3. Attitude and norm change through club participation

Most studies generate evidence of changes in individual attitudes rather than evidence of shifting norms, in the sense of shared expectations about what people should do and think. This is probably because it is easier to ask about and record changes in individual attitudes than in people’s perceptions of what others in their community think is acceptable (and is not). That said, evidence of changes in what girls think and do, and in what other people or groups in their community think and do, alongside evidence of changing practices, can be seen as reasonable proxies for changing norms. 

Individuals’ attitudes, perceptions of other people’s views, and the prevalence of particular practices can all give an indication of gender norms. We therefore outline key evidence and resources on girls’ clubs and youth clubs that focus on change in these three main areas.

Evidence on change in girls’ attitudes

Studies that probe girls’ views of gender equality in the abstract, with questions such as ‘are men/women boy/girls of equal value?’ or ‘when resources are scarce, should families prioritise boys’ education or girls’ education?’ generally find strongly egalitarian attitudes. Evaluations of girls’ clubs and related programmes have found that participants tend to be less accepting of gender-based violence, less likely to circumcise future daughters, and more likely to believe that young people themselves should decide when and whom to marry.

School-based and community-based clubs have both led to girls adopting more gender-egalitarian views, with some evidence of more consistent changes in school-based clubs, though the sample is notably smaller. In community-based clubs, changes in attitudes have generally been stronger in programmes that offered other activities (e.g. vocational training, catch-up education) alongside gender awareness education. Why this should be the case is not entirely clear, but it may be that the wider range of activities on offer built commitment to the programme and thus increased girls’ exposure to more egalitarian views. The strongly positive responses from girls and parents to activities they perceive as useful (such as vocational training or learning about issues such as hygiene or legal rights) provides some support for this view.

Where particular practices are strongly entrenched – in many cases, upheld by religious or cultural traditions – changes are less marked, indicating the limitations of a single-strand approach to changing attitudes and norms. For example, the evaluation of Ishraq programme in Upper Egypt found that even after more than two years of participation, 78% of girls still approved of gender-based violence in certain circumstances (compared with 90% in the control group) (Brady et al., 2007). A combination of non-formal education, community dialogue or awareness-raising events and mass media can reinforce messages and lead to greater changes in attitudes and norms.

Evidence on change in others’ attitudes

Although young people, and particularly girls, are the primary target group for club-based programmes, it is increasingly recognised that unless programmes also work with parents and community ‘gatekeepers’, changes are likely to be limited, reflecting the power other people have to make decisions that affect young people’s lives (and girls in particular). Programmes thus increasingly hold outreach and education sessions for parents and other community members and, in some cases, have provided a series of classes (for example, the New Horizons curricula that Ishraq used with the brothers of participating girls in Egypt, and classes for husbands of girl participants held by Biruh Tesfa in Ethiopia (Sieverding and Elbadawy, 2016; Erulkar et al, 2013). As well as building support for the programme through awareness-raising sessions, these classes and community events have focused on promoting gender equality more broadly, including girls’ right to education and to freedom from gender-based violence, and a more equal share of domestic duties.

Some programmes have also undertaken community dialogues or awareness-raising campaigns to change gender norms. Although these activities with other stakeholders have not always led to significant changes in attitudes – one example being Ishraq, where girls’ brothers hardly changed their views – in the main, they have contributed to more gender-egalitarian attitudes. Examples include the community dialogue and planning processes, radio programmes and links to reproductive health services undertaken by the GREAT (Gender Roles, Equality and Transformation) project in Uganda and the community awareness dramas on child marriage developed by participants in girls’ clubs in Nepal. 

Clubs attended by girls and boys have often led to significant changes in boys’ attitudes (sometimes more dramatic and sometimes less dramatic than among girls). In particular, these clubs have helped shift views on gender equality in general (towards valuing males and females equally), on gender-based violence and on domestic divisions of labour. Because almost all the education-focused clubs were single sex (girls only), they did not report on changes in boys’ attitudes and behaviour.

Evidence on changes in practice linked to club participation

The key areas of changes in practice (what people do) that evaluations measure are: age at marriage and/ or prevalence of child marriage; changes in girls’ mobility; reporting and experience of gender-based violence; and (less commonly) changes in the domestic division of labour. 
Clubs that contribute to lower child marriage rates are typically community-based and engage parents and other family members in classes or outreach activities, as well as helping girls develop the self-confidence to speak out and voice their wishes about the timing of marriage or potential partners. Examples include: DISHA in India and BALIKA in Bangladesh. 

