On August 19, Knowledge SUCCESS and FP2020 hosted the third session in our new webinar series, "Connecting Conversations"—a series of discussions on adolescent and youth reproductive health. Missed this webinar? You can follow the links below to watch the recording and register for future sessions.
The third webinar in our “Connecting Conversations” series covered the powerful role that social norms play in influencing youth behaviors and health outcomes. Featuring three experts: Dr. Rebecka Lundgren (Center for Gender Equity and Health at the University of California at San Diego and Director of the Passages Project at Georgetown University), Rahinatu Adamu Hussaini (Acting Director and Gender Advisor, REACH Project, Save the Children International, Nigeria), and Rhea Chawla (Senior Programme Manager, YP Foundation, India), the session built on themes from the first and second sessions in the series.
Dr. Rebecka Lundgren started out the session by laying the foundation for the conversation and providing a clear overview of social norms.
Social norms are unwritten rules about the “correct” way of acting. They are defined in relation to a “reference group”—the group of people whose expectations matter to a given individual in a certain situation. A norm is a belief about what is “typical” behavior (what others do) and appropriate behavior (what others expect them to do).
Social norms are different from individual attitudes—and they can often conflict. For example, a woman may not want to have a child until she finishes her education (attitude), but she may not use contraception because her in-laws expect her to have a child right away (norm).
Norms are learned from infancy. Many norms, especially those related to gender and reproductive health, are established during early adolescence. As boys and girls grow up, the norms become more solidified. Thus, adolescence is a really important time to help young people reflect on social norms and challenge ones that may conflict with personal attitudes, beliefs, or desires.
Social norms have a strong influence on health and development. For example, gender norms can affect access to resources, reproductive intentions, and the ability of women and girls to make decisions about their own health. This can affect a range of development outcomes, including healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.
Given the entrenched nature of social norms, how do we shift them? Strategies can be grouped into four main categories: laws and policies, group discussions, mass media, and personalized normative feedback. (Personalized normative feedback is a social norms-based strategy that shows individuals the ways that their own behavior is atypical compared with actual norms.)
Community-based social norms shifting interventions typically employ the following attributes (see image below). Before starting a program, it is important to assess norms adequately to make sure our programs are addressing the norms that are actually influencing the behavior and issues we are focusing on. Programs aiming to shift norms also operate at multiple levels—individual, family, and community—to address the fact that norms are so entrenched in society.
The majority of the session was dedicated to a conversation among the experts, moderated by Cate Lane, Director of Adolescents and Youth at FP2020. The panelists discussed the work that they’ve done to help shift social norms so young people are more supported to act in healthy and positive ways, then addressed questions from webinar participants. To start this conversation, Rahinatu Adamu Hussaini and Rhea Chawla both introduced themselves and their work.
Ms. Adamu Hussaini discussed her work with the REACH Project, for which she is the Acting Director and Gender Advisor. While examining how social norms influence behavior, the project found that many issues young people face are interrelated. For example, child, early, and forced marriage is associated with intimate partner violence, limited decision making power among adolescent brides, and non-use of modern contraception. By understanding these connections, the project has been able to better have conversations with young people and implement social and behavior change programs.
Ms. Chawla talked about the work the YP Foundation does to help young people in India talk about their own experiences, and to share the norms they are performing and experiencing. Recognizing the interconnectedness of norms based on different social identities, her organization works to give young people tools to help identify social norms so they can better challenge them.
Dr. Lundgren remarked that education gives young people the opportunity to examine the world around them, identify and question norms, and then mitigate or address them. Ms. Adamu Hussaini mentioned the importance of including both young people in school as well as those not in school. She added that school settings sometimes reinforce norms that are helpful to our health programs, as well as those that may counter them. Ms. Chawla discussed the importance of critical thinking among young people. For example, it can help young people plan and space their pregnancies while also improving other health outcomes.
