Reflection: What can others learn from your experience using persuasion?

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Reflection: What can others learn from your experience using persuasion?

Consider these questions when sharing your comments in this discussion topic:

  • What lessons have you learned that other practitioners could learn from? Share your advice, tips and experiences here!
  • What challenges have you faced in your efforts to combat harmful practices by using persuasion? How did you overcome these challenges?
  • In looking at the current climate and the future of this work, what new opportunities do you see for practitioners working on combating traditional practices that violate human rights? What new ideas are being discussed? New collaborations? New allies? New approaches?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions.


Challenge: How and when to introduce legislation

When it comes to reflecting on our work and pulling out lessons-learned, it's helpful to think about the challenges we've faced and how we overcame them. We can safely assume that other will face similar challenges!

One challenge that came up pretty quickly in the conversation is that of how and when to introduce legal reform regarding a harmful traditional practice. David of the Orchid Project shared his thoughts on this:

Legislation, if used badly, can drive a practice such as FGC underground and evidence suggests that it some countries, the average age at which a girls is cut has fallen, in order to avoid prosecution...So a process that starts with human rights at a legislative level brings in a variety of other interactions to end with human rights at a community level. So while legislation can be introduced before a society wants legal reform, how and when it is implemented might not be so clear cut.

And Emile Short shared his thoughts (in our Persuasion case study, page 6) on the shotcomings of relying on legislation to combat harmful traditional practices:

Experience combating female genital [cutting] taught us that legislation prohibiting traditional and customary practices is ineffective if not preceded by intense public education programs. In addition, human rights groups must engage in dialogue with practitioners, working to change their mindset and persuade them to voluntarily give up the abusive practice. It can be difficult, however, for human rights groups to achieve such engagement if they are perceived as “outsiders” by the traditional communities. Well-intentioned human rights efforts can easily be construed as an attack on people’s fundamental cultural and religious beliefs. Experience suggests that you cannot change deep-seated beliefs and practices by attacking them, nor can the law be enforced if there is no public cooperation. A different path must be found.

If we know that we can't rely on legislation, and that it has to be strategically woven into a larger process - what does that look like? If you have any specific examples of when the use of legislation has worked in combation with other tactics, and examples of when it is has NOT worked, please share them here!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder


We have a very specific theory of change around ending FGC that places legislation in the context of an enabling environment. At the centre of this is the collective choice made by a community and the social norms that hold sway. Around this, approaches need to be non-judgemental, non-coercive, use local languages and have a focus on human rights and empowerment. This does not happen in a bubble however, and the wider enabling environment is then considered.

These factors include politics and legislation, religion, media (traditional and social media), healthcare and support, education and civil society as a whole. The more of these factors that a brought in to play, the greater the chance of success. But of course this increases cost! Social norm theory also has it that a social norm will generally hold higher importance than an issue of legality in making decisions.

One interesting example that has been explored recently was a UK Channel 4 documentary about Polio vaccinations in northern Nigeria. This highlighted how public sentiment has shifted to quite an extreme degree in opposition to vaccinations, in part due to past transgressions by pharmaceutical companies and beliefs about witchcraft. Existing law forbids parents from barring access to health care for their children and the law was been extended to cover vaccinations from deadly diseases. However, the law has clearly not worked in this instance where public sentiment has won out.

Changing law does not always change the problem...

I completely agree with David's point that you have quoted about how certain practices if legislated against can possibly just go underground which is certainly much more dangerous and harder to track. I think the key factor in all of this is ignorance; be it of where traditional practices came from and why they were carried out or the fact that they are harmful and contradicting to a person's human rights. I think its about getting on the same level as those carrying out the practices to talk to them as there equals. I think the idea of super heroes in the west saving victims from the third world and imposing their definition of human rights is counter productive. It creates an 'us and them' scenario and it becomes easy for those carrying out the practices to disregad them as foreign views and traditions. This is why at Women Living Under Muslim Laws we aim to advance gender justice, equality and women’s rights by linking women from Muslim communities and countries by collectively empowering them in their local struggles to reach their own goals in their own unique contexts. Give the power to the people to fight for themselves, do not take cover and impose. Harmful traditions have to be uprooted from the core rather than chopped down from the top where they will just re-grow when given the chance. It is all about changing minds to change damaging practices.

