By Peter Bischoff
“Since 6th grade, when I first read about the United Nations, I’ve known that I wanted to work in international development,” says Melanie Hilton. She is 27 years old and has already been an ActionAid inspirator twice.
Melanie, an Anglo-Indian from Dehradun in Northern India, grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas and took a globalised approach very early. In high school she was passionate to know more about the world and the political orders. She went to the US for her Bachelor’s degree in international affairs and was an intern at the Former Yugoslavia Tribunal in Holland and at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington DC, which introduced her to human rights. Then she went to England for her Master’s degree in global politics and international law.
“After my Masters, I needed hands-on field experience, so I went back to India and worked for the Centre for Rural Studies”. At the centre, she did a lot of research in rural development, including a long field trip: “That was a wonderful experience. I realized I wanted to work at the community level. I saw firsthand how the communities have the power to change themselves”.
After two and a half years at the centre, she was eager to gain international experience and learned about the inspirator programme by word-of-mouth. “I chose to become an inspirator because as a young development worker, it’s very important to get a variety of experience, and this is the place to be! It’s a unique and versatile short-term programme. You are sent to a country for 3-9 months, you work with a partner organisation and the whole process is so intense and full with experience!”
Marriage certificates for Muslim women in Nepal
From November 2011, Melanie worked for five months as an inspirator in the Southern part of Nepal for a Muslim organisation engaged in empowering communities. Her focus area was “talaaq” – a cultural practise among Muslims in the area, allowing a man to demand divorce verbally by saying “talaaq” – I divorce you – three times which was then reinforced by the community, frequently leaving the woman on the street.
“I had never been to Nepal, but Islam had been part and parcel of my life growing up in Northern India. There were around 500 talaaqi women in the area, and my first task was to see how we could help these women. Most of their stories were horrific. In one case a woman had put excess salt in the food and her husband got angry and demanded divorce. Many would go back to their parents’ homes, and some would have to sleep outside with the cattle or would not get any food, unless there was food left over”.
The idea for a campaign was developed step by step. “I travelled with my partner organisation to rural areas and met with the community. We had a network of divorced women. Many did not like to come to the forefront because they were stereotyped by society. We spoke with a lot of stakeholders and realised that we had to do something long-term that would both help the married women and reduce the influence of talaaq in the future”.
Marriage certificates were a central issue. A lot of the divorced women had no proof of their marriage, and only official certificates would be recognized in legal procedures. “So we had to initiate a campaign helping women to file for marriage certificates. A couple would then have to go to court to get divorced and the divorced woman would be entitled to some sort of compensation, so she would not be on the streets as was the case with most talaaqi women”.
During the preparations, they also realised that they had to broaden the scope to include citizenship papers and birth certificates. If not, the men would not allow the women to show up – and birth certificates were necessary to get citizenship papers which were necessary to get marriage certificates. The campaign was carried out over 12 days in under the heading “Hamre Paheechaan” which means “My identity”.
“In our video about the campaign, a 90 year old woman says: “I have no identity”. What we hoped to achieve was exactly to give people an identity. We held a two-day camp in six areas, helping people fill in the forms. Many had experienced corruption when approaching officials, so in advance we had asked the village administrator officers to be present, so that the forms would be authenticated on the spot. At the end over 1800 people had successfully filed for birth certificates, marriage certificates and citizenship papers”.
Promoting female leadership and participation in Kenya
Shortly after her stay in Nepal, Melanie was placed as an inspirator in Kenya from August 2012 to May 2013, this time working for a national NGO, Women’s Empowerment Link.
"I was there during the run-up to the elections and worked with a lot of different issues. I trained 60 women leaders from 10 political parties to develop campaign platforms. I researched female genital mutilation. I drafted policy briefs. I helped develop an advocacy tool kit. And I trained staff members and partner NGOs on rights based approaches to enhance their concept development and programme management capacity".
But the culminating task was "Mama Kenya" – a big campaign promoting female leadership, peace and civic participation up to the elections, using rallies, street theatre, voter booths, music and social media – and with a long-term goal to consolidate the women’s rights movement .
