Share examples of how persuasion is used to combat harmful practices

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Share examples of how persuasion is used to combat harmful practices

There is a lot that we can learn from each other by simply knowing what has been done, what worked well, and what didn’t work so well. Consider these questions when sharing your comments in this discussion topic:

  • What kinds of incentives were used to persuade the abandonment of a harmful practice?
  • How have you used public declarations? What was the impact?
  • How is the community involved in the movement? How is consensus built? How do communities lead these efforts for change?
  • How have you engaged traditional and religious leaders as agents of change? Share examples!
  • How have you engaged survivors and other stakeholders (such as health care providers) in combating traditional practices that violate human rights?
  • How have you used television, radio, Internet, print publications, billboard messages, soap operas and talk shows, among other channels, are effective means to stimulate interest and public dialogue on traditional practices that violate human rights?
  • How have you used the human rights framework and legal tactics to accelerate the abandonment of harmful practices?

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.

Case study: Persuading communities to abandon servitude


I wanted to get this discussion topic started by sharing a very informative case study that we have written with the help of Emile Short. This online conversaton was given the same title as this case study: Powerful Persuasion: Combating traditional practices that violate human rights (available in English, French and Kirghiz). Here's a short description:

Trokosi, in Ghana, is a system of servitude that meets the community need for justice and the material and sexual needs of fetish priests. Customary or traditional practices based on deep-seated beliefs, such as Trokosi, are often the more difficult human rights violations to eradicate.  Trokosi is when women and young girls are brought and kept in fetish shrines to atone for sins or crimes allegedly committed by one of their relatives. The Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) recognized that legislation outlawing such practices may not be effective and may, in some cases, result in driving a customary practice further underground.

Respected leaders, at local and national levels, engaged in direct dialogue with perpetrators, victims, other community leaders, and the community at large to facilitate understanding of the practice, while providing alternatives and avenues for abandoning the practice without losing status. There are many ways in which respected leaders can be enlisted to help community members understand the dynamics of customary or traditional practices, and to address the underlying complexities of such practices in order to transform or change those that violate basic human rights.

There are so many important lessons to take from this case study, but one I wanted to highlight first is a tool that can be used by any human rights defender to start exploring reasons for the traditional practices that exist. From the reasons, we can start to explore the motivations and then possible alternatives for each motivation. There is a great explanation of this tool written in an article by Philippe Duhamel titled: From Motivation to Solution: A Strategy Tool. I highly recommend both of these resources!

I am eager to learn of other examples of the effective use of patient, persistant persuasion to end harmful practices - share your stories here!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Get an issue "out there" by talking about it

As the example above shows, an important first step towards preventing harmful practices from continuing is to get the issue "out there" by talking about it.  Whether it’s the discussion of an issue in a political debate among members of parliament, through the introduction of a new draft law, or simply in a classroom discussion or among family and friends, discussion is one of the most basic forms of advocacy, and is key to raising the profile of a human rights issue. 

To give an example, there is a citizen campaign to get Amazon, the world’s biggest bookseller, to stop selling so-called “parenting manuals” that advise parents to use physical punishment on their children in order to "discipline" them.  Corporal punishment is one of the most long-standing and widespread harmful practices affecting children worldwide.  It is a widely accepted means for adults to punish or "discipline" children even though it would constitute assault if perpetrated against another adult.  However, in the majority of states is it lawful for adults to use physical force against children, and the violence occurs in all settings of children's lives, including at home.  Corporal punishment is often rooted in religion, with many still employing the Christian Bible's use of the term “chastisement” as a justification. (To read about examples of opposition by religious leaders towards corporal punishment, click here.)  In the case of the "parenting manuals" sold by Amazon, these advise parents to use instruments such as rods, paddles, metre-long branches and other similar implements to condition children into obedience, even small children including babies.  One such book disturbingly named To Train Up a Child, says among other things: “If you have to sit on him to spank him, do not hesitate… hold the resisting child in a helpless position for several minutes, or until he is totally surrendered.”  The book also promotes use of a “rod”, which the authors describe as a “divine enforcer”. 

On the question of the effectiveness of certain advocacy tactics: this petition to Amazon hasn’t yet achieved the desired goal of getting the retail giant to stop selling these “parenting manuals”.  But since it was launched almost two years ago, several organisations, including CRIN, have joined the campaign, and prominent children’s rights advocates have also signed their name to the petition, and media providers have also reported on it.  All this, despite the fact that Amazon still sells these books, has allowed for the opening of a debate on the corporal punishment of children.  Inevitably, with such a high profile retailer as Amazon, whatever response or action the company takes (or fails to take) will be picked up on by journalists, advocates, NGOs, citizens, etc.  And this coverage and exposure will continue to raise awareness about the concerns over these books, and generate thinking and debate about the issue of physical violence as a parenting approach.  In sum, it all starts with a debate.  And this initial debate is all it takes to eventually lead to similar petitions being created in more countries, to TV debates being held on the issue, to the set up national campaigns for law reform, or to the drafting of a new law that seeks to make all forms of corporal punishment unlawful so that both children and adults are equally protected against assault. 

Having said this, many issues and practices remain taboo in all societies, or are so deeply entrenched that opposition towards them is minimal or non existent; so admittedly simply talking isn't always so easy.  It would therefore be interesting to hear about the experiences of other participants on how exactly they used persuasion to overcome, or at least challenge, these or similar obstacles. 


-- Victor at CRIN

Using adversarial tactics to build a persuasive argument?

Thanks for sharing this example, Victor! It really made me think about how persuasion could be used along with adversarial tactics. If you think about this Amazon campaign in terms of Amazon being a 'key influencer' (if you could get Amazon to refuse to sell these books, you'd be sending a message to those authors that the content is unacceptable) it could be advantageous to use an adversarial tactic (in this case, they are using a boycott and a petition) in order to build a more persuasive argument by setting new standards. Then you'd be able to say "see, even Amazon won't carry this kind of information". This would be a powerful statement when opening dialogue with communities and parents. Is that a reach?

