Last Thursday and Friday, Promundo staff held a workshop to elaborate on the upcoming research initiative and the methodological instruments to accompany it. This workshop was attended by the Promundo staff involved in the upcoming project, as well as outside researchers and professionals specializing in topics related to the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents (SECA). The two-day meeting series acquainted me with Promundo staff and gave me a clear idea of the NGO’s upcoming research initiative.
The upcoming project will be sustained over a timeline of approximately two and a half years, and is a joint project hosted by Promundo and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Together, the two institutions have secured funds from the Oak Foundation, an international philanthropy organization that funds various causes related to human rights and social justice. The project will be based in the Learning Initiative on Norms, Exploitation and Abuse (LINEA) developed by the Gender Violence and Health Center at LSHTM. This center developed LINEA in 2014 in order to better explore “how social norm theory can be used to reduce child sexual exploitation and abuse” of children and adolescents. In order to contribute knowledge to this field, LINEA has been applied to numerous research initiatives, which have included partnerships with outside NGOs. In this case, LINEA frameworks of approach will be applied to Promundo’s work in favelas in order to take a social norms approach to the problem of SECA in these communities. Below, I will further explain social norms theory, as well as its applications to the current research project on SECA.
Social Norms Theory
It was in the workshop that I gleaned the full details about the upcoming project on SECA that will be undertaken over the coming months. Rather than a focus on human trafficking as I had originally anticipated, the project will instead center around social norms and how these norms influence rates of SECA in favelas. Before beginning to elaborate on the questions, it is necessary to understand what is meant by a social norm and how they are applied to questions of SECA through the LINEA framework.
Social norms are largely unspoken rules that govern individual behavior and dictate how individuals comport themselves in their own social context. Social norms can be understood as the underlying structure of LINEA, which is ultimately an initiative to assess SECA through a social norm lens. I will now briefly entertain a discussion on social norms theory, beginning with a distinction between descriptive and injunctive norms.
Social norms can be distinguished into two categories: those are descriptive norms and injunctive norms. Each type of norm can be defined as a set of expectations that dictates how humans behave in a certain situation. The first of these, descriptive norms, delineate an individual’s expectations for the behavior of others around them. A descriptive norm describes the expectations set by the individual on the behavior of other people. Individuals use descriptive norms to coordinate their behavior with that of others around them, not out of fear of negative social sanctions resulting from deviations but rather because of a natural preference to coordinate with the choices of others. For example, when on the subway in a foreign city, a foreigner follows the other people disembarking from the train in order to find the exit. She does not do this out of anticipation of negative social consequences were she to go the other way, but rather out of an expectation that the other people around her know best how to find the exit. In this example, walking in a particular direction is a descriptive norm—it is what everyone is doing.
The second type of social norms, injunctive norms, describe an individual’s expectations about what they are expected to do in a particular social situation. These norms motivate the actions of individuals through the promise of social rewards like acceptance, praise and collaboration. By contrast, when individuals do not obey these social norms they encounter sanctions of a negative nature: social ostracization, disapproval and even violence against them. Both positive and negative sanctions reinforce social norms and provide a collectively imposed regulatory framework which maintains order in a group. Often times injunctive social norms cause an individual to act outside of their own self-interest for the sake of group coordination and resulting joint gain. An example of this would be norm of reciprocity that compels people in a community to share their food with others. Acting from pure self-interest alone, an individual would have no motivation to share food with anyone else. However, the existence of this injunctive norm provides strong motivation to share food, because a failure to comply will result in negative social sanctions such as community disapproval. To summarize, if descriptive norms can be thought of as describing “what is”, then injunctive norms could be thought to describe “what ought”.