"It was great fun. We had very little time, literally 20 days to pull off the entire campaign. We had smaller activities as part of the larger campaign: street theatre, the Mama Kenya song and women dressed up, so it looked like they had been abused. They held placards saying “I could be your mother, protect me!” standing at roundabouts in Nairobi, while we handed out flyers. And then we had voter education booths – an idea I that brought from the campaign in Nepal where booths had worked well. We put up booths in Nairobi, Mombassa and Naivasha, and they were very successful. The campaign reached over 100.000 Kenyans."
The role as an inspirator from outside
"In Nepal they had no idea of a campaign before my arrival. My place was that of an outsider. I believe in guidance but not making decisions, so I was doing the organising and making sure that the organisation would build the capacity to manage a campaign. In Kenya I had to organise the entire campaign. I had a master excel sheet pasted on the wall which identified who had to be where and what to do like getting permits, printing t-shirts and flyers, producing the song, hosting the musicians – I was even cooking for the musicians".
"I see my role as an inspirator to facilitate and to guide, it is never to dictate to other people what they should do and shouldn't do. Whatever I did, was intended to build the capacity of the staff. My role has been to facilitate, advice, guide and encourage".
Melanie looks at coming from the outside with fresh eyes as a clear advantage: "It is important to come with an outsider’s perspective. You can give an objective view and recognise loopholes, gaps and areas which can be improved. And it doesn’t have to be an Indian working in Kenya; it can be a Kenyan working in Kenya. But it is important to have the ability to listen. My first instinct has been to listen, observe and then act".
"The idea behind the inspirator programme is the cross cultural pollination of ideas – like the campaign in Nepal helped trigger an idea for the Mama Kenya campaign, the voter education booth. Being creative, being able to think out of the box. In Nepal, they had been working several years with the issue of talaaq, but they didn't come up with the campaign themselves. When you come in as a new person, you can give them a new solution to old problems, a fresh way of thinking, injecting a new perspective into the organisation".
"In this way, inspirators can play a very important role in capacity development. And it's a very intense, short period – not years and years. You go in, you have to identify issues and everybody works hard to make it work. Under pressure you come up with really good solutions. There is no waste of time. And it's a full time job, working late into the night, working on weekends and motivating others to work on weekends".
The change and impact
"In Nepal, 1800 people got identity papers. I hope it continues, because that identity gives people access to health and education and that has a long lasting impact. When a woman without identification can see the benefits for her neighbour who has birth certificates for her children, she will also want certificates, so these campaigns have a ripple effect".
"I have also developed my own capacities in the process; it has really been a two-way street! To see my work as a facilitator come to fruition in these two campaigns has been a great success and very wonderful experiences with steep learning curves. It has been absolutely fascinating and has enriched my understanding of development work".
Best and worst experience
"My best experience in Nepal was riding by bicycle into the villages and in Kenya riding the Matatu to work every day. The experience of being a total stranger and learning to cope with the situation has been fun – going from a stranger to becoming part of that world".
"My worst experience in Nepal was when a mother came into our office – her six year old daughter just kidnapped to India and probably a victim of trafficking – and I could not help her. We went to the police and NGO offices but the girl was never found. As a development worker you get to see a lot and have to accept your limitations, but that was a sad situation. You realise that you are only there for a short period and then go back to your own life. But these people have to live that life every day".
Taking a rights’ based approach from rhetoric to action
"To new inspirators I will say that this is a very unique opportunity to grow as a development worker. It gives you all the tools. It’s a versatile and fascinating experience not matched by most other options out there. So if you are a young development worker, go for it! It made me grow as a development worker and I’m sure it will make you grow”.
“The inspirator programme is a very unique programme that takes a human rights based approach from rhetoric to action. Every one now follows a rights’ based approach on some level, but the inspirators are actually doing something about it. They go to the communities and train people to think along these lines so that the human rights based approach is seeping down to the grassroots, and I think that this is a very important contribution which is often overlooked," says Melanie.