to SRHR and sex is taboo, and people do not feel comfortable to talk about it in public. When we want to work on a certain issue, we start our projects by going to the community. We organise separate focus group discussions with various stakeholders (like parents, police officers, chiefs) to understand how the community views the issue. We record these conversations and use them during in-house workshops to devise the story alongside the actors. For one project on youth SRHR, we organised a play telling the story of a girl who had unprotected sex and ended up pregnant and infected with an STI. We then ask the community how they relate to the issues addressed and what should be done. We enter into a long-term partnership with the community, and our methodology helps them take ownership.

What did you achieve?

We have changed attitudes towards SRHR: people now talk about sex, want information about services, and they go to seek services. We’ve also seen an increased number of reported cases of child exploitation and communities have set up their own child-protection teams. Our biggest achievement is the community ownership we leave behind to set up their own solutions, because our job is just to tell stories that mobilise the community to take action.

What did you learn from this experience?

Community sensitisation, to ensure that the community understands the issues the project is trying to address, is an important part of SRHR advocacy. The community itself needs to feel involved, otherwise projects will not be sustained. To engage the community, either use existing structures or create structures, and have people on the team who relate to the key stakeholders. We learnt that it is crucial to introduce the project and explain why it is important for a particular stakeholder to work with us. It’s also key to consistently monitor the project with the community.

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

  • Define a good methodology. We offer trainings on our participatory methodology for interested organisations, visit our website;
  • Make sure your team believes in the methodology to help them convey the message convincingly;
  • Make interventions participatory – don’t impose your views on the community, let them think for themselves;
  • Be patient: change is a gradual process and it takes time.

Beatrice Yamikani Chiphwanya, Malawi

Beatrice Yamikani Chiphwanya has over four years of experience in theatre for development, advocacy and communications with NGOs working on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). She has a degree in Psychology from Blantyre International University and graduate courses in research, strategic management and social behavior-change communication. Realising the central role of advocacy and communications and, because of her particular interest in them, Beatrice built skills in strategic communication and outreach, social media, information and knowledge management and focused her efforts in advocating and communicating how theatre for development can be used as a tool for sustainable development.

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