Bapu Vaitla
Alice Taylor
Julia Van Horn
Ben Cislaghi
Publication Date
July 1, 2017

"Focusing on social norms expands the typical conversation around social change, placing human relationships within communities at the center of the narrative."

This report synthesises the literature on social norms and their interactions with the lives of adolescent girls, providing illustrations of communication initiatives working to address harmful social norms. Strengthening the linkage between theory and practice is the primary goal of the report, which is from Data2x, an alliance housed at the United Nations Foundation that is dedicated to improving the quality, availability, and use of gender data. To that end, following a review of the landscape of theory around social norms, it includes two case studies about programmes that have changed norms around child marriage in Guatemala (Population Council's Abriendo Oportunidades (Opening Opportunities, or AO) and female genital mutilation/cutting in Senegal Tostan's Community Empowerment Program (CEP). In brief, the authors suggest that improving girls' well-being requires providing information about the consequences of harmful norms while creating safe spaces for community members to, together, question existing norms, expand personal capacities and aspirations, and re-imagine existing relationships.

The authors explain that social norms arise from expectations about what people do (that is, what is "typical" behaviour) and what they should do ("appropriate" behaviour). Core tenets of social norms theory include:

  • Norms influence behaviour by shaping what people believe is typical or appropriate.
  • Norms are meaningful in the context of group identity. (When one believes that a group's expectations are legitimate - or, even if illegitimate, believes that violating norms will result in social punishment, and following them will bring social rewards -behaviour conforms to these expectations.)
  • Whether an individual complies with a norm depends on his/her personal capacities, the strength of the norm, the types of reward and punishment at play, and economic circumstances.

"Social norms are powerful because of their invisibility: they are part of the warp and weave of everyday behavior, questioned only in the breach and rarely noticed in observance, even when that observance results in physical and mental harm." Collective behaviour (e.g., political organisation) would be impossible without a way to focus expectations. However, if rules are mechanisms to improve the working of society, why are they not discarded when they begin to harm individuals? Broadly, there are two ways to answer this question: the "power" and "history" explanations. The challenge is to distinguish between the former - norms that persist because they confer benefits to some members of a group (and those who are harmed cannot effectively resist) - and the latter - norms that persist due to social inertia and so, given a coordinated change in expectations, could be altered without reducing net benefits to anyone in the group. Changing the former type of norm may require a conscious effort to redistribute power, while change in the latter type may only require providing information and a forum to discuss mutual expectations. In fact, each interaction we have has the potential to change beliefs; that is, in the communication, individuals are moved in some way to update their understanding of the norm, and of the costs and benefits of following or resisting the norm.

"The projects most successful at changing social norms and improving girls' well-being are those that have, either through conscious design or experiential adaptation, applied the lessons of theory." This section of the report looks at change in two socially sanctioned practices harmful to girls: female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage. (In addition, Appendix B briefly describes a few other programmes that challenge social norms to improve girls' well-being. For example, CARE has used social norms theory to develop measurement tools and project approaches to end intimate partner violence and mitigate the effects of child marriage in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka. The SASA! programme of Raising Voices in Uganda is a community approach to ending violence against women and reducing HIV/AIDS by changing social norms.) Brief summaries of the CEP and AO case studies follow (see the report for the full case studies of the CEP and AO programmes):

