Jean Casey
Feyi Rodway
Publication Date
October 2, 2017

From Plan International, this series of studies in Colombia and Uganda was designed to identify opportunities to change the norms that limit girls' freedoms and rights. Qualitative tools in each country included a semi-structured interview to explore experiences and perceptions of adolescent girls and boys and a participative analytical workshop to explore individual and collective experiences of how positive change happens and who are the change makers and enablers. The aim of the research - detailed in two separate reports, available at the link below - was to uncover enabling factors and conditions that can positively contribute to improving the lives of girls in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) through both individual and collective change. To this purpose, the research looked at the cases of:

  • 139 adolescent girls and boys living in five communities in Cartagena, Colombia; and
  • 109 adolescent girls and boys in four communities in Uganda.

The adolescents were selected on the basis of their participation in Plan International's Champions of Change gender equality programme. Implemented in 18 countries, the curriculum-based programme aims to create a youth-led social movement that gains society-wide support for gender equality and girls' rights. It supports young people to actively examine and reflect on how rigid gender norms and power imbalances are present in their own lives. It does so through gender dialogues, which allow for the creation of safe spaces in which girls and boys can interact and learn to develop critical thinking on issues that affect them. The programme uses a series of "hooks" to retain participants, creating connections with the different interests of girls and boys (e.g., sports, arts, music), and uses the hooks as community outreach activities.

The adolescent girls and boys who took part in this research study completed the Champions of Change programme in two phases: the first in November 2016 and the second in February 2017. All research participants were part-way through the curriculum's modules when the research was conducted. The Champions of Change modules are as follows:
Girls' Module 1: Being assertive
Girls' Module 2: Being gender aware
Girls' Module 3: Being body confident
Boys' Module 1: Sharing solidarity
Boys' Module 2: Being a gender transformative young man
Boys' Module 3: Being responsible regarding sexuality
Champions of Change uses football as a mechanism to integrate the strategic themes of the modules by getting girls and boys to play the sport together as a mixed group, in effect learning theoretical aspects of gender equality through practice. The goal is to use football as a vehicle for teaching adolescent girls and boys about gender norms, preventing gender-based violence and power relations, and the power of collective work.

Research questions were:

  1. How do adolescent girls and boys describe how positive change happens in attempting to tackle gender discrimination?
  2. What do participants identify as positive enablers of change - i.e., factors and conditions – that would allow girls to access and realise rights that are often denied to them (for example, to complete school, report instances of sexual abuse and domestic violence, work with community leaders to influence gender norms)?
  3. Who are the "change makers" who can influence social norms for a more gender-equal society?
  4. What role do other social factors (such as ethnicity, marital status, economic status, gender, level of education, age) play in fostering or hindering social change?

In order to answer these questions, the research applied a conceptual framing, presenting the experiences, perceptions and opinions of girls and boys in relation to specific dimensions in their lives. It used Bronfenbrenner's ecological model to analyse how these dimensions act either to restrict or advance their rights. The study's design was built from an analysis of empowerment theory, seeking to explore who has access to power, who is able to utilise their power and whom they may have power (or influence) over. The research also uses social norms analysis to present how power is promoted, protected, and reinforced. It presents detailed case studies of girls' and boys' experiences, demonstrating how they, others and the world around them shape their beliefs, and how social norms either protect or erode their rights. Overall, the research is framed using an intersectional analysis approach, an analytical tool for studying, understanding, and responding to the ways in which gender intersects with other identities and how these intersections contribute to people's unique experiences.

Fieldwork was conducted over three weeks in May 2017. To understand social norms, the research looked at what participants believed others did and approved of. As part of this process, data were collected on participants' behaviour (what they did) and on personal attitudes (what they found was good or bad), following recent advancement in social norms diagnosis and measurement. A vignette tool was adapted to unpack the social norms that are influencing girls' and boys' capabilities and opportunities and to explore how social change happens. Scenarios that were familiar to girls and boys allowed the adolescents to explore gender and social norms and to map out the process of influence and change.

Section 2 of each country report is titled "Setting the scene: understanding gender inequality, discrimination, social norms and sanctions as experienced by adolescent girls and boys". This section firstly provides an insight into the lived realities of the adolescent girls and boys who took part in this research, outlining a set of shared and interconnected challenges that mark the communities within which they live. Secondly, this section explores how adolescent girls and boys experience gender inequality and discrimination, and how this affects their lives.

