Dr. Judi Aubel has been a social activist for over 30 years. Her work has been so sensational that it landed her on BBC’s prestigious list of top 100 influential and inspirational women. Most of her work is in Africa, though she has also worked in many Asian countries and she frequently shuttles between Italy and West Africa to attend to it. The awe-inspiring work that gained her considerable fame is her initiation of Grandmother Project – Change Through Culture. The organization (or NGO) focuses on senior women, or grandmothers, who play a significant role in the lives of mothers and children in both rural and urban contexts.
As time has gone by we have seen that grandmothers can be part of the solution to child marriage, teen pregnancy and female genital mutilation.”
Visiting various countries far and wide, including Laos (Asia), Djibouti (Africa), Burkina Faso (West Africa), Bangladesh, and India, she has worked with many maternal and child health programs to involve grandmothers as key players. Judi says, “I conducted many evaluations of community health programs and I realised that in most programs these senior family influencers and culturally-designated advisers, the grandmothers, are often not given any attention (or not paid attention to) at all.” Judi noticed the same pattern across the many countries in Africa and Asia: exclusion of the grandmothers by the NGOs.
Speaking of this misguided attempt to bring about change, Judi says, “Most of the international NGOs come into communities and begin by focusing only on a few of their problems, or things that are wrong with them. In our approach, we start with all the positive things that Grandmothers have been able to achieve, and change for the better in their families.” She further adds, “During one of my visits to Rajasthan in India, the UNICEF team that I was with organized a visit to one of the government-supported centres for Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). The community workers at the centres told us that many young women attend their sessions and learn new food and health habits, but unfortunately, they don’t put the new information into practise. They said that this is due to the influence of the mother-in-laws, who tell them to do otherwise.” Judi and her team also learned/found that the mother-in-laws were never invited to the ICDS centers for any discussions on child health and nutrition. “This and other experiences made me think that we should find a strategy to involve the mother-in-laws, i.e. the children’s grandmothers, rather than to exclude them?”, says Judi
Many development programs tell communities what to do and communities don’t like that. The programs focus narrowly on young people, while leaving out, and offending the elders who are very important actors to them.”
With this spark, Judi and her team in Senegal came up with a grandmother-inclusive strategy to build on grandmothers’ roles and strengthen their knowledge. The Grandmother Project (or GMP) involves identifying the influential grandmothers within a village, or neighbourhood, and carrying out participatory learning activities with them to acknowledge their important role, to increase their self-confidence, while challenging some of their harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage. GMP realized that the grandmothers’ influence can either contribute to maintaining traditional attitudes and practices, some of which are harmful, or it can be used to catalyse awareness and bring about positive change within families and communities. “In Senegal, we have many examples of situations where groups of several influential grandmothers got together to put pressure on fathers who were threatening to give away in marriage their underage daughters”. In African and Asian societies, for most men it is very difficult to refuse the advice of their mothers.
If a group of elder women decide to tell a community that they believe it is in the best interests for their girls to stay in school longer, the community that has a great deal of respect for them, will be strongly inclined to listen and follow their advice”
Trying to change age-old traditions is quite an uphill task, but Judi has never faced backlash from orthodox families. She explains that building solidarity between the culturally-respected grandmother leaders within a community is a good way to start, and helps them gain the confidence they need to take collective action to solve problems in their communities. Judi says, “In our experience, the grandmothers have shown us that they are ready to re-examine their past attitudes if an approach based on respect and dialogue is used with them.”
Judi and her team’s approach to dealing with grandmothers is different than that of many other NGOs. Instead of criticizing them, GMP organizes Days of Praise of Grandmothers to celebrate these women, to acknowledge their loving roles and contribution to their children and families. The aggregation of many experiences in a series of countries in Africa and Asia culminated in the founding of Grandmother Project – Change Through Culture. Judi says, “We were convinced that we needed a strategy to involve the grandmothers to make them part of the solution! As time has gone by we have seen that grandmothers can be part of the solution to child marriage, teen pregnancy and female genital mutilation.”
Judi was always inclined towards social activism. She studied International Affairs, received a doctorate in Anthropology, and was a volunteer in Ivory Coast (West Africa) with the American Peace Corps, among many other volunteer roles she has played in the past. In consequence, Judi’s interest in the cultural aspects multiplied hundred folds. She took her first step as a volunteer at only 20 years of age during the 70’s, by moving out of her country.
Judi’s experience gathered from her interactions with various cultures changed her mind about social and development programs. She says, “I have observed two shortcomings in many development programs. First, many development programs tell communities what to do and communities don’t like that. Second, many programs focus narrowly on young people, while leaving out, and offending the elders who are very important actors to them.”
This highly influential woman says, “The biggest challenge is to find a more culturally grounded view of development programs, and to convince the bigger international NGOs to support these approaches. But most of the well-established NGOs don’t easily change the way they work. So that is a big challenge.”
Dr. Judi Aubel found a consequential crack in the foundation of social reform, and has spent over a decade trying to repair it through ‘Grandmother Project – Change Through Culture’. A bold step in the right direction, which has rightfully earned her the title of being one of the top influential women by BBC.