TOSTAN INC.: Shifting social norms in southwest Ethiopia

Tostan
Lale Labuko, founder of Omo Hope

“My experience at the Tostan Training Center was extremely insightful,” says Lale Labuko, “and greatly impacted my way of thinking and leading, as well as the course of action at Omo Hope. It helped me to see a different approach to solving our current challenges. Rather than focusing on ending mingi, we have expanded to a broader and more sensitive approach through focusing on education and access to information. In doing so, we have already had a tremendous effect on the Omo Valley communities and will hopefully be an eternal positive shift for the region.”

Lale Labuko is the founder of Omo Hope (formerly known as Omo Child), a grassroots organization with the mission of raising awareness about the ‘mingi’ practice and promoting its abandonment in the Omo Valley region of southwest Ethiopia.

Before attending the training, Lale’s organization used a reactive and single-issue approach to intervention, wherein they condemned mingi and rescued marked children. Community elders who were on the receiving end of this condemnation were often defensive and would hold their ground instead of being open to behavioral change.

In August 2018, Lale attended one of the training courses held at the Tostan Training Center (TTC), thanks to a NORAD-funded scholarship. He joined a group of like-minded activists, community development workers and changemakers from around the world, for an intensive 10 days of self-exploration, knowledge sharing and practical, participatory learning based on Tostan’s holistic and human rights-based approach.

During the 10 days at the TTC, Lale learned about the methodology and theories behind Tostan’s holistic programming, which has been lauded as the most effective intervention to end female genital cutting and child marriage in Africa. This success is attributed to the community-led process of ‘values deliberation’, in which community members discuss how to align their values with their practices, and make profound and sustainable social norms changes.

Upon returning to his community, Lale worked to integrate his new knowledge and skills into his organization’s approach. “I began by presenting what I had learned with our staff. Through highly interactive group discussions, we developed new annual and long-term goals and set up new practices around community outreach, internal and external reporting systems, new evaluation systems and language abilities,” Lale stated.

“Once the Omo Hope team was on board and familiar with the new strategy, we sent representatives and administration staff to 25 villages to form community management committees. Following the Tostan model, these committees include both men and women, are led by a chief, a treasurer and a secretary, and cover issues such as community responsibilities, education, and harmful traditional practices. The other community members function as a village board,” he added. The committees now work with Omo Hope to track harmful practices, including mingi, and spread awareness through their social networks.

To ensure that committees were aware of their human rights and responsibilities, as well as the basic tenets of the mission and approach, Omo Hope hosted a week-long training seminar with committee members in the official language of Ethiopia, Amharic, and in the local languages, Kara and Hamar. They also invited local government officials to collaborate, from the Ministries of Education, Women and Children’s Affairs, Youth, and Justice, thus ensuring alignment of values and efforts. Mirroring Tostan’s methodology, Lale made the sessions interactive and relevant: “During the seminar we outlined committee responsibilities, the value of education, human rights, and the harmful effects of traditional practices. We facilitated lots of group discussion on problem identification and solving, and encouraged everyone’s participation.”

By creating an open space for dialogue, Omo Hope facilitators supported the local communities and authorities to identify the real challenges they faced, and collaborated with them to find solutions. From this, they built an action plan for achieving community wellbeing, which included rebuilding and maintenance of three schools in the area, which is already underway. Their new organizational processes led to successful acquisition of five acres of land from the government, after over six years of requests: “This land will be the future site of our own Omo Child Home that will accommodate a larger number of children and a large school,” Lale reported.

For Lale, the commitment to material well-being that is shown by Omo Hope is a key “morale booster” and inspiration to the Community Management Committees to take responsibility for their own activities, including awareness-raising and reporting on harmful practices. He has already noticed a change in attitudes:

“Six months ago we were not receiving any reports from villagers about mingi being practiced, even though it was taking place. People were just silent. Since the start of these discussions about education and harmful practices, we are now getting lots of reporting. While the practice has not yet ended, people are starting to see something and say something, which is a huge step in the right direction. It is a sign that social norms are beginning to shift.”

The work that Lale has done to integrate a participatory, holistic, human rights-based educational approach into his organization in Ethiopia is just one example of many success stories coming out of the Tostan Training Center. Through doing so, he has seen the community elders shift from an attitude of defensiveness, to being open for dialogue leading to key advancements towards dignity for all in the community.

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