For example, in Colombia, the context of violence clearly marked the adolescents' lives, upheld by norms of masculinity that condone violence against women and girls - undermining girls' ability to express their opinions, make decisions, and develop their own agency. Economic hardship impacted girls and boys differently, often underpinned by a gender bias that again limits girls' opportunities and capabilities. The gender norms and power relations that uphold the status quo were experienced by adolescent girls and boys across all spheres of life. In addition, sanctions are applied more harshly when girls do not conform to the expected norms. Intersecting discriminations have also been illustrated, highlighting the social stigma and violence faced by homosexual adolescents, and the sanctions and exclusion faced by those from minority ethnicities. Dispersed in the discussions is the hope and commitment of adolescents' to advance gender equality and dispel the negative discriminatory attitudes of peers, parents, and communities.

The next section of each report outlines the extent to which attitudes, behaviours, and norms that drive gender discrimination and inequality are deeply entrenched, and how this in turn forms a significant challenge for adolescent girls and boys who are committed to advancing gender equality. Using social norms analysis, this section also highlights how an intricate set of deeply held attitudes around gender roles and responsibilities are maintained through power and control, and what happens when these long-held ideas and norms about how people should behave are confronted by new ones. First, it presents the adolescents' reflections on the origins of gender norms; second, it examines the sanctions imposed for non-compliance with norms; third, two vignettes outline girls' and boys' experiences of how norms shape their beliefs and actions and how social norms have either protected or eroded their rights; and finally, it explores the potential for change identified by the adolescents.

For example, the evidence presented in the Uganda report reflects the extent to which adolescent girls and boys feel that gendered and social norms are deeply entrenched and hard to shift. In turn, this presents a significant challenge to adolescent girls and boys who are committed to advancing gender equality. However, their reflections on what kinds of changes they would like to see for a positive outcome for the central characters of the vignettes identified two key actions: the importance of dialogue and communication as a means of negotiating unequal power relations, and the power of the rights discourse for transforming discriminatory attitudes and behaviours. The use of a rights framework to articulate what was wrong and unfair about the dominant gender norms was particularly powerful from the girls' story, and presents a useful basis for continued engagement around the need for change. Girls suggested that dialogue was important but perhaps not enough and highlighted the importance of engaging families in gender equality programmes to support them in their journey of change. This idea is expanded upon in the next section. The boys discussed the importance of dialogue towards equality in intimate relationships, recognising the challenges of the dominant attitudes influencing how relationships were conducted and the prevalence of sexual violence as a manifestation of male dominance.

Section 4 in each report presents potential pathways towards change using an empowerment and rights framework in order to articulate girls' and boys' differing or changing sense of agency, their opportunities for participation, and their vision for social change. By overlaying a social norms analysis, it outlines the adolescents' perspectives on the main challenges for change. The research provides an opportunity to see whether young people could navigate past the so called "sticking points". It also offers insights into how well adolescents were able to recognise and use so-called "tipping points". This section first considers the individual change journeys connected to girls' empowerment, exploring how increased agency has led to positive outcomes in their individual lives. Next, it considers the individual change journeys connected to boys' empowerment. Thirdly, it considers the collective efforts of girls and boys working together to advance gender equality and social change, exploring some of the associated successes and challenges. The section then addresses key changes that adolescent girls and boys would like to see at different levels and their visions and ideas for advancing these. Finally, it presents adolescent girls' and boys' views regarding who or what could influence the type of change they want to see.

Boys discussed the individual changes they have experienced as a result of participating in Champions of Change. Some boys discussed how their attitudes and behaviours have shifted from dominant masculinities to more gender equitable attitudes and behaviours. According to Plan, boys are more able to recognise and challenge sexism and gender equality because they were beginning to internalise the importance of gender equality and recognise the negative impact of gender discriminatory behaviours and attitudes. A good example of this came through the reports of many boys taking actions to challenge gender roles and responsibilities in the home, most frequently through taking on domestic chores. Some boys who engaged in supporting more gender-equitable roles in their households were consciously more supportive of their mothers and sisters, suggesting a deeper understanding of how the unequal burden of chores restricts their mothers' and sisters' time to engage in other activities and to have time for themselves. Boys also talked about wanting to support their peers to make positive attitudinal changes and improve their relationships.

