“Trust the process” – talking about child protection in Kirua Vunjo Kusini, Tanzania

This blog was first posted on the Community Child Protection Exchange

The room was silent at the end of the short film – “Juma’s Story” – and I let the silence linger as I shut down my computer. We’d just started a “Kesho café” session with men and women from the 6 villages of Kirua Vunjo Kusini Ward in rural Kilimanjaro. I’d been invited to collaborate with our local partner to help upskill their child protection committee. Through this intervention we hoped to begin the process of building ujasiri to enable participants to intervene and help protect vulnerable children.

A story by Njeri Omesa, Tanzania

As people started to gather their thoughts, a lively debate ensued about who is responsible for keeping children safe, and who in Juma’s case had failed to protect him. There were lots of different opinions on this matter.

One participant said that both the parents had a duty to protect Juma, and that it isn’t just the duty of the mother. Another man felt that while the duty of care should be shared by both the parents, in practice, the mother holds more responsibility to protect children because fathers tend to not be involved, seeing themselves as the “alpha males”. This means they don’t do some kinds of child care, or focus on responsibilities outside of the house. He also went on to say that he felt that that women having children outside of marriage (single mothers) was a community problem that needs to be addressed so as to better protect children.

At this point, I felt like the conversation was going in a direction I was not prepared to handle, and I wondered what he meant by the comment about single mothers, but one look at the various heads nodding in agreement made me hold my peace.  You see, it is a common practice in many Tanzanian communities that when a girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, or when a marriage disintegrates for whatever reason, the children are sent to live with their grandparents whilst the mother tries to make a living in the city. Most of our participants found themselves in this position – older adults raising their grandchildren while the mothers tried to make ends meet by working elsewhere.

As a facilitator I need to remain neutral, so that participants can feel safe to explore and discuss different issues, but I was taken slightly aback by this particular comment. “Trust the process…”, I thought, and invited the lady whose hand shot up the moment the previous speaker was done, to add her thoughts to the discussion.

“Watoto wana telekezwa kumbe inaanzia mwanzo inaishilia kwa sababu Yule mtoto hakuzaliwa na mama tu amezaliwa na baba na mama kwa hiyo makuzi yote ni ya wazazi wawili?”

(Eng: You mention women having children out of wedlock as a problem, however, the issue here is not the women having children, but rather, the men who neglect the women they impregnate, leaving them to raise children by themselves).

I could hardly hold back my excitement when I heard those words come out the mouth of the shy older lady sitting at the back of the room. This statement fueled the rest of the discussion over the next hour.

Another man then shared his view that the mother should bear most of the responsibility for protecting children, because the man is busy earning a living all day, and therefore does not have the time to ensure children get to school safely or have proper meals. Once again, a number of hands shot up, indicating they wished to delve deeper into the issues this raised by this comment. The next speaker, also a man, supported this position, saying that African fathers have a reputation of being as “strict as lions” and didn’t we know that in the wild, male lions may fight lion cubs if they were being bothersome?

“Trust the process…”, I thought to myself, and we carried on listening to and discussing different opinions around the roles of men and women in bringing up children. Most people seemed to think that although both parents bear responsibility for protecting the child, the greatest responsibility lay with the mother, and that the mother must take every possible step to protect the child. In Juma’s case the mother should have kept him away from the drunken father.

Whilst I didn’t agree with this point, and resolved to discuss this again with the group, there was also a breakthrough and positive ending to discussions. The group acknowledged that the surrounding community, the neighbors, and the teachers also have a role to play in protecting children living in the community. They concluded that in Juma’s story, they had failed to create a protective circle around the child even though some of them could have taken small actions to protect Juma.