Aishah Khokhar

WLUML intern

As a lawyer, I of course

As a lawyer, I of course support to use of legal advocacy to change laws as the first step to actually realising rights. But I understand this can be difficult in societies steeped in tradition that have led to harmful practices. I have certainly learnt a lot from reading posts so far! Tackling these communities' attitudes and traditional values in a respectful and positive way, using local campaigners, is a necessary element to these complex legal advocacy strategies. After all, the law does not operate in a vacuum, as @OrchidProject pointed out with attitudes and fears around vaccinations particularly when certain corporations are involved in some countries. I haven’t seen the Channel 4 documentary yet, but look forward to it now!  

One example where legal reform on its own didn't work was the fight against the kalamari practice in Nepal - a form of bonded labour that gets passed on through generations until a debt is paid off (which in reality never happens because the figure keeps moving thanks to interest, both in fiscal terms and the landlord's). The Tharu people in the south of Nepal have been ravaged by it since their lands were colonised by people from the north once a malaria vaccine came along (the low-lands in Nepal has a lot of malaria, and the Tharu people had developed an immunity to it over time whereas others didn't). 

After much struggle and local campaign, the practice was banned in law in 2000. Of course it is fantastic and great campaigning achievement to get this practice outlawed. But this caused a new problem. Kalamari workers then had nowhere to live since they lived on the lands that they worked. Now many are living in abject poverty and local economies mean there is little room for them to gain employment. 

Legal reform is vital, but as this example shows, I agree it needs to be looked at in the wider context if people are able to enjoy all their human rights and live with equality, respect and dignity.

So with tricky economic issues that also involve tradition, not only do you have to look at persuasion tactics, but you are need to consider the implications carefully. But I don't think this is the case for harmful practices like corporal punishment, discrimination against LGBT communities, both male circumicision and FGC and denial of information to children when it comes to sex and reproduction. Traditional values and the law are the two things that must be tackled there, and in tandem. 

Case study: Building child-friendly villages

Thanks David and Vanessa for sharing your thoughts on the importance of legal reform within a wider context. We have a case study that highlights the importance of taking a holistic approach to ending harmful practices. This particular example focuses on child labor in India. The case study is titled Building Child Friendly Villages: Using village strengths to combat child labour and other exploitative practices.

Save the Childhood Foundation, which was started under the banner of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, developed the concept and application of child friendly villages as a way to not only promote education for all but also combat the cycle of child labor. Child labor is both a cause as well as a consequence of poverty, illiteracy and lack of human security. The aim of child friendly villages is to create and sustain a child friendly atmosphere within the community to ensure education and put an end to child labor.

It's a great example of the holistic approach that was perhaps missing from the campaign mentioned above to free the Kalamari workers.

It would be helpful to hear of other examples - either of a successful holistic approach, or an approach that didn't work. Thanks!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Holistic approach

We agree that in order to overcome harmful traditional practices, a holistic framework is necessary. The issues facing the communities where we work are always interconnected – for example, girls married at a young age are taken out of school, making them less likely to become economically independent and taking away the opportunity to learn about their own health and that of their future children, meaning the cycle is likely to continue. As one issue is always connected to many others, solutions to overcome these challenges cannot be implemented in isolation but need to be approached in a holistic way, tailored to meet the diverse needs of a specific community.

Because of the holistic nature of Tostan’s three year non formal education program, the participating communities see impacts in many areas –6,500 communities so far have declared their abandonment of female genital cutting and child/forced marriage, but this is just one of many changes. Community members in our partner communities, often under the leadership of women, have brought about changes to ensure that both girls and boys stay in school for longer, domestic violence is reduced, children are vaccinated, the environment is kept clean, and much more. Putting skills learned during the program to use, communities lead income-generating activities to fund development projects such as building health centers, and use their knowledge of democracy to petition the local government to expand school services in their village.  Community members are always best-placed to decide what their community needs, our role is to provide them with the skills and information necessary to lead a wide range of projects, which vary from community to community. Achieving these interwoven impacts, including the decision to abandon harmful traditional practices, would not be possible without a holistic and community-led approach.

To share our model, lessons learned and collaborate with others, Tostan is planning to launch a training center, based in Thies, Senegal which will open in 2015.More information will be available on our website in early September, but in the meantime we would love to hear from people interested in this new development – what would you want from training on our human rights-based approach to community-led development ? 

Spreading social change

Another crucial lesson that Tostan has learned over the years is the importance of collective decisions and the process by which social change spreads.