It would be great to hear from you and others, your thoughts on whether or not persuasion can be effectively used with adversarial tactics - and if so, in what situations it would work best in. Thanks!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

@Kristin – I think

@Kristin – I think adversarial tactics are great when it comes to lobbying a corporation or a government or a similar institution, as their “success” is partly dependent on their public image (hence why they always have a PR department!), so when faced with something that risks tainting their image, regardless of whether they earnestly believe in a cause or not, it prompts them into action, into responding with a public statement, a new position or policy, etc.  This is especially effective once an issue is picked up by more lobby groups, like NGOs, journalists, non-governmental public figures, etc., as the visibility of an issue becomes greater.  Illustrating this point is @Safeer’s example below of how the Pakistani government, despite previously dismissing the issue of violence against women in the workplace, was eventually pushed into responding to the issue after it had been taken up by a large group of people and organisations. 

However, I can’t see adversarial tactics being of much use when trying to persuade traditional communities to drop a practice deemed to be harmful, as the they could be seen as intrusive and initial reactions could be negative.  With traditional communities, like @Tostan points out below, patient persuasion through dialogue and awareness raising – but always from, or in collaboration with, community members themselves (as highlighted by the @Orchid Project below) – appears to be the most viable option. 

Very good points, thank you

Very good points, thank you @Victor. There is the interesting split between what works at a policy level and what is appropriate at a community level. There is always the interesting question too of how a story is reported once it is picked up. Once it is in the wider public domain, the manner in which something is discussed can change dramatically. There are significant differences, for instance, in the way FGC is reported on from country to country and indeed, from news source to news source – some of these are persuasive, others much less so.

The increasing access to news through social media as well as technological advances means that once an issue is big enough news, it can become self-fulfilling in its coverage. Has this affected any one in a positive or negative way? I am partly thinking of course of Kony 2012 and the impact that had on the cause in both the short and long term.

Collaborative lobbying

Hi all, 

I'd just like to share an example of successful campaigning achieved through collaboration between different actors working at different levels -- in this instance concerning an individual case human rights abuse. 

News reached CRIN today that the sentencing of a 15-year-old female rape victim in the Maldives to recieve 100 lashes after being accused of having premarital sex has been overturned. Although flogging is a form of punishment usually handed down by village chiefs acting as local judges, it's also legal under Islamic law as a criminal sentence. There have been more cases like the one above, where unmarried women who had allegedly had consenual sex outside of marriage had been sentenced to flogging.  Girls under the age of 18 who are accused of the same offence have their sentences postponed until they turn 18 -- a policy which goes against the principles of juvenile justice.  The case in question was all the more horrific for the fact that it was the victim of sexual abuse that had been convicted (as had the abuser).  When the case came to the media's attention in February 2013, human rights organisations were quick to respond with calls to the Maldivian government to overturn the sentence, and impose an immediate moratorium on this form of inhuman sentencing.  Later in May, Marta Santos Pais, in her capacity as UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Vilence against Children, visited the Maldives and held a meeting with the country's President Dr Mohamed Waheed.  Following the meeting, Ms Santos Pais said that the Maldives should abolish degrading and captial punishment against children.  A subsequent press release by the Government's press office said the President "reiterated his commitment to end all forms of violence against children and promote and protect the rights of children."  And just yesterday the Maldivian High Court ruled that the girl had been wrongly convicted and quashed her sentence. 

Although the Maldivian legal system - which is based on a combination of Islamic Sharia law and English common law - still allows for the inhuman sentencing of women and girls accused of having extra-marital sex, the case above illustrates that when actors working at different levels combine their efforts in working towards the same cause, results can be achieved.  Indeed it's about building momentum in numbers.  The case, however, begs the question of whether if Ms Santos Pais, who occupies one of the top jobs in children's rights globally, hadn't personally met with the Maldivian President in a much publicised visit to the country, would the girl's sentence still have been overturned?  In fact, in the past year another court in the Maldives sentenced two juvenile offenders to death, and as far as we know their sentences remain, despite Ms Santos Pais' visit.  But having said this, it was during her visit to the country that the President made a public declaration to end all forms of violence against children.  And considering that the specialism of Ms Santos Pais includes violent sentencing, it is assumed that this is also included under that promise.  So there still remains the possibility that legal reform will follow to at least abolish the inhuman sentencing of children.  To conclude, it was after lobby groups at both national and international levels alerted of the case, and media providers covered the case, that the UN then stepped in almost in a diplomacy role.  So it seems that the combination of media coverage, NGO condemnation and UN intervention all had an effect on the outcome. 

We at CRIN were very happy to hear about this case so we thought we'd share it! 

Fully Agreed

Fully agreed Victor, 

I have also realized that most of the problems remain unsolved because we do not talk about them. Because we do not talk about it, it remains shrouded and out of public domain. Sexual Harassment is a case in point. Most of the women suffer sexual harassment at work place as well as at public places but remain quiet, which encourages the harassers. This is a widespread problem in Pakistan. However, when we tried to raise this issue and emphasized the need for legislation on this issue, the policy makers and parliamentarians would never take us seriously. They would say this is not Pakistan's issue. It is western agenda that you NGO people are trying to impose on us because you receive funds from European countries. 

So we started from encouraging women to speak up on sexual harassment issues, we started sharing incidents of sexual harassment with media. We formed a coalition of like-minded NGOs. It was names Alliance against Sexual Harassment at Workplace. Bedari was one of the founding members. The Alliance would hold one big event Working Women's Assembly every year. We would bring together hundreds of working women from different fields. When women would get together, and one woman would share her misery, others would get encouraged and thus more and more women would share their stories. Media was extensively engaged. Thus we managed to make sexual harassment a public issue. We made everyone talk about it. 

