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19 Oct, 2023

CC1 | Navigating the Intersection of Social Norms and Agency in Children and Adolescents’ Rights 

Author: Sushmita Mukherjee, Director – Gender and Adolescent Girls, PCI India

The Social Norms Learning Collaborative (SNLC) organized a virtual critical conversation event, delving into the complex interplay between social norms and agency, specifically concerning the rights of children and adolescents. This intricate intersection gives rise to essential questions that challenge our understanding of societal expectations and individual empowerment.  

Dr. Abhijeet Pathak, Chief of Party, MOMENTUM Country and Global Leadership India Yash and Country Lead- Family– Family planning, Gender and Youth from Jhpiego, gave critical insights into this complex intersection. This blog aims at capturing key points highlighted during his keynote address during the virtual event organized on 20th September 2023.  

The Dynamic Nature of Social Norms

Social norms represent the ever-evolving standards that society imposes on behaviour, reactions, and actions. These norms define how society expects us to behave and adapt to our surroundings. However, it’s important to acknowledge that social norms are not fixed; they change in varying contexts and take time to evolve. This dynamic nature of social norms is crucial to understanding the tension between societal expectations and individual agency.

The Power of Agency

Agency is the inherent ability of an individual to make decisions about how they want to act, react, and behave. It is the voice within us that asserts itself, guiding our choices independently. The juxtaposition of social norms and agency creates a timeless debate. On one side, society often dictates behavioural patterns, while on the other, the individual’s internal compass drives them to choose their path.

Children’s Rights: Adding Complexity to the Equation

This conversation gains further complexity when we introduce the rights of children and adolescents into the mix. Child rights, as defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and related documents, are guided by the premise of protecting children. However, these critical documents often treat all children as a homogeneous group, disregarding their diverse ages and needs.

The Challenge of Balancing Protection and Agency

The challenge arises from the tension between protecting children and nurturing their agency while considering their diverse needs that are shaped by age, gender, social contexts, individual capacities and interests. If we constantly protect and mould children to conform to societal expectations, we risk stifling their internal voices and inhibiting their natural growth. This dilemma highlights the need for a nuanced perspective on child rights—one that embraces both protection and empowerment and is responsive to their needs.

Child Rights’ Convention – Article 12, 13, 14: Recognizing Children’s Voices

Articles 12, 13, and 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasize children’s rights to form their own opinions, express themselves, and have their voices heard. These articles underscore the importance of acknowledging children’s evolving capacities and the need to include their perspectives in decision-making processes.

Moving Forward: Embracing Complexity

As we navigate this intricate terrain, several questions arise:

  • Are Child Rights Homogeneous? How do we work collectively recognizing diverse needs and capacities of children?
  • Developing Child Agency: How can we engage in a constructive debate on developing a child’s agency, even if it challenges prevailing social norms for children? What are the means and mediums to engage with children while respecting their autonomy?
  • Balancing Social Norms and Agency: How can both social norms and a child’s agency be addressed by the development community? Finding a consensus on this path forward is essential to ensure we neither stifle children’s voices nor neglect their protection.


In conclusion, the friction between social norms and agency is a driving force for societal change. Child and adolescent rights challenge us to find a delicate balance between protection and empowerment. By empowering young minds to express their agency, we not only help them flourish but also contribute to the evolution of societal norms. It’s time to embrace this complexity, recognizing that children have the potential to shape the future, provided we create the space for their voices to be heard.

Click here to listen to the full conversation.

About SA-SNLC  

South Asia Social Norms Learning Collaborative (SASNLC) is a platform for discussing various facets of social norms, its impact on lives of men and women, programming to address regressive norms and measurement of the same. A platform for researchers, practitioners, academicians and other enthusiasts. PCI India and CSBC jointly host this platform in India.  

To know more about our work & become a member, click here 

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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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