To provide some background, ending female genital cutting was not one of the original goals of our Community Empowerment Program. This changed when women participating in the program in the Senegalese village of Malicounda Bambara decided together to abandon the practice in their village, and became the first to declare this intention publicly in 1997. Their decision was met with an angry backlash from other communities who did not understand the reasoning behind their abandonment. A local village chief and imam, Demba Diawara, realized that this was because no one community (nor one household, nor individual) can abandon these practices alone. Instead, the decision must be taken on a collective level involving the entire network of intermarrying communities. Demba then took it upon himself to walk to over 350 villages where his extended family could be found, bringing with him information on human rights and the harmful effects of the practice, as well as his knowledge that FGC is not required by Islam. He gave everyone the factual information they needed to decide whether or not to continue this tradition. You can read more about Demba Diawara’s story in this blog published yesterday in the Guardian.

We refer to this outreach and systematic spreading of information as “organized diffusion”. When a community is participating in our nonformal education program, each community member participating ‘adopts’ another member of the community – a sister, their spouse, a neighbor… - with whom they share all the information that they acquire in each class. The community as a whole then adopts at least one other community in their established social network. This means that the impacts of our program – including, but not limited to, the abandonment harmful traditional practices – are felt by communities that we have never worked in directly. Experience has shown us that this process allows the movement to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage, led by community members themselves, to gain momentum, producing the critical mass needed for a public declaration to take place.

Guardian blog

Thank you for this, especially the Guardian article, it was very interesting. I completely agree that people within communities are the ones who can bring about change in the most useful and effective way as I have discussed above.

Aishah Khokhar

WLUML intern

8 powerful persuasion tactics

I want to join Aishah in saying thank you for sharing these stories, Amy! Great examples of lessons-learned. Some of the points you raise are highlighted in a list of 'persuasion tactics' written by a New Tactics community member, Philippe Duhamel, a few years ago. Maybe these tactics will be helpful for the practitioners in this discussion to reflect on.

  1. Have a plan. Yes, you can go all-out on a huge one-month Persuasion Offensive that will burn up in flames as it crashes against a wall of resistance. Or, you can build a methodical plan to gradually convince layers of your reluctant opposition over the course of a few years. Guess which approach is most likely to win. Making a dent in religious enslavement in Ghana took a decade.

  2. Prepare your arguments. Know your opponent's views and counter-arguments. Draw up point-by-point responses. Yes, it's the old tried and true Q&A (Questions and Answers). Tailor your points to the root drivers of the opposing views, provide valid alternatives to meet real needs (for how to do this, see the Motivation to Solution Strategy Tool), and justice shall prevail.

  3. Bridge degrees of separation. Sometimes you can't have access to the one you need to convince. Don't let that stop you. Take the extra step. Get someone who has the ear of the one you need to convince. Go for the one they'll listen to. If there are degrees of separation between you and those you need to persuade, build a bridge of relations. Think of other people who may help your arguments cross the water.

  4. Talk local. This one's obvious, but how often neglected. People are highly sensitive to where you talk from, especially when status dynamics are at play: urban vs. countryside, university trained vs. real-life educated, clerical vs. blue-collar, etc. Find somebody local. The job of convincing will become much easier, or simply possible.

  5. Speak from within. Those most affected by an issue will be its most powerful voice. If you're talking about a problem that has negative repercussions, show, don't tell. Rather than present an analyst's view of the adverse impacts, have someone with you who can speak directly to the experience. Real-life stories and moving testimonies will always win over abstract speculations and theoretical lectures. Bring in the victims and the survivors. If you don't, the other side may "talk for them" in their absence and use paternalistic arguments to undermine your credibility.

  6. Provide opportunities to shine. When dealing with local notables and VIP's, one tactic is to reward them with an opportunity to look really, really good coming out on your side of the argument. Use this sparingly, but wisely, to your advantage. It may help convince broader constituencies.

  7. Set up inescapable forums. I was really impressed with the number of meetings that seemed to have gone behind each small victory in the campaign to end the trokosi practice. One powerful technique was the use of village assemblies to advance the debate and enlist public support from initially reluctant allies. There were also "Liberation Ceremonies", emancipation rituals which allowed (or forced) the local priest to come out and bless publicly the release of his former female slaves. Talk about creative use of public accountability!

  8. Assemble a team. What have we got here: someone with direct contact with those you need convincing, a community spokesperson, testimony from a survivor, perhaps even respected allies from the elite. That's a team! Time to assign roles. Emile Short talks about the carrot-and-stick approach to coaxing for change. As human rights commissioner, he sometimes played the role of the stick. He brought to bear the issue of criminal prosecution for human rights violators, with a list of potential charges (good cop, bad cop anyone?). There were benefits to change, and major drawbacks to not change. It worked.

"Freedom and justice are never handed out on a silver platter, but come about by persistence and perseverance", says Emile Short. Armed with these powerful persuasion techniques, you can now add more effectual influence to your determination.

You can access the full article here.

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder


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