The policy makers and parliamentarians realized that it was a serious issue. It took us - the coalition partners - 10 years to get a law "Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act 2010". 

The first step is make people talk about the issue. 

Open dialogue

We agree that the first step in accelerating the abandonment of harmful traditional practices is to open dialogue around the issues, which have often previously been taboo. In order to initiate this dialogue, we think that it’s important that information about human rights and the harmful effects of certain practices, such as child/forced marriage, is shared with community members in their mother tongue – our Community Empowerment Program is currently run in 22 different languages, and is always facilitated by people from the same ethnic group as the participants. It is also important to use teaching methods already familiar to participants, who in the case of our program have often never received, or received very little, formal education. We rely on methods such as role play, poetry, and song to share information, allowing people to feel more at ease when discussing issues that they may never have spoken about openly before. 

That is a great example of

That is a great example of building from the ground-up, Safeer, thank you. In the same way that Tostan have also talked about dialogue, we have recently started working with S.A.F.E. Maa in Kenya, who have focused on encouraging people to speak up, through drama and the arts. They have been able to build community trust and bring the issue of female genital cutting and HIV to wider public attention in the Maasai district of Loita, Kenya; in 2006, there was not a single public advocate for the abandonment of FGC in Loita District.

By the time of the Illorikan ceremony in 2009 (this marks the graduation of junior elders into senior elders in the community and the transition of power and responsibility every 25 years), SAFE Maa was honoured for its work on HIV and two groups of women sang in praise of the programme, the first time women had ever been praised at this ceremony. The Chiefs used this ceremony, held in front of 3,000 people, to announce that S.A.F.E. was soon to start delivering a message about FGC through performance and that it was time for the community to listen. This was the first time that discussion about FGC had ever been publicly acknowledged in this community.

I think this example also shows that importance of recognising that in many instances, traditional power structures are just as important as state institutions and also require careful attention. Has anyone else any good examples of working with both forms of authority?



Mbamata 'Fatou' Jawneh

We would like to share with you the story of Mbamata ‘Fatou’ Jawneh, from Mane Kunda, a predominantly Mandinka suburb of the town of Basse in the Upper River Region of The Gambia. Her story demonstrates how information shared in a non-disruptive, or persuasive, way by community members themselves can lead to positive change.

Fatou and her community began participating in our Community Empowerment Program in 2007, and her dynamism and natural ability to lead made her an obvious candidate for the role of Coordinator of the 17-member Community Management Committee (CMC), democratically selected at the start of the program to guide the community’s development efforts.

With the support of the CMC and her community, Fatou facilitated a birth registration campaign, organized weekly cleaning activities, and coordinated fundraising events and women’s discussion groups. She engaged others to discuss sensitive issues such as female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage, and was able to convince even the most conservative members of the community to agree to abandonment. Her approach was not confrontational; instead she entered into dialogue with traditional leaders, and emphasized their shared goal of the health and wellbeing of community members. As Orchid Project pointed out, for change to come about, it is crucial to engage with these traditional power structures.

Fatou also formed the first social mobilization team in The Gambia - a group of nine committed individuals who travel to villages throughout their social network to discuss important issues with community members. She recognized the need to systematically engage interconnected villages in discussions about key topics, such as FGC - a process of information sharing which we call organized diffusion. She says “We approach communities with patience and we listen and discuss with them. When there is resistance, we encourage individuals from the community who are supportive to speak with those who are opposed to what we have to say. The change has to come from within’’.

Eventually, the work of people like Fatou, in her own village and beyond, led to Mane Kunda’s participation, alongside 116 other Madinka communities, in a public declaration to abandon the harmful practices of FGC and child/forced marriage, with religious and traditional leaders fully committed. Today, Fatou coordinates three social mobilization teams in the URR: a Mandinka, a Fula, and a Serahule team, each of which specialize in outreach to their respective ethnic groups.

Fatou’s story shows both how traditional and religious leaders can change their minds about harmful traditions as a result of persuasive dialogue, and the importance of sharing new ideas and information across community member’s established social networks, building momentum for abandonment of harmful practices.

@Tostan, and others

A fantastic, inspiring example Tostan, thank you!  Fatou's view that "The change has to come from within" is spot on. And it's encouraging to see that persuasion, even though it takes time, does achieve results. This is especially relevant to advocates working on harmful practices that have so far failed to feature in mainstream human rights advocacy.

Due to a variety of reasons, not all harmful practices have faced the same level of debate in literature and international fora as say female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and child marriage.  Non-therapeutic male circumcision, that is circumcision performed on male infants and boys for non-medical reasons, is one such practice.  At the root of why the male circumcison hasn't made it into mainstream children's rights advocacy is its perceived normalcy and harmlessness not only in the Middle East and parts of Africa and Central Asia, but also in Western countries such as Canada and the United States as well as in Australia and New Zealand.  And this is despite the fact that male circumcision and female genital mutilation/cutting, although not being perfect comparators, do present similarities in the definition of genital mutilation.  Aside from being surgical practices performed for non-medical reasons, both practices are usually carried out on children, are done without the affected child's consent, they seek to irreversibly alter the child's genitalia, they entail the surgical removal of healthy tissue, they carry major physical and psychological risks, they are known to desensitise the genitals and reduce sexual pleasure, and they enjoy majority support within the communities or states in which they are practiced. 

