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Setting the stage: facilitating evidence-informed advocacy to end child marriage in Zambia

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“At KIT we see participatory research that directly feeds into evidence-informed lobby and advocacy as a win-win. It allows researchers and advocates to jointly broaden our perspectives and helps lobby and advocacy to focus on actions with the biggest potential for change.” (Pam Baatsen, Senior SRHR advisor at KIT)

In our role as knowledge partner of the Break Free! (BF!) alliance, we conduct studies to understand young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) needs, alongside their access to education and SRHR information. The findings are used for lobbying and advocacy efforts towards governments and donors, led by local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The experience discussed in this blog stems from a study on child marriage in Zambia conducted by KIT in collaboration with experts from the University of Zambia, in coordination with the Zambia Break Free! Alliance.

A human-centered design approach to exploring drivers of child marriage and effective preventive interventions

The design of our study was guided by human-centred design thinking, which consist of five core stages: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. This easy-to-use and creative problem-solving approach puts people at the centre of the design process. The first step of ‘empathising’ took place in March 2023; the original idea for this study stemmed from conversations between KIT researchers and the Zambia Break Free! consortium about identified knowledge gaps in their work. As a result, we went on to collectively ‘define’ the problem as: We lack an understanding of why Eastern province experiences a high child marriage rate, whereas Western province has a lower child marriage rate.

Figure 1. Human-centred design thinking (picture by Interaction Design Foundation)

Figure 1. Human-centred design thinking (picture by Interaction Design Foundation)

From May to July the research team conducted a rapid review of available evidence regarding drivers of child marriage and effective preventive interventions. During this ‘ideation’ phase, we consulted online databases and consequently discussed, validated, and complemented the synthesis of evidence through a series of participatory exercises. These series took place in August 2023 and involved a total of 66 key stakeholders at provincial and district levels. The insights from the exercises enabled us to ‘prototype’ potential conclusions and solutions (recommendations). Informed by these results, we updated our findings, bringing together an evidence-informed documentation of lessons learnt. As a consequent step, our conclusions will now be ‘tested’ by sharing them more widely with different audiences, and by tailored communication, lobbying and advocacy strategies by the Break Free! consortium in Zambia.

Different knowledge products for lobby and advocacy

The table below illustrates the objectives and target audiences for each of the various knowledge products that were developed based on the literature review and findings from stakeholder meetings.

Lessons learnt

Evidence-informed advocacy

Our BF! partners argue that evidence-informed advocacy is more effective than any other kind of advocacy because it cannot be dismissed as ideological. As demonstrated by the quote below, they stress the importance of adequate knowledge translations of evidence-informed key findings into different formats. They also express the need to further document and learn from successes and challenges in aligning the products with lobby and advocacy strategies:

“[On the radio series] For the school-based interventions, we’ll just share them and then they can be listening to these in their own times. We’re also looking at [introducing] conversations that can be held on a weekly basis or monthly basis [where the content of the radio series is discussed among community members]. For that it becomes very important to reach out to the traditional and religious leaders. At a higher level, we have been able to start influencing, for instance, the Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Nutrition (RMNCAH+N) national-level coalition. (…) This is going to be an ongoing engagement, but we feel that we also need to have our own track markers that help us to see how we are progressing with sharing of the results that will emanate from this important research.” (Wilbroad Kampolwa, SRHR Africa Trust and Break Free! coordinator)

Inclusive stakeholder engagement

Another key learning from our process centres around the importance of inclusive stakeholder engagement. Starting from an identified knowledge gap among local key stakeholders (in our case the Break Free! programme implementers) ensured that the study was designed with the right contextualised angle and aimed at meeting the needs and (advocacy) goals of the local community. Each of the three stakeholder workshops included government stakeholders and policy makers, child protection staff, NGO representatives, traditional and religious leaders, youth representatives, community stakeholders and researchers. Workshop participants expressed their appreciation for the opportunity of coming together for this reportedly rare occasion of a knowledge exchange across such a diverse set of diverse stakeholders, particularly highlighting the added value of engaging with traditional leaders on the issue of child marriage.

“I was part of the process and I think having that participatory approach was very informative regardless of us receiving the data. (…) It was a moment where traditional leaders, the civil society, the government people realised that they have to take their approach in terms of ending child marriage differently. It’s a process which needs more engagement, as we continue with the intergenerational dialogues.” (Milumbe Kapopo, Plan International Zambia)

Inclusion of tacit knowledge

In addition, the inclusion of tacit knowledge in the overall findings and a direct follow-up by sharing the updated synthesis brief with all participants was well received. The participatory nature of the data collection reportedly resulted in meaningful research outcomes and increased chances for evidence uptake. Furthermore, while we often see key stakeholders working in silos or even competing (for funding, visibility etc.), the stakeholder meetings presented a valuable opportunity to strengthen partnerships and create ownership, as well as a common language for lobbying and advocacy.

“That [stakeholder meeting ed.] also brought about a sense of ownership, particularly even the implementing partners that we engaged in Eastern province and also the traditional leaders that we engaged in Western province. I think that also brought in a level of ownership of the study in its entirety. “ (Wilbroad Kampolwa, SRHR Africa Trust and Break Free! coordinator)

Contribute as partners

When it comes to credible research for advocacy and its positioning, we recognise that as a research institute based in the Netherlands, we are not best placed to directly lobby and advocate for change at a community, sub-national and national level regarding to child marriage in Zambia. Partnering with colleagues at the University of Zambia helped us to improve the study’s reception among key participating stakeholders, to arrive at richer interpretations of the data and to stimulate contextualised uptake within the Break Free! alliance.

While some researchers may adopt self-identifying labels such as activist-academics or policy entrepreneurs, rather than advocating directly for a specific cause, we conclude that we can contribute to lobbying and advocacy as partners and technical experts. Our role is to inform and support civil society organisations, health care providers (learn more about our advocacy work around safe abortion with societies of obstetrics and gynaecology) and policy makers to be in line with (international) norms and best practices. For lobbying and advocacy to be effective, we need to collaborate with local organisations and institutions, who are better positioned to engage key stakeholders, and can therefore be credible messengers of the evidence because they understand what is feasible and acceptable in that context.

A call to transform the evidence system for improved lobbying and advocacy

Based on our experience with research of lobbying and advocacy, we propose five key actions for ourselves and other researchers:

  1. Integrate lobbying and advocacy objectives with research goals from the outset of a study, promoting a “solutions-oriented research” approach.
  2. Prioritise the allocation of resources for effective communication, continuous learning, and collaboration within research projects to improve project outcomes.
  3. Engage in collaborative, participatory, and multi-disciplinary research, recognising its inherent value in generating comprehensive and impactful insights.
  4. Where possible, engage in research synthesis and learning from best practices, avoiding redundant primary data collection efforts.
  5. Monitor and evaluate the outcomes of evidence-informed advocacy. This process allows us to draw conclusions about where new evidence is needed to support additional steps within advocacy. It also fosters a culture of continuous learning and institutionalises the gathering of evidence for advocacy purposes.

This blog has been written by Hannah Kabelka, advisor at KIT Institute

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