Ms. Chawla emphasized the need for flexibility. The YP Foundation learns from their programs and uses an iterative process to make sure their content is relevant to the communities in which they work. She also stressed the importance of working with grassroots organizations to build capacity and contextualize social norm activities within different communities. Ms. Adamu Hussaini added that working with facilitators within the community is crucial, so community members can relate to them. Dr. Lundgren noted that it’s important to understand several things: What is the norm (in different contexts), who is enforcing it, and what is being enforced? Given the fluctuations among different settings (for example, urban/rural), it is important to explore these issues with each new context and program.
The group agreed that many norms in reproductive health are rooted in faith, and the importance of working with faith leaders cannot be underestimated. Dr. Lundgren mentioned that the role of faith leaders in identifying and changing norms can vary between urban and rural areas, and that working with these leaders is critical. Ms. Adamu Hussaini discussed the training she’s done with Christian and Muslim leaders related to positive masculinity. Her program team used these gender-related conversations to connect with them and to start conversations about issues faced by youth, encouraging them to be change agents among their peers. These messages were passed down through sermons and messages within their communities.
At the beginning of the webinar, we posed poll questions about identities affected by social norms, enforcers of social norms, and the best ways to shift harmful social norms. During the discussion, we took some time to present the answers to the questions. Panelists noted how pervasive social norms are, intersecting with numerous identities (for example, gender, class, caste, age), and how many societal groups can both uphold or and shift social norms. Everyone has a role. Ms. Chawla pointed out that building on investments made in youth is crucial in challenging social norms, but that we need to avoid only focusing narrowly on a program outcome—we should remember that the process of addressing these issues can actually help young people improve young people’s health and wellbeing overall. Dr. Lundgren added that this work can also help address issues about power imbalances in different contexts and help shift negative power dynamics.
Dr. Lundgren mentioned the Global Early Adolescent Study, which is following a cohort of young people 10-14 years old and their parents, and then analyzing the impact on reproductive health after 5 years. This research will be available in the next few years. Ms. Adamu Hussaini mentioned that norms are not easily measured, but her project is working on an evaluation to show the long-term impact of these behavioral interventions.
Ms. Adamu Hussaini emphasized the importance of advocacy with policy makers to ensure that certain protective laws are passed—for example, those related to child, early, and forced marriage. Ms. Chawla talked about policies in India related to the age of marriage (which some are proposing raising from 18 to 21), and how this relates to norms. She also talked about the importance of meaningful youth engagement in policy making itself. Bringing young people together with policy makers to engage directly often works well when advocating for laws and policies. Dr. Lundgren stressed the importance of moving policies and social norms in tandem—if you get laws in place but norms aren’t shifting, the law won’t be implemented (and vice versa).
In the context of social norms, “reference groups” refers to the group of people whose expectations matter to a given individual in a certain situation. Dr. Lundgren mentioned that reference groups do change over time, and there can be different reference groups for different groups (for example, school classmates, church congregation, community members, family, etc.). Sometimes the expectations can vary across multiple reference groups. Ms. Adamu Hussaini highlighted that even in short periods of time, the influence of reference groups can change for young people—for example, parents may become less influential than spouses upon marriage. Dr. Lundgren added that everyone has multiple reference groups, which are always competing. People are navigating, depending on the context, which reference group has greater weight. This can present great opportunities for behavior change programs.
“Connecting Conversations” is a series of discussions on adolescent and youth reproductive health—hosted by FP2020 and Knowledge SUCCESS. Over the next year, we will be co-hosting these sessions every two weeks or so on a variety of topics. You may be thinking, “another webinar?” Don’t worry—this is not a traditional webinar series! We’re using a more conversational style, encouraging open dialogue and allowing plenty of time for questions. We guarantee you will be coming back for more!
The series will be divided into five modules. Our first module, which started on July 15 and runs through September 9, is focusing on a foundational understanding of adolescent development and health. Presenters—including experts from organizations such as the World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins University, and Georgetown University—are offering a framework for understanding adolescent and youth reproductive health, and implementing stronger programs with and for young people. Subsequent modules will touch on themes of improving young people’s knowledge and skills, providing family planning and reproductive health care, creating supportive environments, and addressing the diversity of young people.