There have been significant initiatives to shed light on the harm non-therapeutic male circumcision causes boys, but these have been met with immediate opposition with claims that parents' religious freedoms are being infringed upon.  Yet this opposition has come not only from the religious groups that perform the practice, but also from judges, lawmakers and government leaders -- that is individuals in positions of responsibility for the protection of its citizens from rights abuses.  The following are just a two examples: 

  • In November 2011 a proposal was made in San Francisco, United States to include a ban on ritual male circumcision in the city ballot, with the leading sponsor saying: "Parents are really guardians, and guardians have to do what's in the best interests of the child. It's his body. It's his choice."  But the effort was eventually struck down by a California judge who claimed a ban on the practice would infringe on parents' religious freedom, despite the fact that male infants and boys are the ones that have to endure the surgery.  Later, the state governor signed a law to prevent similar bans in the future. 
  • In June 2012 a German district court ruled that male circumcision performed for religious - not medical - reasons, is against the best interests of the child because even if parents have consented to the procedure, it represents an affront on boys' physical integrity and is performed at an age at which a boy is unable to give his informed consent.  The ruling set an important precedent in children's rights advocacy by recognising that parents' religious freedom should not be upheld at the expense of children's rights.  However, fearing accusations of discrimination, the German Bundestag was quick to enshrine in law parents' freedom to have their sons circumcised.  Read more here

What's evident in the above cases concerning non-therapeutic male circumcision, is that opposition to any talk of children's rights in the context of protection against harmful practices comes not only from the communities that perform the practice, but also from judges, politicians and governments. But defending a practice, or failing to challenge it, despite evidence proving it to be harmful to those submitted to it, simply because it is commonplace or entrenched in a given society, culture or community, is to tolerate a practice that undermines existing human rights principles. Indeed it's hard to understand how the unnecessary removal of healthy, functioning tissue from a baby or child without his consent, while forcibly restrained, most commonly without general anaesthetic, on the most intimate and personal part of his body, has not been challenged more often in courts or in government, and, importantly, by members of society. (Non-therapeutic male circumcision does, however, feature in the 2012 report by the International NGO Council on Violence Against Children among its list of harmful practices against children. Read the report here.)

A promising aspect, however, and going back to the question of dialogue as a persuasion tactic, is that the debate around the legality of non-therapeutic male circumcision continues with momentum.  Aside from the examples above, legal debates have sprung up in other countries, with human rights experts such as national children's ombudspersons asserting that children have the right to autonomy over their own body and that boys should be able to decide for themselves whether to undergo the procedure at an age when they're able to give their informed consent, or refuse consent.  These views have been put forward in Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark, among others.  Importantly, medical associations from 17 countries have also voiced their opposition towards routine male circumcision as a practice that is medically unnecessary.  And there is even opposition towards the practice from within the religious groups that perform it, including notably the Jewish Circumcision Resource Centre, among others.  But as an emerging issue in human rights advocacy, it has yet to be seen what advocacy and persuasion tactics will be the most influential here. 

The importance of public ceremonies and rituals in persuasion

Glad you mentioned the Illorikan cermony, David! I just wanted to briefly highlight the importance of public ceremony in this process of persuading the community to abandon a particular practice.

In your example, you mention that the Illorikan ceremony in 2009 was the first time that discussion about FGC had ever been publicly acknowledged in that community. Amy, of Tostan, also mentioned the power of public ceremony in her comment:

As David said, communities who have chosen to abandon these harmful practices announce their decision at a public declaration. Making an announcement in a public setting reflects endorsement of the new social norm - no one will be ostracized for deciding not to engage in a practice when all have collectively agreed to stop it.

In our Persuasion case study, Emile Short also explains the importance of public ceremony (page 12):

The importance of emancipation rituals cannot be overemphasized. These were arranged to be highly visible, well-publicized, and well-attended. They gave confidence to both families and victims, who heard the public pledge, vow, and prayers of the fetish priest, setting them free forever. It also allowed the general public to see the shrine priests commit themselves to abandoning the practice, which in turn showed the priests themselves that their future activities would be monitored, and that they would be sanctioned if they returned to the practice.

How have others utilized public ceremonies and other rituals to acknowledge the process and hold leaders accountable for their future actions? Share your examples here!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Public Ceremony Examples

Hello everyone!

I would like to share two examples of organizations utilizing public ceremonies to gain support in their communities.

1) Swazi Men take a stand against domestic violence: in 1990, Swazli men painted their hand prints on a banner during a public demonstration to promise to never raise their hand in violence. Eventhough this example is a little dated, it definitely stands as an example of a creative public ceremoney. Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) has several additional programs, including a radio educational show and a school sensitization program. 

2) United National Population Fund (UNFPA) has two stories, one in Senegal and one in Niger, of how public declarations were utilized as a powerful means of persuasion in communities seeing abandonment of FGM/C. Examples include: collecting signatures on traditional colourful cloth, certificates of recognition, and public weddings of uncut girls. The example from Senegal is a Tostan programme, which is now being replicated in the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Djibouti and Somalia. One part that I found very interesting was the use of cell phones for texting as a final stage of communication. Perhaps Tostan can explain this part of the program in greater depth. How do you collect numbers of interested individuals to receive texts? How often do you send the texts? Is there any follow-up or call to action from the texts? What challenges have you found with this form of communication? Have other individuals utilized texting or cell phones to increase communication and raise awareness?

Great examples and discussions, I look forward to reading more!

- Deanna


Engaging men, and mobile phones

Hi Deanna, thanks for the example that you shared of men taking a stand on issues affecting women. One important lesson that Tostan has learned since the organization began, is that for sustainable change to occur, all members of the community need to be involved in all activities. Men are often seen as the enemy when it comes to practices harming girls and women, such as gender-based violence, keeping girls out of school, or female genital cutting, but with the right approach, men are wonderful allies.

