What happens when… You change social norms for good

Girls in Lebanon learn about violence
"I never thought about what violence is, or that neglect might be harmful”, Marwa, 13, from Lebanon explains after attending a training focused on the different forms violence can take and how they can protect themselves.
Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Joining the end of a queue and waiting your turn to order a coffee. Saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. Shaking hands when you meet someone new. There are dozens of unwritten rules that shape the way we interact with other people every day – and different places and times have different rules. It might sound daunting, but most of the time, we follow these rules without even realising it.

Social norms are powerful – they’re part of what makes a community function. But they doesn’t mean they should always stay the same. Social norms constantly change over time along with people’s ideas. That can be a good thing, because not all norms are positive. Driving in a car without seatbelts, for example, is dangerous and so in lots of places, it’s no longer socially acceptable – or legal.

Other social norms pose a threat to children too, though the risks are not always so obvious. In some communities, girls are thought to have little to contribute to their societies beyond being wives or mothers one day, and so practices like child marriage, female genital mutilation, and denying girls’ an education remain prevalent. They not only harm the physical health of girls, but their lifelong opportunities, and those of their children and their communities. Similarly, when violence is a social norm, children’s immediate and long-term well-being is put in danger.

Changing social norms isn’t easy, but it is one of the most powerful ways to transform children’s lives. That’s why child sponsorship works alongside community and faith leaders, empowering and transforming these important voices to influence the sociocultural norms, beliefs and practices – giving breath to those that effect children’s well-being in a positive way, and strongly advocating or taking action against those that don’t.

Here's what happens when you change negative social norms….

1) Children are better protected

Some social norms can subject children to abuse and exploitation. An example of this is the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which is a deeply ingrained cultural practice in some communities. Girls are often forced or convinced to be ‘cut’ because of social pressure and deep cultural beliefs that a girl’s value to her family and her community is determined by her suitability for marriage. FGM is believed in some contexts to make a girl a more appealing wife. When practices like FGM, child labour or child marriage are deeply ingrained in a culture, it’s hard to make a change for the child, their parents and their community leaders. But child sponsorship empowers kids to know their rights and speak up to protect them. Through programmes like Channels of Hope, child sponsors also help to mobilise faith groups, which are often highly influential in their communities, to take direct, collective action to change social norms and protect children.

Girls in traditional dress in Kenya participate in a rites ceremony
Girls in Kenya attending an Alternative Rights of Passage (ARP) graduation ceremony. The ARP programme educates boys and girls to celebrate their age milestones or other significant cultural events without affirming harmful traditions like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.

2) Families are stronger

    Social norms that restrict the roles women and men can play in their families and communities can have a detrimental effect on children, too. When only women are able to be caregivers, children miss out on the influence and attention of their male family members. When only men can make financial decisions in a household, families miss out on the perspectives and priorities of women in the family. When parents are conditioned to believe that showing affection or playing with their children is weakness, children miss out on the love and care they need to thrive. Child sponsorship helps to challenge these social norms through initiatives like positive parenting training for families and caregivers to foster healthy relationships, savings groups that help women become financially empowered, and support for women to start small businesses of their own and contribute to the family income, enabling kids to grow up with the support they need to flourish.

    Father plays with his son and a wheel in Malawi
    A dad in Matope, Malawi plays with his young son. When both men and women are free to share the different tasks of a household – from caregiving and housework to financial decision making – children benefit.


    3) Girls are more likely to be seen as equal

    The world is still not an equal place for girls and boys. And that’s especially true for girls living in low income countries. According to UNICEF, 129 million girls are out of school and only 49% of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. That figure plummets to just 24% in the upper secondary years. Families trapped in poverty are more likely to favour boys when it comes to educational opportunity, which means girls are at higher risk of early marriage. Child sponsorship works to challenge the social norms that hold girls back – making sure they are empowered to know their rights and use their voice to help protect them from all forms of violence and exploitation and educating families and communities on the importance of education for girls.

    Adolescent Girls from a teen club in Honduras stand in a line.
    12-year-old Sheyla (centre) fights for the rights of girls in her community in Guatemala. As the president of the children’s group, she wants to see the rights of girls recognised and hopes to create a safer community for all children.
    4) Kids have better health

    Social norms can shape attitudes related to health care that result in children facing an increased risk of serious, preventable illness – in some communities, traditional medicine and treatments, vaccine hesitancy, or misinformation, shame and stigma around some diseases can be a threat to children’s health. By giving communities access to better health services and working with community leaders and members to build social norms that support its use, child sponsorship helps kids grow up health and strong. Last year in Mauritania, 74% of babies’ births in our sponsorship communities were guided by a skilled birth attendant, compared to just 30% among families in the nation’s other poorest areas, while at least 95% of pregnant women in our sponsorship communities in Kenya and Tanzania received an HIV test to help stop mother-to-child transmission. Step by step, conversation by conversation, these interventions have a huge impact on children’s health and futures.

    Young child stands on a scale to have his weight checked in Cambodia
    A young boy getting his weight checked at a Village Health Group in Cambodia where mothers learn about nutrition and have the health of their babies regularly monitored.

    Right now, child sponsors are helping empower communities to make positive change for their children. Will you join us?

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