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Social norms, harmful practices and behavioural change

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Following up on the global interest generated by the Innocenti publication Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (2005), IRC has undertaken further research to develop a greater understanding of the issue and, in particular, the social dynamics around its practice and how they can be reversed to bring about a process of positive social change.

The research aims to influence policies and programmes for the abandonment of harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation/cutting, child marriage and marriage by abduction. Given that many of these practices are rooted in a set of norms that perpetuate gender inequality, it also sheds light on ways to promote gender equality.

IRC has produced, the following studies and documents: IRC has developed the research under this theme in close collaboration with other UN Agencies, the Child Protection Section and Statistics and Monitoring Section of UNICEF New York, UNICEF Regional and Country Offices and local development and academic partners. The activities have also engaged leading academics 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.

To date, the research has 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: Coordinated strategy to abandon female genital mutilation/cutting in one generation (2007); UN Interagency Statement: Eliminating female genital mutilation (2008); Report of the Secretary General on the Girl Child (2009) as well as policy documents of development partners.

The research has been made possible thanks to a generous contribution from the European Commission and from many other contributors.

Following up on the global interest generated by the Innocenti publication Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (2005), IRC has undertaken further research to develop a greater understanding of the issue and, in particular, the social dynamics around its practice and how they can be reversed to bring about a process of positive social change.

The research aims to influence policies and programmes for the abandonment of harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation/cutting, child marriage and marriage by abduction. Given that many of these practices are rooted in a set of norms that perpetuate gender inequality, it also sheds light on ways to promote gender equality.

IRC has produced, the following studies and documents:
  • Innocenti Insight: The Dynamics of Social Change: Towards the abandonment of FGM/C in five African countries
    The multi-country study, expected to be launched in mid-2010, focuses on FGM/C but takes a more broad approach that refers to harmful practices governed by similar social dynamics, such as child marriage and marriage by abduction. The research refines the academic theory that has been used to examine the social dynamics of FGM/C and other harmful practices. It analyzes the experiences in five countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, and Sudan) where abandonment is reaching significant scale. It highlights the most promising approaches being used to support social change and how these strategies are being implemented in different countries and cultural contexts. The analysis is intended to provide evidence and reflections to inform policies and programmes in practicing communities, in both countries of origin and in countries of immigration.
  • Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices.
    This set of Innocenti Working Papers provides a detailed description and analysis of the process of abandonment of FGM/C and other practices harmful to children. In 2009, IRC developed the first three working papers of the Special Series:
    - Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A new look at the theory
    - Sudan: An in-depth analysis of the social dynamics of abandonment of FGM/C
    - Ethiopia: social dynamics of abandonment of harmful practices. Experiences in four locations.
    The papers confirm that, despite marked differences between and within countries, the process leading to the abandonment of harmful practices has common transformative elements. The new evidence analyzed in these Working Papers is also reflected in the Innocenti Insight (discussed above).
  • Platform for Action towards the Abandonment of FGM/C.
    The Donors Working Group on FGM/C brings together key governmental and intergovernmental organizations and foundations supporting the abandonment of FGM/C through a coordinated and common strategy. Since 2001, it provides a forum for information exchange and joint planning of activities through regular contacts, a website and annual meetings. As part of this effort, the Innocenti Research Centre was asked to take the lead in preparing 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 FGM/C (2008), available in different languages.
IRC has developed the research under this theme in close collaboration with other UN Agencies, the Child Protection Section and Statistics and Monitoring Section of UNICEF New York, UNICEF Regional and Country Offices and local development and academic partners. The activities have also engaged leading academics 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.

To date, the research has 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: Coordinated strategy to abandon female genital mutilation/cutting in one generation (2007); UN Interagency Statement: Eliminating female genital mutilation (2008); Report of the Secretary General on the Girl Child (2009) as well as policy documents of development partners.

The research has been made possible thanks to a generous contribution from the European Commission and from many other contributors.

LATEST PUBLICATIONS

This Innocenti Insight examines the social dynamics of the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in five countries - Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal and the Sudan - and seeks to inform policies and programmes aimed at ending the practice. The experiences from the five countries documented in this Innocenti Insight provide evidence that the abandonment of FGM/C is possible when programmes and policies address the complex social dynamics associated with the practice and challenge established gender relationships and existing assumptions and stereotypes.

Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices

The essay refines the application of the social convention theory to the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The theory compares footbinding in China to FGM/C in Africa, explains each practice in terms of simple game theory, and recommends that the methods used to end footbinding be adapted to end FGM/C. Overcoming self-enforcing beliefs surrounding the practice requires credible new information, including about the feasibility and desirability of attaining the uncut alternative. The essay establishes a conceptual foundation for programme design that facilitates community abandonment of a variety of harmful practices in ways that promote human rights and are respectful of the culture and the values of local communities.

AUTHOR(S)

Gerry Mackie
Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is still a widespread practice in Ethiopia, although important declines in prevalence rates can be observed in some areas of the country. Attitudes towards the practice have drastically changed, evidenced by the fact that overall support for FGM/C has declined and younger mothers are less likely than older mothers to have their daughters cut. This paper provides an analysis of the social dynamics of change in four geographic locations with different ethnic populations in Ethiopia, where interventions were undertaken to support the abandonment of FGM/C and other harmful practices.

AUTHOR(S)

Haile Gabriel Dagne
Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices

This paper examines the experience of Sudan by analysing the factors that promote and support the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and other harmful social practices. FGM/C is still widely practiced in all regions of northern Sudan but today actors are mobilizing across the country to end the practice. This paper analyses programmes that support ending FGM/C in Sudan and highlights the key factors that promote collective abandonment of the practice, including the roles of community dialogue, human rights deliberation, community-led activities, and the powerful force of local rewards and punishment.

The Sudan experience demonstrates that social norms can change when a new understanding and appreciation of communities’ traditions and values is introduced. At policy level, the paper describes the adoption of laws and policies that prohibit or criminalize all forms of FGM/C and the introduction of integrated communication campaigns that have mobilized multiple actors to adopt and voice a consistent and clear stance against FGM/C. The paper explains how those factors have created an enabling environment that promotes the abandonment of harmful practices as well as the fulfilment of women’s and children’s rights more broadly. The process of changing harmful social norms and practices is complex and involves the interplay of many different forces. However, the Sudan experience demonstrates that a major shift can occur at community level and widespread abandonment of FGM/C can be envisioned.


AUTHOR(S)

Samira Ahmed; S. Al Hebshi; B. V. Nylund
UNICEF has estimated that community oriented programmes costing about US$24 million each year over the next 10 years can lead to major reductions in the prevalence of FGM/C in 16 sub-Saharan African countries with high or medium prevalence. This Platform for Action summarizes the elements of a a common programmatic approach to support the abandonment of the practice and make a major difference for girls and women worldwide.

This Innocenti Digest examines the prevalence of FGM/C and its social dynamics. It provides an explanation as to why the practice persists and of the elements necessary for its abandonment. It also takes stock of progress to date, identifies what works and what does not, and provides direction regarding the most successful strategies to promote the abandonment of FGM/C. Combining concrete field experience with tested academic theory, the Digest provides a practical tool to bring about positive change for girls and women

UNICEF has estimated that community-oriented programmes costing about US$24 million each year over the next 10 years can lead to major reductions in the prevalence of FGM/C in 126 sub-Saharan African countries with high or medium prevalence. This 'Platform for Action' summarizes the elements of a common programmatic approach to support the abandonment of the practice and make a difference for girls and women worldwide.

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