An Example of Youth-Led Community Change in Mali

For the past couple years, I’ve been supporting the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) project in 6 African countries. One of the best things about being involved in the project is the opportunity to work with some incredible people who are developing the program strategies and implementing YETAM on the ground.  Bedo, the child media program coordinator in Plan Mali, is one of those people I’ve been lucky enough to work with.  He’s kind, gentle, thoughtful and soft spoken yet solid in his opinions and knowledge. His face totally lights up when he’s working with the youth. He has clear vision and gets things done, writes excellent reports, and isn’t afraid to clarify things if he’s not sure he’s understood correctly.  It’s been a real pleasure working with him. On Friday, Bedo told me about some of the short-term positive results that the Mali team is seeing in the YETAM program there, which I’ll summarize below. Photo: Bedo in December 2008 at the Social Media for Social Change Workshop in Kenya.

YETAM
The YETAM project aims to help youth develop their skills to communicate, educate and advocate at local, national, and global levels about issues impacting on their lives using the arts, traditional media, and new media tools.The project methodology consists of hands-on workshops and activities where youth can improve their communication and analytical skills in order to effectively raise their viewpoints and enter into dialogue with families, peers, community members, decision makers, and the general public. Youth go through a process of participatory mapping, discussions to prioritize their key themes, topics or issues. Then they learn to use arts and media to get their messages across to those that they want to engage in helping them find solutions. To date the project is being implemented in 6 countries in Africa (Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Rwanda, Kenya and Mozambique).
YETAM in Mali
In Mali, around 60 children and youth in a community in the Kati District have been involved in the YETAM project for about a year and a half so far.  In an initial workshop, the youth raised a number of issues through participatory mapping. They researched, investigated and developed opinions on these issues further through song, poetry, theater, photo and video, and later in the process, prioritized their most important issues:
· many children do not have birth certificates
· rural exodus
· violence at school
· excision (female genital cutting).
Integrating YETAM into school curriculum
Following the prioritization of their topics, youth began an education effort around the 4 themes with the local population and local authorities from their village and surrounding villages. As part of this effort, six school teachers were appointed by local school authorities to support the youth and supervise extracurricular activities around the youths’ 4 themes. They were trained by local consultants and Plan Mali staff on participatory methodologies using arts and media as participation tools.
During this training, teachers learned to adjust their teaching styles and to address the 4 topics not as lessons taught in the classroom, but as information sharing and advocacy topics through drawings, poetry, crafts, dance, and theater. New students joined the small arts groups according to the type of activity that they were interested in.  Students who had been involved longer supervised and trained newer students and helped integrate the program within the school.
In addition to the arts, youth and adults worked together on several short drama films. One of these was about female circumcision. It discusses the medical complications of circumcision in a married woman during her 1st birth. The complications were due to excision, done in infancy, and resulted in vesico-vaginal fistula. Rejected at first by her husband, the woman is eventually accepted after the husband’s becomes aware of the existence of appropriate care (free in Mali) and the commitment made between spouses at marriage.

Engaging the public and local authorities through arts and media
Through the training workshops and the production of the different arts and media materials, youth were able to form their own opinions, messages and ideas for solutions to the issues that they had prioritized.  They organized a public event in the community where they performed their drama, songs and poetry pieces, showed their film, and held a panel with local authorities to discuss how to improve the four areas that they had identified.  Photo:  youth performing a drama piece in the village.

Short term results to build upon
According to Bedo, “Integrating the YETAM methodology with the school environment enabled teachers to learn to address and manage issues with children and youth in a participatory way. The education methods have changed and the student / teacher relationships have become less tense, especially when it comes to discussing subjects such as violence at school or practice of female circumcision.”

Bedo explained that “the introduction of the ‘violence in school’ theme by the students initially caused some frustration among teachers. At first, they felt directly targeted. But when we integrated the teachers into the process, their frustration dissolved and trust began to grow between students and teachers because teachers are discovering another way to teach and discuss sensitive issues – they are behaving as coaches.”  Bedo also said that since the discussions took place at the school, the education authorities have become more interested in the topics and the project.

“At the community event,” said Bedo, “the mayor declared that the council was taking all steps to ensure that all children have birth certificates.  He also addressed the migration of young people from the rural to the urban areas, saying that one of the main reasons is lack of employment. He promised to create jobs to reduce the mass exodus of young people.” Photo: Children interviewing local authorities.

One of the most extraordinary things that happened as a result of the youth’s education and advocacy, according to Bedo, was that “the village chief also made a pronouncement….  He announced that ‘The practice of female circumcision is part of our traditions. As it has adverse consequences on the health of women, I have decided to end female circumcision in the village.’”
Teachers are engaged
Teachers have been happy with the new ways of teaching and the integration of the YETAM project within their school curriculum. One teacher told Bedo that “there have been developments in many areas, especially in the areas that teachers and students developed together – birth registration, rural-urban migration, female circumcision and violence at school.”
The teacher explained that the youths’ messages have extended to parents and those who practice these phenomena. “Those who practice circumcision have pledged they will stop it. Corporal punishment is now prohibited by school rules, because we now know that violence undermines the intelligence of the child. The teachers have agreed to end it. They are ready to make every effort to pass the message of awareness among their colleagues so that together we can make every effort to end school violence….”
Youth see concrete results
Participating children also commented that they think that there have been improvements due to the project’s integration into the school. One 14 year old participant in the project said “With this new formula of YETAM, the suffering of children through corporal punishment in schools and the harmful practice of female circumcision has decreased. Before, we children, we could not stand before the public and parents to discuss the subject of female circumcision, but now we can do it. This has greatly reduced the practice of female circumcision. In our village, many people practiced circumcision, but now they say they will stop because they have learned from our messages about the harm it causes.“

Another participant, who is 12 years old, commented that “with YETAM, teachers have ceased to beat us in school. Many of our schoolmates have their birth certificates. We are noticing an improvement in our situation.“
Next steps
Bedo says that given the positive impact so far of the project, they will ask school authorities to institutionalize an annual special day for each of the 4 topics.  They will continue to support the work that the youth are doing and try to involve more youth, teachers, community volunteers and surrounding villages in this type of project.  Plan Mali also has plans to conduct a participatory assessment with stakeholders to evaluate the project so far and learn how to improve it.

Within the next month or so, the overall project website will be complete, and the maps, art work and videos of all 6 participating countries will be uploaded so that youth can connect with their peers in Africa as well as share ideas with youth in non-African countries.  A curriculum for teachers and youth groups based on the arts and media work that the youth have done around their priority topics is in the works and will be available for schools in the participating countries.