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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.


Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A new look at the theory
Publication Publication

Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A new look at the theory

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.
Ethiopia: Social dynamics of abandonment of harmful practices. Experiences in four locations
Publication Publication

Ethiopia: Social dynamics of abandonment of harmful practices. Experiences in four locations

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.
Sudan: An in-depth analysis of the social dynamics of abandonment of FGM/C
Publication Publication

Sudan: An in-depth analysis of the social dynamics of abandonment of FGM/C

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.