Learning Collaborative Measurement Project Summaries
Project summary
21 January 2021

Early pregnancy, child marriage and social norms in Zambia

Author: Rebecca Justus
Published by: The Learning Collaborative to Advance Normative Change

Organizations involved

University of Bergen; University of Zambia


The aim of this study (2016-2017) was to contribute to the understanding of how gendered sexual norms make girls vulnerable to unintended pregnancy in a specific context. In this study, social norms related to adolescent sexual behavior, adolescent pregnancies, and child marriage were examined in the southern province of Zambia. Interviews and focus group discussions were conducted with girls and boys in school (7th-9th grades), and interviews with parents who have children in the same age group. The study applied a distinction between descriptive norms (the perceived prevalence of a behaviour amongst peers; doing what others do) and injunctive norms (perceived peer approval; doing what others think one should do). Norm related questions focused on perceptions about how common it is for adolescents to have same and opposite sex friends; to get pregnant and/or married; what the participants believe are common reactions among peers, parents and others in the community to adolescent sexual behavior, early pregnancy and marriage; and norms related to contraceptive use.

Social norms of interest

Adolescent sexual behavior; adolescent pregnancy outside marriage, contraceptive use, sexuality related communication

Behaviors of interest

Adolescent sexual behavior; adolescent contraceptive use; adolescents' use of health services; adults' reaction to adolescent sexual behavior; communication about sexuality related issues

Project components

Field work in three phases with qualitative interviews, focus group discussions, and participatory research involving young people.

Social norms measurement

This was a descriptive, qualitative study that sought to explore the dominant social norms related to adolescent sexuality, early pregnancy and marriage. It did not intend to measure the effect of these norms.

Key findings to date

For girls, sexual relationships and early pregnancies were at odds with dominant injunctive norms, but descriptive norms were less clear. The consistently negative norms, ideas, and social discourses about adolescent sexuality interact with structural conditions to make up a dis-enabling and disempowering environment. Efforts to address norms concerning sexual risk-taking and early pregnancies should take into account the difference between injunctive and descriptive norms and the possible existence of contradictory norms. Even if injunctive norms change, behavior may not change if related descriptive norms are more influential.

Attribution statement

Svanemyr, J. (2020) Adolescent pregnancy and social norms in Zambia. Cult Health Sex. 2020;22(6):615-629. Epub 2019 Jun 5.


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