In a nutshell

As part of developing this Guide and Toolkit, an action research trial of a community-led approach was held in the rural districts of Bombali and Moyamba in Sierra Leone. This trial showed that community-owned processes were effective, even in addressing challenging issues such as teenage pregnancy.

The trial was run in several stages.

Firstly, trained Sierra Leonean researchers who knew the local languages learned from the communities in a non-judgmental manner about the children, the harms they faced, and what supported children's well-being.

People identified the top four harms to children as: being out of school; teenage pregnancy out of wedlock; heavy work; and maltreatment of children not living with their biological parents. Overwhelmingly, local people reported that they used traditional family and chiefdom mechanisms instead of formal mechanisms to address these problems.

The research team then fed the findings back to the community. Taking the findings on board, the community members asked themselves: “What are we going to do about these harms to children?” This was important in collectivizing their concern and also represented the beginning of taking responsibility for addressing these harms. Additional learning identified how local adults and teenagers understood children's well-being.

Secondly, a trained facilitator lived within a group of three communities that were involved in a community-led process. Their role was to first help develop an open and inclusive process in which all community members had a voice in taking decisions.

Through extended discussion, the communities agreed that existing meeting structures did not allow everyone a voice. To address this, the communities decided on a mixture of large meetings and small group discussions for girls, boys, women, men, and elders. Because people with disabilities and the poorest of the poor typically did not attend meetings, communities made provisions for home visits to learn their views.

This decision reflected a social change process led by the community. To enable this process, the local chiefs were invited to reflect on how it would be useful for them to step back a bit. This made it possible to have honest discussions, in which people could agree or disagree with particular suggestions without fear of offending or going against the chief. The team also offered training (using the training tools in this Toolkit) and ongoing mentoring for the facilitators. Finally, the team made sure to respect “community time,” so that communities were not rushed or expected to meet pre-defined time-tables and benchmarks.

Community planning discussions were then held to focus on the selection of one harm to children to address and how to address that harm through a community-designed action. Although these discussions were flexible and community-guided, they occurred within boundaries set by the action research team.

For example, the research team set various action criteria (see Tool MGM 5). These included that a community-led action should link or collaborate with a district-level aspect of the formal child protection system, and should be low cost, feasible, sustainable, and ethical.
In addition, the three communities in each cluster were asked to work in a collaborative manner. The communities decided to form an Inter-Village Planning Task Force (see Tool MGM 3), and the ideas from community-level dialogues were fed into this Task Force to share among different villages. These facilitated discussions were then fed back to communities, stimulating another round of discussions.

The discussions for selecting which harm to children to address were conducted over a period of nine months, to allow the slow and intensive dialogues that were needed to work through different views and to negotiate disagreements.

Early in the discussions, male elders resisted the idea of focusing on teenage pregnancy since they were concerned that action would likely involve the use of contraceptives, which they saw as undermining the morals of young people. Over time, the elder men's wives tended to bring them around, as did moderate men in the community. Equally important was that teenagers gave thoughtful, mature inputs into these discussions.

Both clusters of action communities chose teenage pregnancy as the harm to children to be addressed. Teenage pregnancy caused some children to drop out of school, and nearly one-third of such pregnancies in Sierra Leone were the result of sexual abuse and exploitation. Communities owned this issue, since they had identified it as a collective concern and felt responsible for addressing it.

In both districts, communities planned to address the identified harm through a mixture of family planning, sexual and reproductive health education, and life skills. These were enabled in part through trainings provided by other NGO partners. The communities also collaborated with the Ministry of Health at district level, to receive contraceptives and relevant education.

It was ordinary people, though, who led the community action. For example, children in the communities organized street dramas that sparked rich discussions, and parents and children learned to talk about puberty, sex, and pregnancy prevention in new ways. Because communities had designed the action and led it themselves, they saw these actions as their own.

One year after the community action began, the effects were assessed using the survey and other qualitative findings. The results featured high levels of community ownership and signs of that the action had helped address teenage pregnancy.

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