Awareness of HIV is high in Malawi, studies show. But HIV continues to persist. Clearly, knowledge and messages about HIV and AIDS are not enough to change behaviors, especially where there are high rates of illiteracy. My organization, FAST, which works with FHI 360 on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in some of the most culturally traditional parts of Malawi, began thinking of creative ways to deepen the dialogue around HIV/AIDS-related issues.
FHI 360’s Communication for Change (C-Change) project developed a Community Conversation Toolkit to help communities take action against the HIV epidemic. We partnered with C-Change to tailor the toolkit for Malawi. The tools, such as role-play cards and finger puppets for storytelling, were customized in collaboration with community mobilizers with whom we have built trusting relationships over many years.
What is powerful about the toolkit is that instead of prescribing behavioral changes, it is inspiring an organic dialogue among community leaders on specific drivers that spread HIV and AIDS, including cross-generational sex, gender-based violence and alcohol abuse.
Local leaders are custodians of culture. Because their personal attitudes toward issues such as gender-based violence are linked to overall community acceptance and understanding, they can help change cultural norms that contribute to the epidemic. The toolkit encourages leaders to create culturally relevant solutions, gives them a sense of ownership and inspires them to become peer educators who promote change beyond the boundaries of their community.
Communities follow up their conversations with their own action plans. Later, our trained facilitators check in with the communities to learn what worked, what didn’t work, and why. Thus, the toolkit allows us to understand a community’s underlying dynamics from the perspective of its people. In addition, if the facilitator takes the community’s concerns to higher-level officials, and those officials choose not to take these concerns seriously, we can act as mediators and initiate conversations because we already have built-in relationships with district officials.
Local bicycle taxi operators, called “Shapa Boys,” have become integral to bringing the issue of gender-based violence to the forefront. Using the toolkit helped the Shapa Boys feel empowered to bring together key stakeholders, including police officers, to discuss possible actions on issues that affect their community. In these discussions, no one is arrested or punished, but the sensitive issue of gender-based violence is openly discussed by members of the community.
In addition, issues that came to light through community conversations were included in our strategic plan. In this way, the plan is responding better to community needs that are voiced by the people, so they own the process.
To learn more about the design and impact of the Community Conversation Toolkit, watch these videos of Maclean Sosono and C-Change Director Neill McKee (below).