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Working with communities to change social norms

1st - 28th February 2018


What are social norms? How do they influence child marriage? What do we know about how community based interventions can help change those norms? Here is a recap from two webinars we held to answer these questions.

We heard about what social norms are

  • Social norms and gender norms are the rules and expectations for how we should behave.
  • Both individual factors (e.g. family circumstances, individual agency) and structural factors (e.g. political mobilisation, economic change, laws & policies) influence how gender norms change.
  • Factors that have helped change norms around child marriage include: economic support to help girls attend school, education, the media, awareness campaigns by governments and NGOs about the health impact of child marriage, alternatives for girls, legal sanctions, etc.

We heard about effective strategies

  • Understand the local context.
  • Understand what social norms are behind a behaviour and which networks influence those norms.
  • Know how you intend your intervention to influence norms and how to measure its impact.
  • Change has to come from within – rely on local leadership and solutions and help communities make the links between their values and the impact of child marriage.
  • Focus on positive norms in the community – a focus only on harmful norms can reinforce a behaviour by signalling that it is expected.
  • Look for early adopters of change or “positive deviants”. Give them space to come together, build solidarity and help them to become champions.
  • Change only happens when local power holders welcome it. Work with religious and local community leaders to develop and promote positive alternatives.
  • Use holistic, multi-component, multi- layered programmes that target different issues and stakeholders. Child marriage does not happen in a vacuum and is linked to other structural realities (education, employment, local values, etc.).
  • Act at multiple levels to reach change at scale. This could include having: national education curricula, quality education, post-secondary education opportunities, legal provisions and services, vibrant women’s movements, etc.

And about strategies that don’t work

  • Negative messaging, “naming and shaming”, punitive measures through legal frameworks.
  • Searching for “quick fixes” within a short timeframe.
  • Unidimensional programmes focusing on one component or target group.
  • Generalising how long change takes to happen. Every context is different and we have little data on this: few programmes evaluate their impact after three or five years.

We heard about challenges and coping strategies

  • Opposition from religious leaders. ➡️ Tostan provides training specifically for religious leaders, while CARE identifies early supporters among religious leaders.
  • Talking about girls’ sexuality. ➡️ Tostan and CARE both recommend to approach dialogue sensitively and focus on the health consequences of child birth for girls.
  • There is little rigorous evidence on the impact of community-based social norm change interventions related to child marriage. ➡️ We need to build the evidence base by doing solid programme evaluations, documenting impact and sharing results.
  • Difficulty of monitoring change and measuring programming impact as questions can put communities on the defensive. ➡️ Tostan suggested asking questions in less direct ways, e.g. “What would the rest of the community say if you married your 13-year-old daughter? Would they approve? Would they disapprove?” CARE highlighted their use of vignettes and their new Social Norms Analysis Pot (SNAP) framework for programming and evaluation.
  • Monitoring change is also difficult because how long change can take depends on the context, and because measurement tools are sometimes complex across different contexts. ➡️ To assess social norms change, both interventions and evaluations should take place over many years.

Tips for programme designers

  1. Support community-led change and involve communities in designing the programme from the beginning.
  2. Find out which social norms are influencing child marriage, if any, and who the key stakeholders that influence their behaviour are.
  3. Changing social norms alone won’t solve the issue. We need quality and accessible services to empower girls. For example, a community might start seeing the value of educating girls, but if there’s a limited access to school, there won’t be any change.
  4. Action cannot focus only on structural factors. Even in places where access to education increases, if the expectation remains that girls should marry young, the age of marriage likely won’t change.
  5. Identify all drivers of child marriage in your context and understand how structural factors might shape norms that impact child marriage. Use this analysis to inform your programme strategies.
  6. Are you trying to change individual attitudes and behaviours or community-based collective change? Promote critical reflection, get trusted people to facilitate dialogue in safe spaces, and promote role models to “engage the collective.”
  7. If institutional drivers are at play, look at who you could partner with across sectors.
  8. Involve both the power holders in communities, as well as those who are supporting shifts in behaviour and norms (e.g. role models or “positive deviants”).
  9. Monitor what shifts in behaviours and attitudes are taking place to supplement your understanding of the process of change.
  10. Measuring the impact of social norm change programmes is challenging. This is still a new area of work. Continue documenting efforts to better understand what works.
  11. Incorporate rigorous evaluations into your programmes wherever possible.
  12. Keep telling donors and partners that change takes time! Advocate with them to secure longer time-frames for work to change social norms.


  • Caroline Harper, Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms (ALIGN) project, Overseas Development Institute. Caroline explained what social and gender norms are and how norms that drive child marriage change.
  • Anjalee Kohli, Deputy Director of the Passages project, Georgetown University Institute of Reproductive Health. Anjalee shared lessons learned from community-based interventions that seek to promote collective norm change, by encouraging communities to reflect on, and question, social and cultural factors.
  • Molly Melching, Founder and Creative Director of Tostan. Molly talked about Tostan’s three year alternative education programme in West Africa, where participants discuss values which are essential to their communities and organise inter-village meetings, which has led to entire villages coming together to declare their community free of child marriage and/or female genital cutting.
  • Nidal Karim, Project Director at CARE USA. Nidal talked about the Tipping Point Initiative in Bangladesh and Nepal, where activities such as football competitions or bicycle races are designed with communities to change perceptions of girls’ roles and show what girls could achieve.

Other resources

The ALIGN platform aims to connect a global community of researchers and thought leaders to challenge and change harmful gender norms affecting adolescents and young adults.

The Learning Collaborative facilitates collaboration between organisations working on adolescent sexual and reproductive health norm change initiatives. They have three communities of practice on measurement, theory and scale-up.

The Learning Collaborative will be piloting a social norms exploration guide and toolkit and are looking for partners. If you’re interested, contact:

Related Resources