On Sunday, The New York Times ran a special edition of the Sunday Magazine focused on empowering women around the world. One of the best articles? Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “The Art of Social Change.” Appiah’s piece highlighted two significant campaigns that changed women’s lives: the end of foot binding in China and the eradication of female genital cutting in Senegal.
Why did these campaigns work? Because both initiatives engaged communities at multiple levels through a dialogue of mutual respect; focused on public commitments to new practices (which took into account the traditions of the community); and replaced one practice with another that the full community embraced.
I thought Appiah’s article, while short, was the most powerful of the entire magazine — and wish it had been one of the main pieces! Social change is critical to radically transforming women’s lives and improving communities around the world. We cannot empower women or end harmful practices by traipsing around the world saying to other cultures different than ours, “This [insert practice] is bad; change it!”
Building Community Buy-In
That’s where organizations like TOSTAN (which Appiah mentions in the piece) or Pathfinder International come in. By building linkages throughout communities, engaging local staff who know communities well, and creating innovative programs and dialogues with the communities in which they work together to forge a common solution, nonprofits that embrace community-based change are often the most effective.
TOSTAN’s success in scaling back female genital cutting in Senegal is impressive — and they have continued to expand to other countries in need. Currently TOSTAN, Pathfinder International and Population Services International are partnering to end the harmful traditional practice in Guinea and have combined this community-based approach with other reproductive health services such as maternal and newborn care.
Of course, change does not come without backlash. Change can be tricky — and when it means uprooting social norms, it can be even more so. But as Appiah points out, “reform if handled deftly, can brave the backlash and prevail.” Hopefully more organizations and development projects will take heed of the skillful approaches Appiah featured so that we can one day have a world without harmful practices.
Two interesting community-based change projects: Pathfinder’s Promoting Change in Reproductive Behavior (PRACHAR) in Bihar, India; TOSTAN’s Abandoning Female Genital Cutting in Senegal, Guinea, The Gambia, Burkina Faso and Somalia.
Pathfinder International: A community-based health worker in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
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