2. Empowerment through club participation

Most studies generate evidence of changes in individual attitudes rather than evidence of shifting norms (in the sense of changes in shared expectations of how people should behave). 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 (or 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, can be seen as reasonable proxies for changing norms alongside any evidence of changing practices. 

The attitudes of individual girls, perceptions of other people’s views, and the prevalence of particular practices can all give an indication of gender norms. Here we outline key evidence and resources on girls’ clubs and youth programmes that focus on changes in these three main areas: girls’ attitudes, other people’s attitudes, and changes in actual behaviour.

Evidence of changes 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 reveal strongly egalitarian attitudes. However, in keeping with prevailing gender norms, girls’ views on specific practices are often less egalitarian. There is some evidence that girls who participate in clubs and related programmes develop more egalitarian views on specific practices. For example, they have been found to be less accepting of gender-based violence (GBV), report being less likely to circumcise future daughters, and are more likely to believe that young people should make their own decisions about when and whom to marry, as noted by Brady et al. (2007)

School-based and community-based clubs have both led girls to adopt 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 offer other activities, such as vocational training and 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 builds commitment to the programme and, therefore, increases 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) tend to support 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 the Ishraq programme in Upper Egypt by Brady et al. (2007) found that even after more than two years of participation, 78% of girls still approved of GBV in certain circumstances (compared with 90% in the control group). Marcus et al.’s (2017) review found that combination of non-formal education, community dialogue or awareness-raising events and mass media can reinforce positive messages and lead to greater changes in norms and attitudes.

Evidence of changes in other people’s attitudes

Although young people, and particularly girls, are the main target group for club-based programmes, there is growing recognition that programmes must also work with parents and community ‘gatekeepers’, given their power to make decisions that affect young people (and girls in particular). Programmes, therefore, increasingly hold outreach and education sessions for parents and other community members and, in some cases, have provided classes. One example is the New Horizons curricula  used by Ishraq with the brothers of participating girls in Egypt analysed by Green et al. (2004) and classes for husbands of girl participants held by Biruh Tesfa in Ethiopia evaluated by Erulkar et al. (2012). As well as building support for the programme through awareness-raising sessions, these classes and community events have promoted gender equality more broadly, including girls’ right to education, to freedom from GBV, and to a more equal share of domestic duties. 

Some programmes have also undertaken community dialogues or awareness-raising campaigns to change gender norms. Although activities with other stakeholders have not always led to significant changes in attitudes – one example being Ishraq, where girls’ brothers hardly changed their views – they have, in general, 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 (GREAT Project, n.d.) and the community awareness dramas on child marriage developed by participants in girls’ clubs in Nepal studied by Samuels and Ghimire in 2015

Mixed-sex clubs have often changed boys’ attitudes significantly (sometimes more dramatically and sometimes less dramatically than among girls). For example, the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH, 2011) finds that these clubs have helped to shift views on gender equality in general (towards valuing males and females equally), on GBV and on domestic divisions of labour. Because almost all clubs that focused on education were single sex (girls only), evaluations do not generally report shifts in boys’ attitudes that can come from seeing girls performing as well as, or outperforming, boys as noted by Unterhalter et al. (2014) and by Evans (2014).

Evidence of changes in behaviour 

The key changes in behaviour measured by evaluations are: age at marriage and/ or prevalence of child marriage; changes in girls’ mobility; reporting and experience of GBV; and (less commonly) changes in the domestic division of labour. 

Clubs that help to reduce child marriage rates tend to be community-based and engage parents and other family members in classes or outreach activities, as well as helping girls develop the confidence to voice their views on the timing of marriage or potential partners. Examples include DISHA in India and BALIKA in Bangladesh, as examined by Kanesathasan et al. (2008) and Amin et al. (2016) respectively. 

Community-based clubs have also contributed to positive changes in views about the places that girls are permitted to visit on their own or with others, which may reflect changing norms about the acceptability of their greater personal mobility. These changes appear to have come about through participation in clubs, which requires some 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 encourage girls’ mobility directly via life-skills programme content or community awareness sessions, but norms seem to change as their participation in community-based clubs becomes more accepted. Examples include the Better Life Options (BLO) programme in India examined by Acharya et al. (2009), and BRAC’s Employment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) programme in Bangladesh, examined by Shahnaz and Karim (2008)

Evaluations of girls’ clubs and adolescent programmes also show reduced acceptability of GBV, although some studies have found reported increases in such violence. In most cases this appears to be the result of increased awareness of what constitutes GBV, but there is also a small amount of evidence that some programmes – particularly those with economic empowerment components that target only girls –increase jealousy within the household, which can turn to violence. 

Where programmes challenge the existing gender division of labour through club discussions or other participatory activities, this appears to lead to changes in attitudes and practices. Two positive examples with quite different target groups emerge from the CHOICES pilot programme in Nepal IRH (2011) (see case study section), which led to boys and girls reporting a more equal distribution of household chores, and from Biruh Tesfa in Ethiopia, where Erulkar et al. (2012) found that husbands of married girls who participated in husbands’ classes started to do more domestic chores.

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