In Tostan’s early days, the program focused on building support for women’s and children’s rights, with the result that men felt defensive and excluded. Learning from this experience, we changed our focus from women’s and children’s rights to all human rights. By acknowledging that all people have rights, and responsibilities to respect those rights, everyone in the community became directly implicated in the discussions. The attitude of the men in the communities we work with changed, and many men have become strong advocates for the human rights of the wives, daughters, and other members of the community. Men and women now work together to promote equality and develop new social norms around respecting the human rights and dignity of all people. Demba Diawara is one of those leading male advocates who has personally walked to over 300 villages to share human rights information and factual information about harmful practices with his family and wider social network. 

Concerning your question about the use of mobile phones in our program, the Mobile Phone for Literacy and Development module, now integrated into our Community Empowerment Program, empowers participants to use their phones to practice their newly acquired literacy skills by sending and receiving text messages in their mother tongue. They also learn to use tools such as the phone’s calendar and calculator, skills reinforced during training on project management and income-generating activities later in the program.

Mobile phones and text messaging are also used by community members as a tool to accelerate positive social transformation in their own communities. They connect women with each other and with their communities; amplify the voice and influence of youth and marginalized groups in a community's decision-making process; provide a platform for exchanging information, broadcasting ideas, and organizing advocacy work; and can be used for social mobilization. For example, community members can send group texts to inform others about vaccinations available at the local health post or about a community clean-up that will take place. To arrange a community or inter-village meeting, it is no longer necessary to travel long distances to set it up. As mobile phones and networks become increasingly available in the remote communities where we work, we have found that this technology has become invaluable to our program and the participants leading change.  

Resource: Conversation summary on engaging men as allies

Great examples, Amy and Deanna! Thanks for sharing.

I just wanted to share a resource that was created by the New Tactics community a few years ago related to this idea of engaging men as powerful allies in social change. We hosted a conversation on the topic Joining Forces: Engaging Men as Allies in Gender-Sensitive Peacebuilding. (unfortunately, we haven't updated the internal links in the conversation summary yet - but the content itself is still useful)

Are there other examples out there of how men have been thoughtfully engaged in this work, protecting human rights?

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Untraditional superhero to get an issue "out there"


Victor, I really enjoyed your suggestion to get an issue "out there". It made me think of a recent npr story that I read on an untraditional superhero, the Burka Avenger, who made its debut in Pakistan a month ago. The creator of the TV show, Pakistani entrepreneur and pop star Hoaroon Rashid commented that he wants a nonviolent message of 'Justice, Peace and Education for All.' During the day she's a school teacher, and at night, to fight the bad guys, she puts on the burqa and only fights with pens and books. This is an example of utilizing the media to get an issue "out there" so that it can be talked about outside of the home, in more public areas.

While the issue of girl's education has been talked about more freely than other human rights issues, the topic is still taboo in some communities and several critiques and backlash stories have emerged.

I would be very interested to hear what other people think of this example. How have you utilized media (books, cartoons, theater, songs, plays) or other programs to get an issue "out there"? This type of medium may allow individuals to feel more at ease when discussing new issues, like Tostan commented.


- Deanna

How Bedari changed minds about Girls Education in Laphi

Hi friends, 

Here I am sharing one success story of Bedari (I will be sharing more). This one is about Girls Education. Bedari initiated Girls' Post Primary Level Education in 2006. Laphi is a village in district Chakwal, Punjab, Pakistan. Here is the story:

Education, generally, is not a priority in Pakistan where government spends hardly 2 per cent of the GDP on education. Girls education is further below on priority list. Government's attitude towards education actually reflects the people's attitude towards education. When Bedari decided to work for girls education. It analysed the problem and understood two important aspects of the problem:

  1. Girls' education is not a priority of the people because education is equated with livelihood. As boys are going to earn, and would have to compete in the job market, they need education. Girls are not going to earn, so there is no need to spend money on educating them. 
  2. Girls' mobility was another big hurdle. In Pakistan, boys can drive bicycles, motorbikes etc. But girls can't do that. It is strange but true. Public transport is not considered safe for young girls, and transportation cost is high. 

So we had to deal with these two issues. The second issue was not as difficult to deal with. Bedari arranged for the transportation of 30 girls from village to the nearby town where secondary school is situated. Bedari porvided further financial assistance for the poorest girls for books, uniforms and shoes. However, the first issue was more difficult to deal with. 

Bedari talked to the local elders, the few educated individuals in the community, the religious leaders and local political leadership. As some of the agreed to support this initiative, it became easier to deal with the rest of the community. We held sessions/discussions with these few people and prepared them to hold such discussions at informal level within the community with people who were less staunch in their opposition to girls education. The people would not have frank discussions with us, but they would have frank discussions with the people from within their community. That provided us a window into the mind set of the people. Some interesting information came out of these informal discussion. For example, people were afraid that their daughters would become too westernized, would stop listening to their parents, and would become too headstrong. 

Bedari staff, instead of arguing with them, took the community leaders to another village where people happily sent their daughters to schools/colleges. We arranged a meeting with the parents of those girls and let the community leaders of Laphi have frank discussions with them. These community leaders then shared their learning with people at the village. It softened them a little bit and finally 22 families agreed to send their girls to school. We were happy about it. But to our surprise, there was no girl ready to go to school when the wagon arrived to pick those 22 girls. 

We checked with the community leaders and found that those who were staunchly opposed to girls education had taunted the willing families for accepting charity. So the willing families retracted. This was a difficult situation, but the solution came from within the community. A community leader advised to rebrand this program as a scholarship program for those girls who had completed their education up to primary level. This idea worked. In fact, it created a sort of competition among families to win the scholarship. 

Today, 30 girls are going to school. The situation is changing dramatically. Before this project, there was not a single female with secondary education in the entire village. Now there are 10 females with secondary education. One girls is doing graduation, and 3 girls are at studying at higher secondary level. There are at least 10 girls who are studying beyond primary level without any support from Bedari. We plan to phase out from this village in next year, and initiate similar project in another village where girls are not going to school. 

female teachers

Dear Safeer, 
thanks for sharing this interesting example. I congratulate you on the idea of taking the community leaders to other villages where girls did go to the schools and colleges. 
Reading your story, I was wondering whether the aspect of teachers being male or female was important and how you dealt with that.

