Tackling social norms for gender equality: Projet Jeune Leader and young adolescents in Madagascar

Last month, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) published its findings on gender and social norms from 75 countries, shedding light on why gender inequality still persists across the world. The big takeaway: at least 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias based on gender.


Biased beliefs, attitudes, and practices – constructs which can be measured – point to the broader norms in society. These norms, or shared and unwritten social expectations, perpetuate unequal power relations and social roles between men and women.


Although data from Madagascar was not included in the report, we know that Malagasy women live with similar, invisible barriers to achieving their full potential. Our own research has revealed that thousands of adolescents in Madagascar – some as young as 10 years old – already possess internalized gender biases.


While concerning, it is not too late to act. The good news is that norms can change. One way to positively shift norms is with exposure to new ideas and practices through formal and informal channels, such as education and role models.


This is why Projet Jeune Leader’s work with very young adolescents (ages 10-14) is powerful - because we intervene during a key period of gender socialization. Early adolescence is a critical life stage during which a person experiences significant physical, mental, emotional, and social changes thanks to puberty. During this time, boys and girls solidify their identities, gain awareness of gender roles and norms, and develop skills and attitudes that lay the foundation for their future health and well-being. It’s the perfect time to introduce gender-equitable ideas and practices.


Our participatory, 27-module, and year-long curricula in middle school is meant to do exactly that. Together, in a safe and structured learning environment, boys and girls study rights, relationships, and sexual and reproductive health – all while Educators lead students to critically examine how gender, gender roles, and gender stereotypes have an overarching influence on how individuals experience each.


This is perhaps the only time students are empowered to reflect on the experiences and messages which have been normalized through social structures, culture, and interactions in their lives.


In the short term, we know this approach is working – that some shifts are already happening. Our students have shown more positive gender attitudes after just one school year with PJL Educators than students who did not have our program.


We also are beginning to see how early exposure to positive gender attitudes manifests later in adolescence. For instance, students that received Projet Jeune Leader programming as very young adolescents (10-12-year-olds) expressed more gender-equitable beliefs towards sexual relationships as adolescents (14-16-year-olds) than students at comparison schools where we have never worked.


Placing our data in a larger context – for example, alongside the UNDP’s report – shows just how promising this is. According to the index, about half of the world’s men and women feel that men make better political leaders. In the United States alone, around 39% of people still share this view.


In our studies, consistently half of Malagasy middle school students at schools without PJL also held that women were not as good of leaders as men – a proportion that stayed stable from the beginning to the end of the school year. Yet, for PJL students, by the end of the year only 30% still held this gender-inequitable belief. 70% of our students – both boys and girls alike – came to believe that women are as good as leaders as men.


We are energized by these findings, but realize they are just one piece of a larger puzzle on implementing an effective social norms intervention. The educational component of our model has helped promote more gender-equitable attitudes among our adolescent students. But what role do our young adult Educators play in all of this?


Well, we highly suspect they serve as an important reference group to our adolescent target population. In addition to providing essential information, PJL Educators may influence how students think, feel, and see things, and influence students’ behavior by social approval and disapproval.


It helps that our Educators – both male and female – are youthful, dynamic, and highly-trained. They respond to young adolescents’ needs and desire for trustworthy mentors, a unique developmental characteristic of this age group. By administering internationally recognized gender norms scales to our Educators during recruitment, we also verify that they possess gender-equitable beliefs and are positive role models.


As part of WomenStrong International’s Learning Lab, we are exploring these assumptions. We aim to better understand adolescent students’ beliefs about what others do and beliefs about what others approve of, and how PJL Educators fit into these belief systems.


If we conclude anything from the UNDP’s report, it’s that progress cannot be taken for granted. Projet Jeune Leader’s curriculum has already shown potential for exposing students to new, more gender-equitable attitudes. By closely examining this second component of our program – PJL Educators, and their promise as a reference group for adolescent students’ beliefs and behaviors – we can reassess the path towards gender equality using social norms theory in our programming.


By tackling gender inequality through social norms change, not only can we improve adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health outcomes, but also their choices, freedoms, and capabilities in life – no matter what their gender.


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