  • Overall, over 100,000 people across sub-Saharan Africa have participated in Tostan's CEP, which does not solely target FGC and child marriage but has had impact in these areas. For instance, between 1997 and 2015, over 7,200 rural communities in Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, and Somalia publicly declared abandonment of these practices following implementation of the CEP. At the core of the CEP is a 30-month process of deliberation and dialogue. The CEP seeks to bring empirical and normative expectations around issues like FGC into active awareness through "community sessions" - group meetings led largely by women graduates of past CEPs in which adolescents and adults of both sexes participate in exercises and games that draw heavily on local cultural knowledge, especially proverbs, songs, and dances. Ideally, conversation leads to the identification of aspirations common to all participants, as well as the strategies necessary to attain these goals. Tostan has refined the CEP process over the years to meet expressed local needs. The community sessions are split into two phases. The first year-long phase is called Kobi, which introduces participants to rights and responsibilities, democratic norms, and problem solving techniques, as well as transmitting more technical knowledge about hygiene and health. Skits are critical pedaegogical tools in these sessions, especially to illustrate situations in which human rights were violated or protected. The group sessions are complemented by other activities, the most important of which are the formation of community management committees (CMCs) and an organised process of knowledge diffusion. This research found that the success of the CEP is based on these key features:
    • It is important to focus interventions on social networks, not simply individuals or families.
    • Ending harmful practices might require creation, not just abandonment, of norms.
    • The values and expectations of others mold what girls believe they deserve and can expect to achieve in their lives. The community meetings offer girls an opportunity to question the source of existing aspirations and imagine new ones.
  • AO was launched in 2004 with the overall objective of supporting Mayan girls' successful transition to adulthood, including the delaying of marriage. The core of the programme is a series of workshops on leadership, professional skills, public speaking, gender relations, sexual and reproductive health, violence prevention, and other topics to promote girls' empowerment, all conducted in safe spaces. Training of female mentors (mentoras) to lead these sessions is a crucial part of project design. This case study focuses on the rural communities around Chisec, a municipality of about 69,000 people in Guatemala. The case study shares several main messages and findings, including:
    • Although child marriage has indeed declined in Chisec in the last half-decade, the picture with respect to the multiple social norms that encourage child marriage is more complex. Some norms have changed significantly, others have relaxed somewhat, and others remain strongly entrenched.
    • Understanding how social norms are changing requires analysis not only of AO, but also of actors and processes at various other levels: girls themselves, families, communities, and municipal and national governments.
    • As in the Tostan case study, the researchers found that girls' increased access to information - especially through open conversations with peers and mentoras who are young women several years older than participants - is the most powerful driver of change in their marriage preferences.
    • Girls experience better life outcomes when parents are involved in decision-making around marriage.
    • In Chisec, AO's efforts to end child marriage were greatly facilitated by timely legislative and political changes.

Taken together, the case studies of CEP and AO yield several broad lessons:

  1. The most successful projects incorporate the core concepts of social norms theory, especially group identity, expectations about what is typical and appropriate, and personal capacities. A participatory design and careful pilot testing is necessary to ensure that these concepts are translated effectively into the local cultural context.
  2. Safe, inclusive spaces are needed to allow the kinds of deliberative discussions that lead to reimagining of norms.
  3. Local participants must envision experiences, rights, and needs according to their own contexts, language, and meanings. Both CEP and AO prioritise facilitators with similar experiences as the participants.
  4. Many norms are relevant even when considering a single outcome of interest. From the project perspective, the overall objective is to enable girls to have greater control over their own sexuality - and with it their mobility, reproduction, and aspirations - and any norm that relates to this goal must be addressed.

In the third section, "The Way Forward," the authors discuss what the deductive insights of theory and the inductive lessons of the case studies, considered together, tell us about how to approach the future study and practice of norms change. A schematic on page 24 presents a network model of change in expectations, based on AO structure. The network representation serves to highlight the process by which social norms change, a process with relationships at its centre. To describe it in words: "Theory and practice suggest that, at the community level, research on social norms change and girls' well-being must be designed to capture certain key processes: the modification of groups of identity and association, including the creation of new relationships and changes in existing relationships; the importance of deliberative discussion in undermining and recasting expectations about what is typical and appropriate; the exchange of information between members of a group; and the coexistence of multiple norms relevant to a single well-being outcome."

Practically speaking, the authors say, "the study of norms requires massive amounts of information on preferences, strategies, and behaviors....Such an exercise requires genuine engagement by communities; advancing knowledge about human behavior depends on the participation of thousands of willing citizen scientists."


Girls Not Brides website, August 31 2017. Image credit: © Elizabeth Whelan. All rights reserved. Photo taken in Guatemala.