Community-based clubs have also contributed to changes in where girls are permitted to go (on their own or with others), which may reflect changing norms about the acceptability of girls’ greater personal mobility. These changes appear to have come about through participation in clubs, which requires a certain degree of mobility in the community, but also through exposure visits to community facilities (such as banks and health care centres) and, in some programmes, supported access to health services. Few programmes seem to directly encourage girls’ mobility via life skills programme content or community awareness sessions, but norms seem to change as girls’ participation in community-based clubs becomes more accepted. Examples include Better Life Options in India and BRAC’s ELA programme in Bangladesh. 

Evaluations of girls’ clubs and youth clubs also show reduced acceptability of gender-based violence, although some interventions have been associated with increased reporting of experiences of gender-based violence. Although in most cases this appears to be the result of increased awareness of what constitutes gender-based violence, there is also a small amount of evidence that some programmes – particularly those with economic empowerment components targeted only at girls – lead to increased jealousy within the household, which can be manifested in increased violence.

Where programmes challenge the existing gender division of labour through club discussions or other participatory activities, such as Photovoice (a participatory photo-based research method), this appears to lead to changes in attitudes and practices. Two positive examples with quite different target groups come from the CHOICES pilot programme in Nepal (See Case Study Box), which led to boys and girls reporting a more equal distribution of household chores, and from Biruh Tesfa in Ethiopia, where husbands of married girls who participated in classes started to do more domestic chores.

What contributes to greatest changes in norms and attitudes?

Synthesis of evaluations suggests that on the whole, participating in a club for longer (a year or more) is associated with greater change, as is attending regularly. Definitions of ‘attending regularly’ vary but generally involve taking part in more than half to two-thirds of sessions. Engaging with multiple stakeholders (parents, the wider community, spouses/partners of married girls, in-laws, and employers of girls doing domestic work) all led to changes in attitudes among these groups, but also to greater support for girls’ attendance at clubs and development programmes, and thus stronger direct effects on girls. 

What is less clear is the extent to which a strong and sustained focus on gender equality is necessary to deliver changes in attitudes and norms and for empowerment outcomes. This clearly warrants further investigation. Although the general trend from the programmes examined in the GAGE review was that a greater focus on gender equality led to greater change in outcomes, there was some variation. In particular, programmes with a specific focus – such as economic empowerment or promoting involvement in civic action – achieved clear positive outcomes (some of which defied prevailing gender norms, as when 14-year-old girls lobbied local officials over public services and local infrastructure), without necessarily having a strong focus on gender equality.


A few studies provide insights on resistance to changes in gender norms associated with girls’ clubs and youth development programmes. There appear to be three things that generate resistance: (1) attendance at clubs; (2) the actual or imagined content of the curricula/activities; and (3) clubs’ actual or perceived links to foreign organisations, who are feared to have covert religious conversion agendas. Where parents or other family members are concerned about girls attending such clubs, this is typically because they see it as a waste of time (as it stops girls carrying out their household duties or is just a place to gossip), rather than having a positive value for girls (see BRAC ELA Centres in Bangladesh and the Population Council’s Adolescent Girls Initiative (AGI) in Kenya). A combination of outreach efforts and visible changes in girls’ knowledge, behaviour, and (in some cases) relationships with other family members have helped neutralise these concerns.

Muthengi et al. (2016) also discuss how the perceived religious conversion agenda of these types of programme can lead to scepticism and hostility towards some initiatives, which requires considerable outreach to overcome. Sustained spreading of rumours or disinformation campaigns can also undermine evaluations.

Finally, specific areas of content – particularly related to sexual and reproductive health – can be controversial and can lead to girls not being allowed to attend clubs. Muthengi et al.’s (2016) study of the AGI in Kenya explores some of these issues in more detail. Some programmes that encourage girls to take part in sports also appear to evoke resistance – e.g. Moving the Goalposts, Kenya, BRAC in Bangladesh (Shahnaz and Karim, 2008), and CARE’s multi-country Innovation through Sport: Promoting Leaders, Empowering Youth (ITSPLEY) programme. However, programmes in other areas (such as Ishraq in rural Upper Egypt) have successfully managed to engage girls in sport by persisting in encouraging it, despite gender norms that discourage girls’ participation in outdoor sport.

Marcus, R., 2017 Girls' clubs and gender norm change, ALIGN, London, UK