Respecting traditions and envisioning change
What is the Generation Dialogue?
In places where traditional beliefs sustain practices which have harmful effects on the health and well-being of community members, the Generation Dialogue can initiate processes of social change in keeping with communities’ sense of identity and pride. The method was originally developed in 2001 in Guinea, West Africa, as part of an effort to reduce the widespread practice of female genital mutilation. It has subsequently been adapted to address other topics related to sexual and reproductive health and rights, human rights and gender equality and has been implemented, with German support, in ten African and three Asian countries.
The sector programme ‘Promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Rights’ and its predecessor project, ‘Ending female genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices’, implemented by GIZ on behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), has supported the design and implementation of this approach since its conception.
The Generation Dialogue is a ‘living’ method which is constantly being refined on the basis of implementation experiences. New manuals and resources for implementers are currently under development, and will be available here in September 2019.
Why is it special?
The Generation Dialogue is different from traditional behaviour change communication approaches in which health promoters raise awareness of the consequences of certain behaviours and encourage people to abandon them. It takes as its starting point that there must be good reasons why practices with harmful effects endure – and that until these reasons and the values underpinning them are first explored and appreciated and then re-assessed by communities, they are unlikely to end.
Rather than coming in as ‘experts,’ organisations which implement the Generation Dialogue act as interested researchers and facilitators. They create space for community members from both generations and of both sexes to talk about their beliefs and values, without fear of judgement, and to be listened to respectfully – first by the facilitators and then by one another. This reversal of roles – with community members acting as ‘knowledge holders’ and the implementing organisations learning from them – makes community members feel appreciated, understood and respected. On this basis of trust, they can begin to share doubts and dilemmas, as well as ideas about how to overcome or adapt traditions with harmful effects in their own way and at their own pace. The Generation Dialogue fundamentally changes the relationship between community members and organisations promoting social change – and, in doing so, opens up the space that is needed for envisioning and gradually moving towards changes in existing practices.
How does it work?
The Dialogue begins with a series of community consultations in sex- and age-specific groups (i.e. younger women, older women, younger men and older men) in which the facilitators explore and explicitly appreciate people’s views about the issues which the Generation Dialogue will discuss. These sessions, which can involve up to 150 people in total, prepare the ground for a trusting relationship between community members and facilitators. They allow the facilitators to learn about the relationship between the generations, about people’s beliefs, hopes and concerns, and also about conflicts and tensions in the community as they relate to the Dialogue topic. In addition, they help the implementing organisation to document community attitudes before the Dialogue intervention begins, thus providing a baseline against which changes can be measured.
At the heart of the Generation Dialogue are five weekly Dialogue sessions, lasting half a day each, in which 24 younger and older women and 24 younger and older men meet in single-sex groups. The focus at the beginning is on interactive exercises which allow participants to practice the skills which are a fundamental for dialogue to take place: listening attentively, respecting others’ views and opinions, and giving polite and constructive feedback. Then, during a ‘life-path’ exercise, the participants begin to share and discuss the core issues of the Dialogue through the lens of their own experiences. Using large sheets of paper and typical elements of local culture, the younger participants and older participants, in separate groups, construct visual representations of the key stages of their lives – childhood, adolescence, youth and adulthood – and the key transitions, such as marriage and parenthood, which occurred along the way. During the presentation of the two life-paths, culturally-sensitive topics to do with local traditions, social norms and expectations, sexuality and gender relations inevitably arise.
In the exercises which follow, Dialogue participants work together – within, and then across, their sex- and generation-specific groups – to identify traditional values that both generations hold dear and want to maintain, as well as practices with harmful effects which they agree should be modified or abandoned altogether. Over the course of the Dialogue process participants identify individuals or institutions in the community which could play a role in reducing the harmful effects of these practices and formulate requests to them which are formally presented at a Public Meeting.
During the follow-up period, the spirit of the Dialogue is spread in the community through ‘mini-Dialogues’ held in households and or other public places. In addition, the Dialogue process often gives rise to new community initiatives, such as literacy classes for women in Yemen, or to life skills peer educator training for uncut girls in Guinea. Once communities have experienced how they can collectively tackle difficult issues through dialogue, personal commitments and requests to community leaders, they may decide to apply this approach, in adapted form, to other topics, too.
Where and how has the Dialogue been implemented?
Since 2001 the Generation Dialogue has been adapted and implemented in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritania, Namibia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Yemen.
A more fundamental adaptation of the Dialogue approach was undertaken in 2018-2019 in southeastern Turkey. Here, a Dialogue for Social Cohesion – based on the core Dialogue principles, but implemented in urban areas, via interviews, exhibitions, a website and social media – worked to foster closer relations between Turkish and Syrian residents by promoting listening, appreciation and respect as the basis for imagining a shared, positive future.
Experiences from selected Dialogue interventions can be found by following the links below:
- Egypt & Uganda: Blended learning in times of COVID-19
- Guinea: Dialogue addressing female genital cutting and HIV
- Yemen: Dialogue addressing community collaboration on water and sanitation
- Pakistan: Dialogue addressing maternal health
- Lesotho: Dialogue addressing masculinity and coming-of-age
- Turkey: Dialogue addressing Social Cohesion
What results has it generated?
The Generation Dialogue is a powerful methodology which can have profound effects on its participants and on the wider community. Successive rounds of implementation have shown that the Dialogue is often transformative for individual participants, leading them to question deeply-held beliefs and to view relationships with family members in a new light. This has been particularly visible in Dialogue processes concerned with practises such as female genital cutting and lack of access to maternal health services, where members of the older generation play a leading role in enforcing social norms or approving contact with community institutions.
At the community level the Generation Dialogue has been successful in engaging local authorities, including government and elected officials, through its inclusive, community-driven approach. Although the intervention touches upon sensitive issues, it does so in a non-threatening way, and creates needed space for important conversations to take place. It has also proven effective in bringing together men and women in societies, such as Pakistan and Yemen, where public discussion involving both sexes rarely, if ever, occurs.
The Generation Dialogue has been systematically evaluated twice. A study in Guinea in 2004 found significantly better family communication and intergenerational relationships, as well as significantly more communication about female genital cutting and HIV, between the sexes and the generations in families who had had a member participate in the Dialogue sessions as compared to control families. And a comprehensive impact evaluation undertaken in Mali in 2009 found significant differences in knowledge and attitudes between community members in villages in which the Dialogue took place compared to those in villages where it did not. People in the intervention villages were much more willing to discuss the formerly taboo topic of female genital cutting across the sexes and the generations – and were far more aware of the harmful effects of female genital cutting. Overall, relations and communication between the generations were improved and older community members felt that there was more interest and respect for community traditions by the young people in their village.
Want to know more?
Projects or organisations interested in learning more about what it takes to implement the Generation Dialogue are encouraged to consult a guidance note which describes the institutional, human resource and financial requirements for the intervention.
If, after reading the guidance note, you decide to implement a Generation Dialogue, this Generation Dialogue Toolkit will guide you through the process.
If you would like to know more about the method and possible support with its adaptation and implementation, contact the Sector Programme ‘Promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Rights’ at email@example.com.