Itanisa MbiseSeptember 6, 2018

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116 ‒the toll-free number for the National Child Helpline in Tanzania Mainland & Zanzibar

The ‘C’ in C-Sema stands for Civic driven change brought by children. Sema is the Kiswahili word for Speak. At C-Sema, we believe that if children are given platforms to speak about issues in their homes, schools and communities; they can positively shape the way we solve problems. Over the years, we’ve grown from wanting to educate communities and children on children’s rights to encouraging conversations in communities on all issues affecting children. This way, children’s voices are heard, but so are the voices of everyone else who looks out for their interests; from parents and caretakers in the home to government and child service providers. Here are three things we’ve learnt when communicating.

  1. Dialogue Matters. There are numerous studies on ‘the right way’ to raise children, countless ‘do’s and don’ts’ and ‘tips for parenting’. We’ve found however that telling parents how to raise children based on scientific research can only do so much and some forms of child abuse like corporal punishment, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), child marriage and inequalities between boys and girls are deeply rooted in decades of practice and culture. We work to create enabling environments for communities, religious and tribal leaders to engage in dialogue. We respect each other’s’ viewpoints but point out the lifelong effects to children undergoing these practices and alternative ways of preserving cultural values. Feedback shared between and amongst communities is more likely to take root as solutions come from community members themselves. A long process, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
  2. Speak their language. Literally This feels very obvious right now but it wasn’t always so clear to me when I first started communicating what we do. We’d use Kiswahili in workshops and community engagements and I would be tweeting away all our learnings in English in an effort to ‘bring more people into the room.’ We eventually started using Kiswahili on our social media through the #Malezi (#Parenting) hashtag and that completely changed how people engaged with us. Today, people ask and answer questions and even flag parenting and child abuse news for us using #Malezi. When you speak to people in their language, they not only listen to you, they respond.
  3. Feedback on Failures is Key. My tummy jumped as I typed that because even in theory, nobody likes to admit failure (at least not me). But as the saying goes, ‘you can’t win ‘em all’ and this is as true in our work as I am sure it is for any organization. Not all cases at the Helpline have a happy ending. Child molesters have gone free because there wasn’t enough medical evidence, children have had delays getting help because primary service providers were too far away or sometimes even absent. In one school, it took us two years to lobby for toilets to be built. Children who had written letters requesting toilets in grade 5 were in grade 7 by the time their request was answered, and children who were in grade 7 were 2 years gone, having never seen the toilets materialize. Even at times like this, it is important to give people feedback on how you have failed (or not yet succeeded) and how the process carries lessons. This gives you a human face, builds trust in those you serve and, guess what? It is an opportunity to collect feedback on what you can do to address challenges and avoid similar roadblocks in the future. A true feedback loop.

There is a never ending flow of information coming from everyone we serve. It has become our organisation’s aim to try and listen to this information and respond to the needs that we see arising.

As we like to put it at C-Sema, “Listen to the Children Speak.” Really, whoever it is you serve, listen to them speak.

Itanisa Mbise is the Data & Communications Lead at C-Sema, an organization that provides platforms for children to speak out and be heard by parents, teachers, government leaders, and the community in general. C-Sema runs the National Child Helpline in Tanzania which links children in need of care and protection with available services in Tanzania Mainland and Zanzibar. In an effort to reach children, many of whom don’t have access to phones, the organization also collects children’s opinions through letters. Data collected at the helpline and from letters is used to inform the government on what works, lessons and challenges on both access to and provision of children services.

Itanisa is a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow and a DCLI Practicum Fellow embedded at Development Gateway for the month of August. She was based at Drexel University in Philadelphia for the duration of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program.

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