If so - I was wondering; I understand the 30 girls are going to the nearby town where the secondary education is located. Did this put a strain on the female teachers in the nearby village? There might not be too many female teachers in the area. How did the nearby villagers respond to the influx of the 30 girls? Were they welcomed? 

Looking forward to hearing from you, 

Peace Jose

Female Teachers

Dear Jose,

Thank you very much for your interest in this story. 

The issue of male/female teachers did not arise as Pakistan has segregated schools for girls and boys especially at secondary level. So all these girls are going to an exclusive girls school, where all the teachers are female. It could have been an issue for us if the school had mixed students and teachers. 

The 30 girls are going to a public sector school. As the all the girls are not studying in the same class, it is not a burden. The girls schools in Pakistan (especially in rural areas) are usually having less students than their capacity. So the school could easily absorb another 30 girls. Of course, they were welcomed. 

Great - thanks!

Great - thanks!

Challenging beliefs and providing incentives/alternatives

Thank you for sharing this great story, Safeer! It is particularly great that you shared the part when everyone was excited to see the 22 girls go to school only to realize there was yet another barrier. There is a lot we can learn from tactics that we tried and thought would work, but didn't.

There are two aspects of your story that I wanted to highlight by sharing similar experiences from Ghana that are about challenging the beliefs of communities and providing incentives and alternatives to the practice being carried out.

In your story, you listened to the concerns of the community regarding sending girls to school. Then you brought the community leaders to another community where girls are being sent to school, to see that those concerns are not necessarily valid. This reminded me of the experience of Emile Short in Ghana, from our case study on abandoning the practice of Trokosi (page 11):

Once again, the complementary roles of the NGO, the traditional leaders, and myself played an important part in the persuasion process. CHRAJ’s role was to explain to the fetish priests that the practice violated several provisions of the Constitution, and that the law would descend on them if they did not voluntarily end the practice. The traditional leaders put forward a variety of arguments, including, for example, that custom was not static, but dynamic and able to change with the times. They could point to the changing history of cultural traditions, demonstrating that cultural practices in the past have changed without incurring the wrath of the gods. There had been, for instance, a practice of human sacrifice whenever a chief died, as it was believed that a chief could not be buried alone.

The legitimacy of the traditional leaders in making these arguments was crucial, since only they could claim the wisdom to judge the responses of the gods to transformations in customary practices. Our success in convincing some shrines to change their practice also became useful in the negotiations, as we could show that these shrines had not suffered the anger of the gods.

And regarding the community's clever use of scholarships to entice families to send their girls to school, Emile Short also had an incentive for priests to abandon the Trokosi practice:

Finally, the priests were informed that at the liberation ceremony they would be given cows with which to start a new life. When, in July of 1996, the Dada Piem shrine of Big Ada agreed to be the first to free its women, a handsome economic package of 10 heifers and one bull was given to the shrine priest and elders. ING made sure that both print and electronic media covered the emancipation ceremony. As expected, other shrine practitioners were motivated to free their Trokosi women.

The negotiation process was thus aimed at simultaneously responding to the multiple motivations that supported the Trokosi institution


How have others in this discussion used tactics to challenge deep-rooted beliefs? What kinds of incentives or alternatives have you offered to replace the practice you are working to end? Keep the examples coming!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

work with jirga's in Pakistan?

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments and remaks, I'm working my way through it. 

This morning I came across an article I read, posted on the website of the Asian Human Rights Commission in July 2013. A woman was stoned to death for the possession of a mobile phone, after a ruling by a traditional tribal court (Panchayat). 
I was wondering if any of you has experience in working with these kind of traditional courts, and in challenging their rulings. The jirga system has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, but it's rulings are still taking place. 

I recently also read about the existence of an all - female jirga in Pakistan  , which might be a way to challenge the all-male jirga's in Pakistan, though I don't know whether the all-female jirga is actually ruling about things. 

Looking forward to hearing from you, 

Thanks again

Peace Jose

Jirgas in Pakistan

Thanks Jose for bringing up this interesting and very important topic. 

Though I have not worked on this issue in the field or at the community level, but it is very important for me on two counts: 

  1. My organization Bedari is working on women rights issues. Jirga decisions are most often against women. So it becomes very important for us to study this important issue. 
  2. I belong to Pakhtoon belt of the country where Jirga tradition is very strong. 

In fact, I have written an article proposing institutionalizing the Jirga and holding it accountable. Anyhow, here are my observations on Jirga:

Why Jirga Remains Popular:

The main reason for the popularity of Jirga is that the judicial system in Pakistan is corrupt, and the judgements come out after years of litigation. I remember at least one case in which a woman had to wait for 40 years for the decision in a divorce case. Jirgas are very quick to decide matters, though such decisions are most often seriously flawed. 

How Jirga Works:

It has no formal structure and no formal rules. Anybody can be member of a jirga. The basic rule is that the members of Jirga should be acceptable to both the parties involved in litigation. There is no age, education or experience specified for Jirga Members. 

Major Flaws in Jirga System in Pakistan:

  1. No rules and regulations, no ToRs
  2. No accountability for wrong decisions
  3. No right to appeal
  4. Jirga members have no training
  5. No unified system, punishments vary for the same crime 
  6. Punishment is given not to the accused but to his female relatives 

Impact of Supreme Court Judgement on Jirga System:

Though Jirga system prevails in Pakistan and is widely practiced. However, the judgement of Supreme Court of Pakistan declaring it illegal had its impact. Now the police, if informed, does intervene and arrest people involved in Jirga. Furthermore, if any of the parties involved is not happy with the verdict of the Jirga, it would approach police and get the Jirga Members arrested. 

