Powerful Persuasion: Combating Traditional Practices that Violate Human Rights

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, August 19, 2013 to Friday, August 23, 2013
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining the New Tactics online community for a conversation on Powerful Persuasion: Combating Traditional Practices that Violate Human Rights from August 19 to 23, 2013.

Traditions and rituals are often supported by strongly held cultural beliefs.  The deep roots of traditional cultural practices can make it very difficult to change behaviors that are harmful and violate the human rights of a community or individual. Often, the key to this kind of cultural shift is respectful, patient, community-led persuasion to create movements for change.

In Ghana, it may have taken 10 years to change the harmful practice of Trokosi (taking young girls as slaves to atone for the bad deeds of a family member), but a coalition of organizations and community leaders were able to free thousands of girls and abandon this practice in hundreds of communities. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Tostan and their partners engaged communities to learn about the harmful health impacts of Female Genital Cutting (FGC), educate men and women about their rights, and discuss how to prevent these health problems in the future. So far, over 6,500 communities from Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia and The Gambia have publicly declared their decision to abandon both FGC and child/forced marriage. Rather than blaming or criticizing, these groups encourage dialogue around these practices and their impacts on the development of local communities.

This conversation was an opportunity for practitioners involved or interested in the power of persuasion tactics to share their experiences, questions, challenges and ideas.

Summary of Conversation

Tactic examples shared in the conversation:

Why use persuasion when combating traditional practices that violate human rights?

Participants began by discussing what they mean by  ‘persuasion’ and by ‘traditional practices that violate human rights’. Various commenters help define the terms; including (a definition specific to female genital cutting) creating an opening for a dialogue that comes from within a community and “the use of non-aggressive, non-coercive and populist campaigning methods”. Additionally, one individual commented that ‘persuasion is a main tool in any conversation, it is also an art that can be learned’.

One participant referred to the Social Norm Theory, which states that a social norm will greatly hold higher importance than an issue of legality in making decisions. Additionally, another participant commented that, “for sustainable change to occur, all members of the community need to be involved in all activities.” Participants agreed that ‘the change has to come from within’, and the social nature of the practice needs to be considered.

Often, it takes time for a social change to occur, especially one that is built around culture and beliefs. Patient persuasion is important because “there are just so many factors at play that cause these rights violations and environments that allow them to persist and are resistant to change”. All participants commented on the complexity of the changes - a plan is needed for long-term, sustainable change. Several participants commented that persuasion, while it takes time, does achieve results.

When working with persuasion, several viewpoints were raised - the age old debate of Universal Human Rights discourse vs cultural relativism and that of legal reform vs social / cultural reform. One commenter stated that persuasion should be the first response to dealing with human rights issues, and that generally speaking, legal reform follows popular demand; persuasion must be concerned predominantly with engaging people and getting them to engage with the issue. Another individual stated that the key to ending such practices lies in changing the social norms themselves.

Legal advocacy can challenge “abuses of rights that are based on absent or weak laws or on laws that represent an abuse of right in and of themselves”, commented one participant. The participant continued to state that laws are the cornerstone of human rights, and that legal advocacy is essential to achieve legal reform. Another participant warned that if legislation is used badly, it may drive a practice underground.

Orchid Project, combined legal and cultural reform and discussed legislation is a wider context, specific to Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Their specific theory of change around ending FCG places legislation in the context of an enabling environment. However, ultimately, they commented that the most effective methods of ending FGC start at the community level and that legislation is a pillar that supports this, rather than the other way around.

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

Several participants agreed that dialogue is crucial, specifically around taboo issues, getting an issue “out there”, and persuasive dialogue when working with traditional and religious leaders. Additionally, public ceremonies and rituals can play an important role in persuasion. Working holistically was another key point in persuasion. One participant commented that information and demonstration leading to a full understanding of the situation will allow people to accept the idea of change. At CRIN, they state that patient persuasion through dialogue and awareness raising appears to be most viable option for working with traditional communities.

An enabling environment is crucial in working with persuasion, the more factors that are brought into play, the greater the chance of success. Another individual built upon this, referring to “organized diffusion” or the outreach and systemic spreading of information - infact, Tostan utilizes this in their programming.

Participants found that sometimes a tactic was successful in one area of the world or topic area, but not successful in another. The use of media received comments, sharing examples of utilizing it as both a strength and a challenge including increasing international coverage (strength and challenge), sharing stories of sexual harassment, and creating non traditional superheroes for T.V.

Other challenges that were mentioned include: having both a large grassroots movement and professional skilled activists, having enough local campaigners on board, how and when to introduce legal reform regarding traditional practices, and translation misunderstandings.

Resources on persuasion and combating traditional practices

Conversation Leaders

Vimochana's picture
Orchid Project's picture
Orchid Project
Vanessa Stevens-Downie's picture
Vanessa Stevens-Downie
Child Rights International Network (CRIN)
Victor at CRIN's picture
Victor Sande-Aneiros
CRIN - Child Rights International Network
Safeer's picture
Safeer U. Khan
Bedari (Awakening)
Ron de Vera's picture
Ron de Vera
Equality Alliance, SAFE Philippines, ASEAN SOGIE Caucus
Tostan's picture
nshameem's picture
Naureen Shameem
Women Living Under Muslim Laws