Culturally Sensitive Approaches

Lessons from the Field


Winning Support from the Custodians of Culture

Elders, kings, bishops and imams (Muslim clergy) are opinion leaders in Uganda's complex cultural environment. UNFPA has successfully reached out to partner with them in promoting healthier behaviours and the elimination of harmful traditional practices. UNFPA's work in this country, which has successfully grappled with its HIV/AIDS epidemic, is a model for working within existing cultural constructs.

WHAT WORKS? Lessons from Uganda

Preserving Cultural Values While Eliminating Harmful Practices

  • When addressing harmful traditional practices, it is important to emphasize that both harmful and positive practices are found in all cultures.

  • Soliciting the advice of the local community in the design of a project ensures that the strategies and advocacy messages developed will be culturally acceptable.

  • Publicizing successes can create a sense of pride and reinforce community involvement.

  • Relying on local project managers helps to ensure acceptance of a programme in the community.

  • Using a non-prescriptive approach that involves people who have experienced the practice (either directly or indirectly) instils a sense of ownership.

  • Providing hard evidence of the impact of harmful traditional practices helps the community internalize the need for change and make informed choices.

Engaging Uganda's Kings and Chiefs

  • Patience and perseverance eventually pay off. A great deal of dialogue and sensitization may be required to break new ground on issues that are deeply rooted.

  • To bring cultural leaders on board, provide evidence during preparatory phases of the potential value of a pr oject.

  • It is essential to understand the thinking of both your allies and adversaries. Be ready to engage in an ongoing and constructive dialogue with those who oppose your views.

  • Demonstrating sensitivity in the choice of language and topics for discussion, especially in the early stages of project formulation, helps to get a joint initiative off to a good start. The concept of family planning, for instance, may have negative associations. Instead, frame the issues in the larger—and more positive—context of reproductive health and healthier families.

  • Identifying an effective “agent of change” within a partner institution who can serve as a compass and guide on sensitive matters can ease project implementation.

Aligning with the Muslim Community

  • Acquiring a deep understanding of community values and needs is the basis for an effective project strategy.

  • Securing the commitment of top leadership is often necessary to win over a community.

  • Identifying specific religious leaders as agents of change and involving them from the outset can facilitate project implementation.

  • Providing evidence based on operational research is often the most effective way to approach controversial issues.

  • Using religious references can reassure community and religious leaders that project objectives are in line with religious teachings.

  • Asking religious leaders to do what they do best (in this case, mobilizing the community) and letting health workers manage the technical aspects of reproductive health activities is an effective division of labour.

  • In many societies it is necessary to make a special effort to reach women. In this case, it was by getting the men to buy into the concept of reproductive health first.

  • Building capacity can help ensure sustainability. This includes training for health services providers and peer educators.

Using the Outreach of the Church

  • Using established networks and structures to deliver advocacy messages within the community can maximize the outreach of a project at minimal cost.

  • Reaching out through popular culture, including music and drama groups, can have particular appeal to youths. Be sure to involve young people in the creative process.

  • Soliciting the support of custodians of culture can help overcome obstacles. In this case, the strong involvement of top religious leaders led to noticeable changes in community attitudes, especially regarding the right of girls to remain in school and refuse early marriage.

  • Convincing faith-based partners to make a financial contribution to the project, even if it is only symbolic, can enhance their sense of ownership and increase the chances that a project will be sustainable.

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