The worst decisions by the Jirgas are when women are used for dispute settlement. The female relatives of the accused are often handed over to the aggrieved party. Sometimes the female relatives are as young as 1 or 2 year old daughters of the accused. In recent years, we have seen that people in such cases often report to the police and many innocent girls have been saved from lifetime of slavery, abuse and torture. 

I am pasting a link to an article I have written on the issue. I talk about how Jirga can be incorporated in the judicial system.

I hope it enlightens you on the issue. 

What happen when NGOs aren't even talking about an issue?

Wow! Loads of great stuff has been said here! 

One trend that we have noticed is that it can be difficult to get human rights NGOs to talk about and take on difficult, neglected and otherwise ignored issues. Victor's example of non-therapeutic male circumcision is a perfect case in point. Conversations and often started or locally encouraged by civil society, so how can we persuade civil society to start talking about conservational issues or taboo topics?

Everyone agrees that children have the right to health (whether or not they see it as a rights issue or not is a separate matter, but people do want children to be healthy). Yet so much of the talk around children's right to health revolves around nutrition and vaccinations, which are of course important issues. But almost fixation on them means that other really important issues get neglected. What do other people think about the role of NGOs here?

Sexual and reproductive health for children is a perfect example. Traditional values around children and what information they should either receive or be 'protected' from often means that they are denied information about sexual and reproductive health (contraception, abortion, sexuality etc etc) that they need to make their own safe choices. It's almost like the word "sex" is a bad word to say in front of children.

But by allowing children access to information about sex and reproduction not only allows them to make their own safe choices, it can help prevent sexual abuse. Information is power after all! 

In an interesting case from China, advocates and researchers have started emphasising the need for younger children (so not just teenagers) to receive basic sex education after a string of sexual abuse scandals. This push only came at the start of this year, so we will have to wait and see how it goes. Getting children to talk about sex and reproduction stops it from being a taboo topic - issues like contraception, abortion and LGBT rights will hopefully follow, although I understand that freedom of expression in China is particularly tricky so it may take some time. 

One notable campaign working to combat child sex abuse is the Council of Europe's One in Five campaign. At the heart of its objective is a simple rule: the Underwear Rule, whose purpose is to help parents and teachers explain to children where others should not try to touch them, their right to set limits, and the need to express their feelings and speak up against abuse. The Underwear Rule is explained in a TV spot suitable for all ages, a children’s book, a website and other support materials. Just by starting conversations about sex and where it's ok for people to touch you, it's hoped that this will empower children with information and help prevent sexual abuse. While the Council of Europe is targeting an European audience, it is reaching out further internationally and welcomes non-members States to collaborate in the campaign or start up a national or regional one themselves. 

What do others think? Anyone got an examples or idea about to get society talking about rights issue when no one else is?

Talking is Always Important

I fully agree with you on this. I have already talked in detail about this. However, as you mentioned sexual and reproductive health, it made me add a few lines here. Sexual and Reproductive Health is a very serious issue in Pakistan as well. Here religious leaders have twisted many English words and provided wrong translations to the common men/women. Sex Education is one of them. Now common people in Pakistan believe that sex education means teaching children how to indulge in sexual intercourse. There are quite a few NGOs working on this important issue, but so far none has challenged this definition and have not explained it to the masses that sex education does not mean that. 

That's really interesting

That's really interesting Safeer. Those in power everywhere often have teams people working on rhetoric so are able to redefine words and twist meanings as you say. Do children in Pakistan get any sexual and reproductive health education/information at all? If so, who provides it?

One method of challenging this, and it's not perfect in terms of a rights-based approach, is to message that sex education can help prevent sexual abuse. Obviously it’s the perpetrator, not the child who is at fault here and sex education cannot be the only method of challenging sexual abuse in societies. Perhaps this where it needs to start in Pakistan, given the issues are definitions and strong social attitudes, rather than demanding that children have the right to access this information so they can make their own safe choices? Obviously I would prefer the later approach, but I completely understand the complexities here. What do you think? Do you think there is any room for making a rights based argument?

Two examples include from China and Europe below on the importance of sexual and reproductive education below that could be used as persuasion tactics here:

In China, advocates and researchers have started emphasising the need for younger children (so not just teenagers) to receive basic sex education after a string of sexual abuse scandals. This push only came at the start of this year, so we will have to wait and see how it goes. Getting children to talk about sex and reproduction stops it from being a taboo topic. And then maybe issues like contraception, abortion and LGBT rights will hopefully follow, although I understand that freedom of expression in China (and Pakistan for that matter) is particularly tricky so it may take some time:

One notable campaign working to combat child sex abuse is the Council of Europe's One in Five campaign. At the heart of its objective is a simple rule: the Underwear Rule, whose purpose is to help parents and teachers explain to children where others should not try to touch them, their right to set limits, and the need to express their feelings and speak up against abuse. The Underwear Rule is explained in a TV spot suitable for all ages, a children’s book, a website and other support materials. Just by starting conversations about sex and where it's ok for people to touch you, it's hoped that this will empower children with information and help prevent sexual abuse. While the Council of Europe is targeting an European audience, it is reaching out further internationally and welcomes non-members States to collaborate in the campaign or start up a national or regional one themselves. 

Case Study Examples

Lots of great examples! Wonderful!

Case study examples, approaches, guides and additional resources on Ending Violence Against Women can be found on the United National Population Fund website. They provide examples from all over the world, broken down to include partners, results, negotiation, lessons learned, etc.

Also, be sure to look at the Cultural Sensitive Programming Approaches:

  • Laying the ground work
  • Starting off right
  • Building in sustainability
  • Caring for the individual
  • Gaining support through advocacy

Have other people used these, or similar steps for different human rights issues?

