Rachel Marcus
Publication Date
September 1, 2015

Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

"Can communications programmes help to change discriminatory gender norms and improve adolescent girls' wellbeing? The short answer is yes. Of the programmes examined in our recent systematic review, most (71%) had positive impacts on norms, attitudes and practices."

This research and practice note explores insights into the power of communications programmes in changing gender norms, attitudes, and behaviour that affect adolescent girls. These programmes cover a range of approaches, such as TV and radio-based messaging, community dialogue, and non-formal education, all aiming to challenge discriminatory gender norms and promote gender equality - either by giving girls the information and skills they need to change their lives and claim their rights, or by seeking to change the views of people who influence and make decisions about girls' lives. It is part of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)'s Knowledge to Action Resource Series 2015, which was funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) as part of the 4-year programme Transforming the Lives of Adolescent Girls.

ODI researchers examined, first, 61 programmes that involved communications components that have proven effective in changing community attitudes and behaviours related to girls' education, the ideal age of girls at marriage, and how household chores should be divided between girls and boys. Just over half the programmes were implemented in sub-Saharan Africa, and nearly a third (31%) in South Asia. Activities included: mass media programmes (such as "edutainment" through dramas, factual content and call-ins); production and dissemination of information, education, and communication (IEC) materials; community dialogues; providing information through non-formal education/ life skills classes; and one-to-one communication such as peer communication and mentoring. Half the programmes were geared toward girls and young women, while 11% focused on changing the attitudes and practices of boys and young men. The remainder sought to reach the broader public through radio and TV shows or community dialogues. Second, the researchers explored in-depth case studies of projects in Uganda (the Gender Roles, Equality and Transformation (GREAT) project, the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN), and the Straight Talk Foundation, or STF) and Viet Nam (Plan's Because I am a Girl project).

Several text boxes throughout the research note illustrate specific approaches and impacts but, in general, the systematic review found that effective approaches include:

  1. Communications with relevant content and engaging formats - For example:
    • Giving families information about the health risks of child marriage (Ethiopia, Nepal, and Viet Nam), the economic benefits of delaying parenthood (Viet Nam), and the legal minimum age of marriage (all four countries) contributed to changing perceptions about the best time for girls to get married.
    • Community action groups associated with the GREAT project in Uganda performed a number of short comedy sketches (skits) that showed what can happen when gender roles are reversed. These prompted much laughter and discussion, helping shift gender norms.
    • Four programmes - in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), India, Nepal, and Tanzania - used real-life or fictional role models to good effect.
    • Distributing visual printed materials linked to TV or radio shows, especially those with simple language, colourful pictures, and useful information, can help to reinforce broadcast messages.
  2. Communications that use dialogue and interaction, giving people the chance to act on new knowledge - This may involve providing opportunities for community reflection and discussion, using interactive elements in radio or TV programmes, linking messages on gender norms with opportunities to do things differently (e.g., ANPPCAN observed an increase in reports of child abuse after community dialogue sessions that provided information about what constitutes child abuse and what people can do (call a dedicated ANPPCAN phone number), working directly with girls to give them the information and negotiation skills they need, and making public commitments formally (e.g., a declaration to abandon a harmful practice such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C)) or informally (e.g., a commitment between peers or a married couple, such as not behaving violently towards each other).
  3. Reaching the right people with the right strategies - Tailor materials to different groups, engage family members who make decisions about girls' lives, enable people to see things from other people's point of view, engage religious leaders, and engage with individuals and institutions in the wider community. As an example of the latter: "We address the whole school covering the teachers, students, cooks, gate keepers and cleaners ... the gate keeper because he knows which child is dropped off and by whom. The gatekeeper sees which boda boda [local motorcycle taxi] driver is talking to which girl." (Straight Talk representative, Uganda)

The note also outlines the limitations of such approaches, including the reality that popular media, radio, and TV may not reach everyone, especially the most vulnerable groups and girls themselves. For instance, some of the adolescents interviewed in Uganda and Ethiopia reported they could only listen to the radio if their father agreed; he decided whether the radio was switched on, and what to listen to. Furthermore, it is noted that it can take many years to change deep-rooted norms, and it may not be possible to ever change some people's attitudes and behaviour. Although there is no strong evidence about the optimum length of communications initiatives, programmes with longer durations or more intensive activities typically achieve more. Successful long-running "edutainment" programmes such as Soul City in South Africa or Puntos de Encuentro in Nicaragua typically maintain people's interest by changing the issues they focus on or introducing new characters or storylines with each series.

Also, communications are usually most effective when part of a "package" of support; if messages about changing gender norms are not backed up with continued investment in the quality and availability of services, then those messages are not likely to be acted on.

Following an exploration of research gaps (see Box 6), an annotated bibliography of publications on ODI programme outputs and other key literature, as well as a list of resources, conclude the research note.


ODI website, July 1 2016. Image credit: Clare Price/ODI