Through the Champions of Change mixed soccer programme, boys learned how to socialise with girls and, over time, to support their participation in a traditionally male sport. Gender norms and power relations were challenged on the pitch by adopting rules that promote gender equality and fair play for both girls and boys. This permitted participants to challenge and tackle their own internalised gender stereotypes. Boys shared how this made them feel good about themselves and how, over time, it led to improvements on how girls view them and relate to them.

Plan claims that the research shows that, at the same time, girls are beginning to experience the transformational power of collective action through engaging with their male peers about the possibilities of healthy intimate relationships, and through working in groups, both formally and informally, on an agenda of social change. In interviews, girls' reflections were positive about the added benefits of working in groups as a way to influence other girls, the community and parents, and to spread their message more widely. During focus groups, girls and boys were asked to reflect on whether they felt it was better to work as separate groups of girls and boys or as a mixed group to advance gender equality and social change. Overwhelmingly, both girls and boys felt it was more effective and powerful to work as a collective. There was a strong sense that this provided them with more power to influence their peers, families, and communities, and to promote gender equality.

In addition to their work with the Champions of Change groups, both girls and boys in Uganda talked about engaging with other members of the community in a variety of settings, and there was a general sense that they were increasingly being listened to. In Colombia, whilst the community proved a more difficult site of change (as compared to the individual level: parents, families, and peers) for adolescent girls and boys - and for girls in particular - girls were keen to highlight the need for more interaction and support from the community in order to advance gender equality on a collective level. Girls offered a deeper reflection on the difficulties of affecting change at the community level and described the slow process of changing attitudes, recognising that whilst the process is neither immediate nor linear, collective advances can be made over time.

In the workshops, both girls and boys talked about the changes they would like to see in their households and communities, as well as the activities they would like to undertake in the future. Their discussions covered suggestions (spanning both Colombia and Uganda) for how change could be realised, such as: engaging their families and communities, using alternative means of communication to sensitise families and community members (e.g., social media and popular education), and ensuring legal change and implementation of existing laws. Both female and male respondents talked about a range of allies and supporters whom they consider to be potential change agents, including: parents and families, local governance, community and religious leaders, civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and female role models.

Concluding each report is a section including discussion of key findings and recommendations: what works to promote gender equality? This section analyses the levers of social change further and presents five key drivers essential for achieving transformational change and promoting gender equality:

  1. Enable girls to engage and negotiate from a position of power - This may require safe, female-only spaces to be made available as a complement to the Champions of Change groups. This study illustrated how gendered notions of what makes a "good" daughter or woman continue to constrain adolescent girls' abilities to realise their potential.
  2. Build powerful networks of peer groups and mentors - Adolescents, particularly girls, identified public role models and peers as having the potential to raise the expectations and aspirations and in pushing the boundaries beyond the norms and the expectations of the community. Equally, girls' own contributions as mentors could become increasingly visible through the development of networks, in which they could also gain a sense of solidarity and support from their peers. It was notable how much importance adolescent girls attached to their own agency and confidence as mentors and supporters of others.
  3. Work together: the critical importance of intergenerational gender dialogues - Methodologies for more transformative community work in the form of community theatre, social communication, and participatory/co-designed social norms campaigns could deepen the approach of the Champions of Change model in terms of seeking to communicate across generations and shifting the most heavily entrenched attitudes and norms.
  4. Bring parents along: intergenerational shifts and deeply embedded gender norms - Participants noted that parents, in particular, need to be "accompanied" through the process of change. This demand for structured engagement with parents is urgent, as the research has demonstrated that tensions around gender norms within the household are an issue for girls and boys. Vulnerable girls appear to be at risk of violence, abuse, and neglect as a result of their efforts to exercise agency and choice.
  5. Address structural discrimination: ensuring an enabling environment for social change - More active engagement with duty bearers and formal structures of government as part of the Champions of Change model was identified as the next crucial step by most of the adolescent girls and boys. However, young people may need targeted support from their allies in order to engage meaningfully with formal structures of the governments. The research uncovers some of the limitations to date. Formal spaces where potential change could be negotiated are largely inaccessible for young people. Gaining legitimacy in formal public spaces and structures continues to be a challenge for younger people and girls in particular.

Overall, the adolescents' perspectives unearthed by this research demonstrate the importance of a multi-faceted approach to social change, which brings people along while building a critical mass of support for gender equality. Path calls for additional research to better understand the perspectives of various reference groups - in particular, parents, teachers, and community leaders - in order to more deeply understand the dynamics that the Champions of Change programme is seeking to shift.


Plan website, October 6 2017.