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UN Women

Social Norms and Girls’ Wellbeing: Linking Theory and Practice

This report seeks to better explore the connections between social norms theory and practice as they relate to girls’ lives, and the implications for efforts to catalyse improvements in girls’ lives and wellbeing. It first reviews the landscape of theory around social norms. It then investigates in detail two projects that have facilitated change around norms, practices of female genital cutting (FGC), and child marriage: Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in West Africa, and Population Council’s Abriendo Oportunidades (“Opening Opportunities”; AO) project in Latin America (“Practice”). 

The study suggests 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 reimagine existing relationships. Successful projects do not only work with girls, but also include boys, women, and men in their families, and the community at large. 

It finds that interventions that fail to include the entire social network might increase girls’ capacity to resist social expectations, but would not achieve durable change in those social expectations— possibly increasing, rather than reducing, harm and violence. Successful interventions have an integrated approach; that is, they address the factors other than social norms that result in gender inequality, including the economic and legal circumstances that contribute to sustaining harmful practices and behaviours. 

Overall, theory and practice suggest that, at the community level, research on social norms change and girls’ wellbeing 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 wellbeing outcome.

Key quote "The social norms conversation… puts the focus not on how people respond to impersonal phenomena, but rather to each other… there are other types of interactions of equal importance, and complex sets of emotions and motivations structuring these relationships—love, amity, respect, distrust, fear. "