This part of the discussion presented itself as a challenge to the community in Kirua Vunjo Kusini to think about how they could collectively take more responsibility for children in vulnerable situations, through small protective actions. For instance, one participant said,

“Nashukuru kidogo saivi baada ya serikali kuamua kuchagua baadhi ya vikundi kama sisi  kama wanajamii ukionesha mfano mmoja kama kuna mtoto anaenyanyasika kijijini kwa mfano pale kijijini kwetu tunapoishi sasahivi wanafahamu kabisa kwamba hee ile kamati ikisikia mtoto ananyanyasika ama zako ama zao kwa hiyo mimi napenda kuishukuru serikali ya kijiji ninachoishi”

(Eng: I am glad that because my community is aware that there is a child protection committee keeping children safe. In my village the citizens are aware that if the committee is informed that a child is at risk of facing abuse or suffering harm they will intervene to protect the best interest of the child).

Njeri reflects on her story

When discussing the local power dynamics which had emerged through this workshop Njeri said,

“Many rural Tanzanian communities are still very patriarchal, so when organising community dialogues, one must stress the need to involve younger people as inevitably, the “honour” of attending meetings or workshops pertaining to any community issues is given to older males.  In the session I described there were only adults over 35 participating. Even for me, it can be a challenge earning the respect of the participants in such a group they are often older, and not really accustomed to their views being challenged.”

She went on to say, “We always stress that the people in the room  – whether you planned for 40 but only 8 showed up, or some people were just sent as representatives but aren’t sure what this process will be – are the right people. Everyone has as much right to speak as the next person, and we are not teaching, but facilitating discussions about their own realities and how they might improve things that are not going very well.

Community members are the experts of their lived experiences, and if they are open to hearing another view point, it might enrich their own. Within the three or so hours of the workshop, we undertake various exercises with participants in mixed groups, individually, and in pairs. We encourage them to listen respectfully and without judgement. We try and give the opportunity to express or challenge conflicting views in the room.”

We then asked Njeri, “As a facilitator, how to you decide when you need to intervene?”. She said, “I will only intervene if false information is presented as fact by a participant. I will then step in and present the factual information. For instance, participants might recommend that a law protecting children be passed because they are not yet aware that the Law of the Child Act is already in place.”

Njeri also elaborated on the local cultural child rearing traditions which emerged from this discussion and how she approached them, for instance, the group sentiment that the mother has a responsibility to keep the child away from the drunk father. She had this to say, “We do not have the space to tackle each issue that is raised in the course of the sessions. The idea is to open the space to have these discussions, and hope that discussions between participants continue even after the facilitated process is over. We also pick up these threads and follow up on these discussions in subsequent sessions.”

Njeri also described a challenging discussion where the group experienced a block whilst discussing the principle of the best interest of the child. The group was looking at the issue of whether adults should respect children, but the group mostly wanted to discuss how children must respect adults. “Sometimes we leave them with a challenge, for instance in this first session we asked them to think about how children could be included in decision making despite this not being a common approach to child rearing in their community.”

What can we learn from Njeri’s story?

This is a great story as it illustrates so well some of the common issues which can arise when working with community groups on child protection. Some of the things which Njeri and the Exchange think we can take away from this story are:

  • Local power dynamics will affect who attends meetings and discussions on child protection as well as the levels of participation of different groups of participants. This might also even extend to the facilitator’s role.
  • Facilitators might find it hard to remain neutral in some situations where they do not agree, or where they want to guide discussions to a certain topic or perceived problem. However, they need to let the process of discussion take its course and for the community members, in their own time, to identify ways of addressing local concerns. Facilitation is about opening up conversations, helping to identify issues of concern, and find solutions – not imposing an idea on a community.
  • A lot of work goes into pre-production, planning the process and anticipating the sort of conversations that might come up, but when facilitating, there are many variables and we can’t decide what does and doesn’t get discussed. We have to trust the process: the people in the room are the right people, their life experiences will enrich the process, and the very same process will enrich their lives.
  • Local traditions and culture around child rearing will drive discussions and these cannot simply be “changed” overnight. Ongoing discussion and the input of different viewpoints in a respectful manner needs to be supported as part of an extended process which can lead to communities identifying agreed ways of protecting children.