One action that the site talks about is "gather hard data and solicit expert opinion". Do other people focus on data collection? When is this type of information most useful - when working with traditional leaders, community members, national leaders? 

Great discussions! I look forward to reading and learning more!

- Deanna

Female jirgas

This is a very interesting debate, and it's great to see so many issues being talked about which are usually hidden from such debates.


I wanted to pick up on the issue of the female jirgas. This is certainly an interesting angle in relation to the jirga system as a whole. On the one hand, I am not sure whether we should have at all the arbitrary system of jirgas (male or female) - I don't believe they serve any purpose other than continuing to implement a system whose rationale lies in historical customary (and therefore non-religious) laws which were largely interpreted by men (and therefore ultimately have favourable outcomes for men).

 I guess it's about a stop-gap process, and putting something in place now. And if the courts outside the rural system are seen as unhelpful and/or corrupt then perhaps an interim measure is needed now to help secure some rights for women (rather than no rights at all). However, this set-up should not be seen as the ultimate justice system. If these are to exist, they should exist parallel to efforts to have a non-corrupt, well-governed Supreme Court.  It's about accountability and transparency at all times, underpinned by the rule of law. At times, jirga rulings can have devastating impacts for females (as in this case: So perhaps we should be trying to move away from the system.

Moving Away from Jirga

Dear Alia,

Thank you for raising this important issue. 

Though I agree with you that it is better to get rid of this informal mock judicial system. However, we need to understand that this system is in practice for centuries and centuries-old habits do not die easily. That is why I suggested in one of my posts that we should formalize it. Government should develop some Terms of Reference, set criteria for people who can be on Jirga, and set limits on what kind of punishments these Jirgas can prescribe, and what they cannot. Furthermore, their decisions should not be final, but the aggreived party should have a right to appeal against the Jirga verdict in the district court. 

How to engage those affected by the unjust practice?

I'm curious to learn how those actually affected by the unjust practice have been engaged in the process of ending that practice. We have a few examples of this from the New Tactics community:

  • Iraq Veterans Against the War suggests utilizing veterans to tell their story of their military experience and what it’s like to be in the military and the risks involved.
  • Promoting discussions on disability to generate a holistic and inclusive human rights dialogue - The International Center for Bioethics, Culture and Disability proposes a holistic approach that views the human rights movement as a united coalition of groups seeking a shared-rights outcome.
  • A Mock Tribunal to Advance Change: The National Tribunal on Violence Against Women in Nigeria - BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, in collaboration with the Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre (CIRDDOC), highlighted violations of women’s rights in Nigeria that were viewed by the public as normal or even justifiable abuse.  They used a mock tribunal to change public perceptions and beliefs regarding violations against women, and changed public policy and law.  The organization used prominent people to create a high powered panel of “judges” to draw media attention and hear testimonies by women from many areas of Nigeria. The tribunal’s recommendations were instrumental, at both local and national levels, in subsequent attempts to advocate for new laws and for reforms of existing laws related to violence against women. This tactic may provide each of us with ideas for addressing public perceptions and misunderstandings regarding other disadvantaged or abused populations.

I'm eager to learn about your experiences engaging the survivors in campaigns to end abuse. Share your experiences by replying below!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Thanks Kristin! I'm really

Thanks Kristin! I'm really interested to hear about this as well. Two of the issues that we prioritise at CRIN are civil and political rights (particularly freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to be heard) and access to justice for children. Without these two principles, it is very difficult for survivors to:

 a) tell their story to help in a persuasion movement directed at both society and those in power and

b) be empowered to help stop the harm happening to them and to others in the future via justice systems

I'd be really interested to know if people have ideas and examples of getting survivors involved to tackle really entrenched rights abuses, particularly in closed societies or institutions (eg religious) that lack transparency and openness. For example, child sexual abuse across the Catholic Church all over the world is believed to be huge, and survivors have been ignored and even threatened, indicating a complete lack of transparency and accountability in the Vatican. People have come forward with their stories, but so much is still kept secret. 

Do people have any ideas on how persuasion tactics could help here and how survivors could be more involved?

We fund a project through

We fund a project through @Tostan called Social Mobilisation. This is where members of communities who have chosen to abandon female genital cutting travel out along their social networks, visiting other communities and telling their story. This leads to a dialogue being created. Many of these volunteers are women who have undergone FGC and have chosen to help others make the choice not to cut their daughters.

This story featured in the London Evening Standard earlier this year, looking at Mara Samba Diallo and her work in Senegal. It is a really good read and highlights just how someone can tell their story and be empowered to prevent the same happening to others. What is particularly impressive is that the social mobilisation teams are volunteers who have given their time, often spending long period away from their families, to spread their message and talk about their experiences.

As Mara says in the article, “When people haven’t seen things themselves they don’t believe them.  When I visit the villages I tell them my story. It is very moving for people. They can’t argue with a story like this.”

This is an amazing example.

This is an amazing example. Thanks so much for sharing it!

It's got me thinking about ways of getting child survivors involved to tackle harmful traditions and views about children. Children are so often the victim of harmful practices based on tradition, religion and other entrenched systems - and part of the reason for that is that children are not seen as rights holders. Their views are somehow not as important as adults who know "best" when forcing horrific violence, including female genital cutting or pushing sexual abuse under the carpet. So by somehow giving children a space to share their views on important matters concerning not only them, but the rest of the society, is very important, as is of course helping people who are now adults share their stories. 

But we need to make sure we avoid doing it in a token way. Getting a child to speak at an international event or to the media on its own doesn't really solve problems around participation or stopping the rights abuse from continuing. It needs to be done in a thoughtful and long lasting way, like in the story posted by Orchid Project above where the survivor is empowered and not just thrust onto the stage in an exploitative manner. 

.....give me so much to think about! 

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