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Community-Centric Communication Is The Need Of The Hour

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

By Vanessa D’Souza

While it is true that the health crisis caused by COVID-19 is not sparing anyone, it is also a fact that those living in urban informal settlements are at a heightened risk of being affected. Existing vulnerabilities, fragile living conditions, and the environments in which they pursue livelihoods expose them by a greater degree to the infection.

Given this, the role of relevant and accurate communication in mitigating the threats posed by COVID-19 cannot be emphasised enough. As expressed in a February editorial in The Lancet, “There may be no way to prevent a COVID-19 pandemic in this globalised time, but verified information is the most effective prevention against the disease of panic.”

Aggravated by the widespread use of social media and digital communication channels like WhatsApp, it has become increasingly difficult for community members to separate fact from fiction.

The volume of information published and disseminated during the last six months has been extensive, and so has the amount of fake news and information that has been spread. Aggravated by the widespread use of social media and digital communication channels like WhatsApp, it has become increasingly difficult for community members to separate fact from fiction. Needless to say, during the course of the lockdown (and especially in the earlier phases of it), this led to rumours being spread, panic being created, and misinformation being shared widely amongst communities.

Aggravated by the widespread use of social media and digital communication channels like WhatsApp, it has become increasingly difficult for community members to separate fact from fiction. Image credit: Getty Images

In an effort to combat this, nonprofits like ours worked to create effective communication strategies for the communities we work with. As we enter into the post-lockdown phase of this disease, how can we use what we have learned to ensure that our messaging is targeted and impactful? Here are some ideas.

1. Develop A Strategy That Is Bottom-Up

Identify the needs and challenges of specific communities and develop tailored communication strategies based off of them. Rather than only disseminating generic information, it is important to understand the needs of the community at the field level and then create communication that is relevant and targeted to them.

To this end, at SNEHA, we conducted a community needs assessment survey to get a sense of our community’s understanding of the disease, their preventive behaviours, sources of information and information needs, trust in institutions, services available, and their attitudes towards the pandemic.

Forty-three per cent of the people surveyed said they wanted information about how they could protect their family’s health during the pandemic. This helped us create appropriate communication strategies for the community. Similarly, only 31% of the respondents said they regularly disinfect surfaces and items purchased from the market. We, therefore, incorporated cleaning and sanitising measures within our communication.

We also realised that using language that is understood by the community and breaking down complex scientific terms helps them follow safety measures and ask relevant questions. It can also avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

Related article: Engaging communities is critical to the COVID-19 response

a doctor wearing a mask leaning on a wall and speaking into a phone as they look out the window
Volunteers can communicate the community’s fears, questions, and practices to nonprofit teams. Image credit: Getty Images.

2. Use Multiple Channels Of Communication

Simple, clear, and concise information from reliable sources works best. While community members already receive a lot of information through the radio and television, nonprofits need to think about what mediums they have at their disposal. For example:

  • WhatsApp can be used to effectively share news, updates, and any information that is constantly changing. In the last few months, we saw the use of WhatsApp groups become a high-impact tool.
  • Visual elements such as wall art, short videos, and posters with illustrations are great for sharing best practices such as the benefits of keeping drums of water readily available outside the house to wash hands, the importance of wearing a mask at all times, or the trick of using elbows to open the door at a public toilet. This is a lot more effective than highlighting the same during a conversation.
  • Community leaders and/or trusted community members can be deployed for regularly sharing reminders and consistent messaging around the disease and how to navigate it safely.
  • Local cable channels have a wide reach. According to the survey we conducted, 93% of people reported receiving their information from television while 55% said they received information through family or friends. Therefore we used local cable channels to deliver messages on COVID-19 prevention for better penetration. Nonprofits who wish to make use of this channel can get in touch with local cable operators—they are keen to broadcast information that is of value in the community.

3. Involve The Community

Identify proactive community members or influencers from within the community and involve them in the design of the communication strategy. This ensures that the messages being delivered are both, engaging and reach the intended audiences.

For example, when we realised that people in the communities where we work were gathering in groups and not adhering to physical distancing, we implemented a simple ‘Whistleblow campaign’. In accordance with it, community members would alert groups of people by blowing a whistle and calling the local patrolling police to diffuse the crowd immediately.

Additionally, involving community influencers such as local religious leaders and corporators, for the delivery of messaging can be an effective way to get buy-in from your target audience. 

Related article: Six things we learned from Dr Armida Fernandez

4. Create A Feedback Loop

A feedback loop allows a holistic and effective communication flow. It is significantly valuable at the community level where you have different sets of target audiences and need all of them to understand and implement the measures you are sharing.

“Volunteers can communicate the community’s fears, questions, and practices to nonprofit teams.”

To make this system effective, trained community volunteers can make the phone calls. They can be taught how to do so through online meetings and conference calls. If this method is followed they should also be provided with mobile phone recharge so that they can effectively work towards addressing emerging needs. These volunteers can then communicate the community’s fears, questions, practices, and so on, to nonprofit teams who can then use that information to tailor their communication in a timely and responsive manner.

5. Focus On Busting Myths

Busting myths related to the virus, quarantine facilities, isolation, and so on, is important. For us, a video testimonial of someone from the community who had recovered from COVID-19 was helpful in overcoming these fears.

Additionally, since uncertainties for the urban poor include the fear of losing their income and access to food, providing information about available programmes and support systems are also useful.

As the pandemic spreads, the need to provide clear information from a trusted source to people living in urban low-income communities has become a key factor in saving lives. Well-developed and clearly defined communication will determine and facilitate how these communities handle fear and uncertainty and help accomplish the necessary behaviour change required in the face of this crisis. 

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR)

About the author: Vanessa D’Souza has served as CEO of Mumbai-based Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA), since March 2013, after a volunteering stint with the organisation. Prior to that, she worked with Citibank India in various positions, her last role being: Director, Citigroup Private Bank. Recently, Vanessa has been a recipient of the Mother Teresa Social Leadership Scholarship, to attend the Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management Programme at Harvard Business School in 2017.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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