© Daniel Jack Lyons
4 July 2019

Social norms and the ‘power within’ – how MUVA builds young people’s soft skills

Author: Jana Bischler, Anne Cecile Manicom Rebelo
Published by: ALIGN, MUVA

All over the world, from the US to Europe and across to Southern Africa, employers increasingly complain that many young job seekers don’t have the right attitudes and behaviours for the workplace. As one employer from Maputo, Mozambique, put it:

"It is urgent and vital that young people are educated in aspects not directly related to technical capacity…..  such as: a sense of responsibility, motivation, respect, personal hygiene. We can train young people from the professional perspective, but we can’t change their personal attitudes." 

These attitudes and behaviours have many names in the literature. Some call them non-cognitive skills, others socio-emotional skills or soft skills. There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that people with better soft skills are more successful in school, the labour market and life in general, as shown by Heckman et al. (2006), Carneiro et al. (2007), and Lippman et al. (2015). 

But can these skills be taught to young adults? 

This is not an easy task and becomes even more challenging when working with young people from poor neighbourhoods in countries like Mozambique. Many drop out of school because of early pregnancy or lack of money. Some experience violence and the burden of social norms that discriminate against them, and few have role models to guide them into a successful career. 

For girls and young women these problems are exacerbated by patriarchal norms that expect them to play a passive role in society and to have no aspirations beyond domestic life. This puts young women at an automatic disadvantage in developing the soft skills needed for the work environment – many of which require attitudes completely unlike those they are expected to display at home.

MUVA is a female economic empowerment programme funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). The programme works in Mozambique’s cities, testing innovative ways to help young and disadvantaged women find decent employment opportunities. To change attitudes and social norms around women in the labour market, MUVA works with both young women and men. 

Our research and experience show that technical skills and access to opportunities alone are not enough to economically empower young women. To succeed, programmes and policies need a gender-lens to help women tackle existing power structures, overcome limiting social norms and build their own power within. This, in turn, helps them to develop their soft skills. 

How can this be achieved? 

© Daniel Jack LyonsOne of MUVA’s projects is MUVA’titude. Like many other initiatives, the project combines soft skills training with technical and vocational training courses. However, MUVA’titude does things a little differently. 

Its two-month, four-days-a-week training focuses on the individual and her or his relationship with society, using a gender prism to support personal reflection. Rather than merely teaching young people about the kind of behaviour that is expected in the work place, the facilitators help participants reflect on the social norms in their community, their own abilities and personal challenges. They then explore how this relates to their actual or future working life.  

"The project was a transformation in my life; I learned to be myself and to manage my inner conflicts - a unique experience. To think about myself and how I feel in society and to think that I am capable."                                                  
(Male participant, MUVA’titude, Maputo 2018)

The social norms that young people learn to challenge include the belief that there are some jobs that only men can do and some that only women can do. They also reflect on the different household responsibilities that men and women have and how these shape the time available for other things, such as studying or earning money.

In interactive group exercises, they learn to listen to each other, to work together, to communicate, to be critical in a safe environment and challenge their own belief systems. They learn that everyone faces obstacles in life but that these can often be tackled by making a plan and taking one step at the time. The philosophy of the training is based on the notion that, only when you feel comfortable with your inner thoughts and emotions, and understand how these have been moulded by your social environment, you can improve your behaviour towards others – including in the workplace.

"Before, I did not respect anyone’s opinion. I used to think that my opinion was the only one that counted. Today I know how to listen, with attention, to people. I have respect for other people’s opinion and this is good because when other people feel heard they feel valued."
(Female participant MUVA’titude, Maputo 2017)

MUVA’titude is not the only MUVA initiative that employs this philosophy. MUVA Tech, a project that teaches young women digital literacy, has integrated many of the exercises around social norms and personal development into its IT training. The course has helped to demystify the world of technology, take away the fear of computers and bolster women’s confidence to work in a sector that remains dominated by men. 

"I used to think that only men had the capacity to handle computers. I used to be scared to use a computer. But then I discovered that my thinking was wrong. What a man can learn, a woman can learn. Look at me, I learnt in two months."
(female participant, MUVA Tech, Maputo 2017)

In conversations and interviews with former participants about the impact of these projects, they comment most frequently on how the soft skills components have changed their sense of their own worth, their way of thinking and their ability to deal with different situations and people, including those encountered in the work place. Many of their family members report that their sons or daughters have become more pro-active and respectful. There also seems to have been some spill-over into social norms change as participants have brought their reflections home. Male participants report wanting to give more support to their wives or sisters to find work or study, while some female participants have convinced their parents that they could work as mechanics or gardeners.  

At MUVA, we have learnt that to improve one’s attitude to life and relationship with the labour market, we need to tackle a wide range of soft skills. It is not possible to develop soft skills without focusing on the individual and strengthening their power within. In MUVA, we do this by reflecting on young people’s personal journeys and examining how they are shaped – but not inevitably controlled – by the social norms around them.

For more information about MUVA, please contact Luize Guimaraes or Jana Bischler. For more information about MUVA’titude, please contact Anne-Cecile M. Rebelo or Nelia Taimo who designed the training modules. The training manual is open source and available upon request. 



About the authors

Jana BischlerJana Bischler

Jana works as a consultant at Oxford Policy Management (OPM), where she has been supporting the DFID-funded MUVA programme for the economic empowerment of young women in Mozambique for the past three years. She’s a researcher focusing on issues around skills development, gender, social policy and monitoring, evaluation and learning. 

Anne Cecile Manicom RebeloAnne Cecile Manicom Rebelo

Anne Cecile is a social anthropologist consultant at MUVA programme, with 12 years experience in education and social protection in Mozambique. She has designed and managed various projects, including MUVA’titude, a project focused on female economic empowerment related to soft skills development and access to decent jobs. Her main interest, which revolves around socio-emotional reintegration of marginalized youth, has led her to conceive practical activities aimed at changing behaviour. She has spent the last 10 years researching methods of measuring attitudes, and evaluating their impact.