Harmful practices and social norms

Building upon the global interest generated by the Innocenti Digest Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (2005), IRC is undertaking further research activities to develop greater understanding and awareness on social practices and norms that are harmful to children and to influence policy reflections to promote their abandonment.

Understanding the factors that perpetuate harmful social practices, such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and how these factors can be the basis of a process of social change is critical to understanding why and how communities abandon such practices. Harmful practices result from social conventions and social norms: when they are practiced, individuals and families acquire social status and respect. Families typically do not deviate from these societal norms for fear of being excluded and ostracized. When applied to harmful practices, social convention theory explains why the decision of a family to continue these cultural practices depends on the decision of others to do so. A deeper understanding of these dynamics - and how they can be reversed to bring about a process of positive social change - is crucial for the design and implementation of programmes and policies that aim to promote their abandonment.

IRC has developed the research activities in close collaboration with the Child Protection Section of NYHQ, with UNICEF regional and country offices and with development partners. The activities also engage leading academicians in the fields of political science, sociology, economics and anthropology from the University of Southern California - San Diego, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, Purdue University and the University of Washington.

The research outcomes to date have contributed to a systemic approach to stimulate and support large scale social transformation that benefits children and women. The findings are reflected in UN policy documents, among others UNICEF Technical Note (2007); UN Interagency Statement (2008) as well as policy documents of development partners. Empowering education, human rights discourse and participatory communication are central to the approach. The approach is being used successfully in parts of West Africa, and experiences in countries in East and North Africa confirm its effectiveness.

The research in this area is promoting understanding of the social dynamics that bring about the abandonment of FGM/C and other practices that are harmful to children. As many of these practices are rooted in a set of norms that perpetuate gender inequality, it is also shedding light on ways to increase gender equality.

  1. Multi-country study on the social dynamics of harmful practices.
    The study, being developed as part of the Innocenti Insight series, provides greater clarity on how social conventions can be transformed. It focuses on FGM/C as a practical example but considers harmful practices broadly, including child marriage and marriage by abduction, which are governed by similar social dynamics. It analyzes experiences in five countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, and Sudan) where abandonment of FGM/C and other harmful practices is reaching significant scale. By expanding upon social convention theory and refining its application to harmful practices, and by analyzing successful abandonment experiences in the light of the revised theory, the study provides new policy and programme insights in the area of social and moral norms and how they affect the well-being of children and the realization of their rights.
  2. The Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices.
    A set of related Innocenti Working Papers provides a detailed description and analysis of the process of positive social change that leads to the abandonment of FGM/C and other practices harmful to children. These publications confirm that, despite marked differences between and within countries, the process leading to the abandonment of harmful practices has common transformative elements. The Working Papers define and examine these key elements and how they are being applied in programmes that are effectively resulting in positive social change.
  3. Platform for Action towards the Abandonment of FGM/C.
    The Donors Working Group on FGM/C provides a forum for information exchange, joint planning and peer review of activities through regular contacts, a website and annual meetings. The Group exists to intensify efforts of the international community to end FGM/C by 2015 through a coordinated and common strategy. As part of this effort, the Innocenti Research Centre was asked to take leadership in the preparation of the consensus document Toward a Common Framework for the Abandonment of FGM/C (2007) and the subsequent and further refined Platform for Action Towards the Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (2008). Work is under way for the development of thematic fact sheets on FGM/C.

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