I contemplated calling this article the road to hell is paved with good intentions but then I thought I’d tone down the dramatic tone just a bit. I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this article for the past two weeks, since the fateful day I attended the 263chat “tweetathon”/meeting/networking/what-even-is-this event that was on child “marriage”. (I put the marriage in quotes as a point was legitimately made that we are glorifying these abusive unions by associating them with unions that are considered to be happy things.) This was a very topical, erm, topic, given that the AU had decided to launch its campaign on the end of the practice. How wonderful that our nations are finally getting their act together, but I digress.
I did not enjoy the event. That is not to say that interesting or insightful things weren’t occasionally said. They were. Rather my problem was that the event was disorganised. Now, there weren’t any logistical issues (that I am aware of), it was fairly well attended and other people seemed to have a ball just tweeting away. I disliked many things about the event but today I will focus on one: the event lacked a clear direction or agenda. Why were we gathered there?
When I got my Eventbrite ticket with “#263chat tweetathon on Child Marriage” little did I expect that that was apparently as far as the topic had been narrowed down. What about child marriage were we supposed to discuss? Furthermore there seemed to be a lot of indecision as to whom the event was really pitched. Was this supposed to be a discussion for the average Zimbabwean about a practice that we very often hear about, tisk at, and do nothing about? Or was it supposed to be a strategising event, where Civil Society Organisations, Government Ministries, Academics, Legal Practitioners were to come together, exchange knowledge and come up with best practices to be implemented in their work be it lobbying, reform or daily legal practice? Who knows? The purpose was entirely unclear, instead the learned panel made rudimentary statements on an area they are very familiar with, giving the impression that they too had been inadequately briefed on the nature of the gathering. Some tweets were then read, which were generally along that lines of – “child marriage is bad”. Questions/comments from the floor were then asked for, these – when coherent were also generally along the lines of “child marriage is bad” with a side serving of “we/you/someone needs to do something about it.”
This event was like the poster child for ineffective engagement. It was on par with attending a business meeting, where nothing is decided but many people speak a lot – what’s the point? It is not enough to have events/meetings so you can feel as though you’re doing something. It’s an utter waste of time and energy. Because there are so many stakeholders at work in the area of child marriage, and because society at large has a vested interest in the practice’s eradication, we (the vested) need to be organised in tackling the issue. Properly organised. We really need to be aware of who we’re trying to reach, and when, and pitch the topic accordingly. It is important to be aware of our audience and ensure that the human capitol in play is properly engaged. There needs to be a clear agenda. We need to know what we need/want to say. What are we hoping to get out of this gathering of people? What are our objectives? This is not to discredit free flow conversations rather it is an assertion that we need to ensure that we are having constructive conversations. These conversations must be purposeful, not merely commiseration parties. Furthermore we must find a way to inform our actions by the lived experiences of children married off at a young age, and the communities that seem to condone such actions. We the privileged must not attempt to act alone. We will get it wrong. We must not be lulled into thinking that media platforms, social or otherwise are the only ways to engage this issue. That in and of itself would be deeply exclusionary.
The event was a hot mess, organised with good intentions. Perhaps, all my complaints do is to further emphasise my gaucheness. It is possible that I haven’t quite gotten the hang of these events. Maybe rudimentary statements being made on complex issues, followed by a comment/ question segment full of tautologies is all that activists, and concerned citizens really have to look forward to when it comes to discussions on social ills. Perhaps no one else felt as much at a loss. The foreign dignitaries in attendance got to go home with the knowledge that they’d discharged their duties. The NGO representatives were already aware of the work that they were or were not doing as regards child marriage. The Honourable Minister – who frankly, was very very nice about having her extremely valuable time be so unceremoniously wasted, also knows how her ministry is tackling the issue. So they all felt comfortable being good sports and sitting around for hours, occasionally saying tweetable things before returning to their very important work. They were then also able to ignore and or forgive a moderator insufficiently familiar with the topic on hand to be effective in his role.
I on the other hand – face-palmed.