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Practitioner Tips: Transforming Harmful Gender Norms in WASH with Traditional Leaders

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Traditional leaders hold a great amount of power in many communities especially when it comes to influencing social norms. They are important ‘gatekeepers’ who play a vital role in passing on ideas and information to communities. Social norms around gender can be very ‘sticky’ and difficult to change so finding a way to work with traditional leaders can be valuable.

(Photo credit: ‘Sign board to customary land’ by Jeff Walker/CIFOR. Taken in Zambia 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Below are some thoughts on working with traditional leaders to implement gender transformative approaches to WASH. I have adapted these ideas from a ‘Gender Transformative WASH Workshop’ the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) co-facilitated with Dr Sue Cavill for Plan International Netherlands as part of their Annual Review Meeting of the Plan WASH SDG Programme (April 2019). These ideas also draw on an interview I conducted with Helen Lungu (Gender Specialist, Plan International Zambia) who has been working with traditional leaders to change restrictive gender norms around WASH in Zambia. Watch an extract of Helen's interview here.

Gather local stories and solutions
Before gathering any information in a chiefdom pay a courtesy call to the chiefs and explain your programme and the need to gather information from the community to help with implementing a relevant, equitable, accessible and culturally acceptable programme. To set up a meeting with traditional leaders, you will first need to climb the ‘ladder of hierarchy’ in your programme area, which involves meeting with various people who take you a step closer to the leader. Be prepared for this to take some time.

Then find out as much as you can about local people’s lived experiences in your programme area. Talk to people; carry out some basic qualitative research to learn about the key gender issues that intersect with WASH. Collect individual’s stories and/or collective case studies, which clearly define the issues. Document these stories and synthesise them into priority issues. Using a mix of media types can be powerful, for example, photos, short video clips, audio interviews, songs, along with text. If they are gathered using participatory processes this can add extra layers of depth and power to the work. If the stories are sensitive, get consent around sharing individual’s identities, as they may prefer to remain anonymous. These stories will be used to engage and inform the leader when you meet them formally.

Work with local people to come up with some suggestions for how these issues could be addressed in a gender transformative way. Build a convincing argument as to why things need to change and how they could.

Make use of traditional leader strategy documents and local statistics
Many traditional leaders are educated to graduate level and beyond, and have a good understanding of development issues. They often have easy access to data and statistics on their community, chiefdom or kingdom.

In Zambia, the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs looks at how to engage the traditional leaders and how they can work together. The Ministry has created a strategy document on traditional leaders’ engagement, which talks about, for example, how traditional leaders should network with all the other organisations and ministries that have presence in their chiefdom. It also sets out how ministries should support traditional leaders to roll out their agenda.

Chiefs also have ‘Chiefdom Development Strategies’, which have been developed in a holistic manner with all the ministries involved. Within this strategy, they will have a water and sanitation element, as well as a gender equality element. Where they exist, it would be valuable to read these documents in advance to help contextualise your case to the leader.

(Photo Credit: Jeffrey Barbee/Thomson Reuters Foundation. Centre, 32 year old Gift Chibamba talks with Chief Nduna Simunye, right 52. While the chief's wife, Namala Simanya, left cleans cassava root. Taken in Zambia 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Give them the local information you have gathered (and that they are often missing)

When you eventually get a formal meeting with a leader, some things you may want to discuss include:

  • They will normally have access to gender and WASH statistics in their region – you could discuss these. For example, statistics on girls’ school attendance aged 12 and older are linked to girls' access to sanitary products and WASH facilities; violence against women and domestic violence can be heightened by limited access to WASH facilities. You could then highlight gaps in their information and statistics on key gender and WASH issues.
  • Find out what is blocking them from addressing certain gender norms and WASH issues in their area; sometimes it is a bit of motivation that is missing or maybe some information that they do not fully understood. Using your research and case studies, you can help provide this essential information and motivation.
  • Present and discuss the local stories you have gathered around restrictive gender norms and WASH to the leader. Explain the impact that these issues are having.  People’s stories can be very powerful - most traditional leaders care about the people in their communities. (Just to reiterate, if the stories are sensitive, get consent around sharing individual’s identities as they may prefer to remain anonymous.)

Helping a traditional leader to get a clearer picture of certain issues in their constituency can sometimes be enough motivation for them to ‘buy in’.

(Photo: A school in Tororo District, Uganda. Photo credit: Plan International)

Support them in finding and disseminating solutions
Helen says, ‘Once we have buy in I say, “Ok how do you think you are going to do it? I will leave it up to you – find your own ways of doing that and let me know if you are stuck.” And in most cases they will call back before you even leave their palace and ask, “When are you coming back so that you can take us through the process of identifying these things”’.

At this point, you can present the gender transformative WASH ideas and solutions that you developed with the community. Also talk about how a gender transformative approach is used to change other issues governed by harmful gender norms, for example, FGM, forced and early marriage – and discuss how can you link gender equality WASH issues with other gender/social movements to create greater momentum.

Once the chief has agreed to any changes or action, it can be good to work with them to disseminate this information. Although the chief is very powerful and people generally do what they say, it is better to explain to everyone who lives in their area. It is more useful and sustainable for local people to understand themselves, for example, the reason why a customary law or social norm is changing rather than doing it simply because the chief has said so.

Help them to include, monitor and evaluate gender transformative indicators
Give them advice how to include gender transformative indicators around the WASH issue identified within their planning and strategies, which will help them to monitor and evaluate progress. The Gender and WASH Monitoring Tool (2014) developed by Plan International Australia and Plan Vietnam enables users to explore and monitor gendered relations through facilitated community dialogue. Also, ask them to share this information with ministries to raise awareness of the issues with policy makers.

As a final note - this is by no means a comprehensive guide to working with traditional leaders on gender transformative WASH but more ‘food for thought’ on this issue. If you have experiences of working with traditional leaders on gender transformative approaches to WASH (positive or negative) I would love to hear about them: e.mercer@ids.ac.uk.

This blog was written by Elaine Mercer (CLTS Knowledge Hub, IDS). Many thanks are due to Helen Lungu (Gender Specialist, Plan International Zambia) for her interview and input into this blog.

Date: 26 June 2019