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19 Oct, 2023

 CC2 | From Theory to Reality: Contextual Challenges in Child Rights Interventions 

Author: Vineha Tatkar, Program Associate, SA-SNLC, PCI India

Our subject matter experts for the critical conversation on ‘Linkages between Social Norms & Agency to Promote Children’s Rights & Justice’ – Dr Aparajita Gogoi* , Dr Vikas Choudhry** and Sudha Nair***, drew from their own extensive experience as well as participants’ accounts to bring out the critical takeaways from the event.  

This blog talks about one prominent theme in these takeaways, which was the centrality of context and intersectional identities in understanding social norms and agency, as well as in designing normative interventions. It follows the example of two 15-year-olds – Mona and Preeti, simplified for illustrative purposes. Mona comes from a town with a tight knit conservative community whereas Preeti is from a metropolitan city and an only child of a single mother.  

What happens when we take away context? 

Mona & Preeti are both adolescent girls. Even so, common sense will suggest that their upbringing, the agency they can exercise in their everyday life is significantly different. For example, interventions targeted at securing their menstrual rights would need to consider the different social norms and reference groups that affect their behaviour & agency – a cookie cutter approach won’t do. While Preeti might be able to start using painkillers after sensitization, Mona might not be able to do so, despite her wishes. An understanding of agency taken from a high-income context, such as Preeti’s, won’t generalise to other contexts.  

Researchers, program developers, M & E teams need to be sensitive of this context-specificity and tailor interventions and measurement tools accordingly. Theoretically sound interventions developed in a vacuum that don’t catch the nuances of Mona and Preeti’s lived experiences will likely be ineffective.  

The Who, What, When, Where’s – Contextualizing Agency & Norms 

The cookie cutter approach can be avoided only by acknowledging the diversity inherent in the target group.  

When we speak of children, we speak of a heterogenous group of people. Children from different socio-economic backgrounds, geographical regions, developmental stages, gender identities. Culture also decides difference in the extent and purview of agency between young people classified as children and as adolescents.  

Gender emerged as an especially critical variable during the conversation. Social norms continue to asymmetrically disadvantage everyone who is not a cisgendered male. As Dr Gogoi pointed out, “adolescent girls and women suffer the brunt of social norms because traditional gender expectations social norms have a much bigger [restrictive] impact on girls’ agency and decision-making powers than on boys“. 

The effect is compounded in the face of unforeseen circumstances like wars and pandemics where resources become scarce. During the pandemic, Mona’s brothers got first preference to attend online classes while she and her sister had to miss out most often. A similar trend in many families across geographical regions led to discontinuity in girls’ education.  

Considering all these variables is critical to developing effective social and behaviour change interventions to secure rights and advance justice.  

Factoring in Intersectionality of Identities  

Going a step further, it is also important to acknowledge that individuals are multi-layered. At any given time, Mona is a student, an aspiring scientist, a girl, a friend, a sister, a daughter – an amalgamation of these and many more identities.   

This intersectionality means that even when it comes to social norms around a single behaviour, different reference groups can have conflicting influences. For example, Preeti may have different normative expectations about the use of a menstrual cup from her relatives and from her friends. Moreover, her identity as a child may limit her agency and conflict with her identity as an environmentally conscious person.  

The impact of similar social norms on young people hailing from different social, economic, geographic backgrounds will likely be very different. Children from marginalised groups would experience the disadvantages more severely, and girl children even more so. 

Next Steps: Working with the Intricacies & Nuances

The recommendations from this critical conversation to inform the work around child rights are summarised here: 

  • Measurement of agency should consider the spectrum of agency beyond the ability to act – as Dr Choudhry summarised, “the ability to express your goals, and have those goals set up according to the choices that you’re planning to make, and then ability to decide to act on those choices or voice out those opinions” as well as individual & collective agency. 
  • Interventions for children should therefore also consider sensitization of adults since they are often the gatekeepers to the kind of services and facilities a child can access. 
  • Context-specific and issue-specific knowledge of relevant social norms and agency should be developed so that the nuances are duly mapped 
  • Formative, comparative and implementation research around social norms and agency should be undertaken to 
    • Understand what agency means and looks like in local contexts  
    • Track universal and culturally specific norms to inform programming 
    • Understand longitudinal effects of an intervention on a community 
  • A multi stakeholder approach should be employed to collaborate and confer on projects, depending on areas of specialisation.  

To pull it all together, as Sudha emphasized, the goal is to decode and defragment to understand them better, so that programming can be sharper.  

Listen to the full conversation here

*Dr Aparajita Gogoi – Executive Director, Centre for Catalyzing Change & National Coordinator, WRAI

**Dr Vikas Choudhry – Vice President, Public Health Practice, Sambodhi research and Communications Pvt Ltd, & South Asia Research Lead – Agency for All

***Sudha Nair – Director, Capacity Building, New Concept Centre for Development Communication

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Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC), Ashoka University

The Centre for Social and Behaviour Change is a leading Indian institution that drives behavioural change measures for people and communities in need.

Project Concern International (PCI), India

Project Concern International, India has been working since 1998 to co-create and scale sustainable solutions to complex development problems rooted in community realities .

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