Social Norms Theory applied to FGM and SECA
Ben Cislaghi, a lecturer at LSHTM and former Director of Research at the NGO Tostan, led a discussion at the outset of the workshop on social norms and how they shape harmful community practices. Ben presented his previous work in LINEA methods as applied to female genital mutilation (FGM) in communities in Senegal, and explained the application of social norm theory to this issue. In communities that practice FGM, the practice is a necessary prerequisite for the marriageability of a girl. Thus, a family’s failure to cut their daughter would not only bring social shame upon the girl by making her ineligible for marriage, but also would cause negative externalities for the entire family: they would all encounter outside disapproval for failing to give their daughter the opportunity to find a husband. Out of fear of negative social sanctions from others around them, each individual family conforms to the perceived expectation to cut their daughters and ensure marriageability. Thus, FGM is a socially embedded norm and its practice is sustained by continuous social expectations that each individual family must comply, or risk ostracization by the community. FGM as a whole cannot be halted by one family’s decision to not cut their daughter, for this would bring social shame upon the individual and the larger practice would be unaffected. Instead, FGM can only be eradicated on a community-wide basis and tackled from the ground up, rather than having change imposed down from a higher authority. Through community-based action and dialogue, the Senegal-based NGO Tostan has made tremendous progress in eradicating FGM among entire communities and networks.
Much in the same way as social norms are a root cause of FGM, they are also increasingly studied as a contributing factor to trends of sexual exploitation of children and adolescents in favelas around Rio de Janeiro. The Oak Foundation has identified several key areas of focus that may be influenced by social norms:
- What norms sustain sexual abuse/violence in a specific context
- The presence of competing norms, for example those that priorities family harmony over an individual’s rights to protection
- Gender norms and patterns of socialization that effect risks of both victimization and perpetration
- The effect of the sexualization of children
- The compound impact of age, gender and other power determinants
- Identifying divergent views and whose views are dominant on which issue and why
By applying social norm theory to the issue of SECA, the researchers at Promundo, as well as other professionals involved in LINEA, hope to understand what different social norms present in favelas may both cause and prevent the phenomenon of SECA. They also hope to address the rooted social causes of SECA rather than the fallout after exploitation has transpired.
The eventual goal of the LINEA research is to provide not only a more comprehensive understanding of the drivers of SECA, but also influence policy and campaigns to end the practice. A social norms approach to SECA is an example of a primary prevention. This term describes a preemptive approach to SECA, in which actors focus on preventing future violence against children and adolescents on the community level. This contrasts with secondary prevention and tertiary prevention approaches, which are more concerned with the retroactive aid and treatment of children and adolescents who have already become victims of SECA. Through a preemptive approach, LINEA frameworks aim to refocus services and efforts towards what can be done to alter the social norms that perpetuate the problem of SECA. Rather than changing social norms outright from a top-down approach, Mr. Cislaghi stressed the importance of facilitating a ground-up process whereby individuals are given agency to sculpt new norms in order to better meet their own needs. From this approach, tackling social norms that cause or relate to SECA involves working with community members outright to reverse social norms related to the exploitation of children and adolescents. In another blog post, I will further detail the social norms that are under scrutiny by Promundo’s LINEA research, as well as assess the implications of these social norms for issues related to SECA.
 “Learning Initiative on Norms, Exploitation and Abuse (LINEA),” accessed July 4, 2016, http://blogs.lshtm.ac.uk/samegroup/projects-2/linea/.
 Cristina Bicchieri and Ryan Muldoon, “Social Norms,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2014, 2014, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/social-norms/.
 Cristina Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society : The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms (New York : Cambridge University Press, 2006., 2006), http://www.ling.ohio-state.edu/~davidson/Texts/bicchieri_2005_grammar_of_society.pdf.
 Robert Cialdini, “A FOCUS THEORY OF NORMATIVE CONDUCT: A THEORETICAL REFINEMENT AND REEVALUATION OF THE ROLE OF NORMS IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR,” accessed July 11, 2016, http://www.influenceatwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/A-Focus-Theory-of-Normative-Conduct.pdf.
 Cristina Bicchieri, “Female Genital Mutilation: Fundamentals, Social Expectations and Change,” n.d., https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/67523/1/MPRA_paper_67523.pdf.
 Warburton, J. Reducing the Risk of the Sexual Exploitation of Children. Oak Foundation. May 2014. http://oakfnd.org/sites/default/files/documents/Paper%204%20Reducing%20the%20risk%20of%20the%20sexual%20exploitation%20of%20children.pdf