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Social Norms in Zambia: Up Against Some of the Fiercest Competition

October 30, 2019 • Rights of Women & Girls, Population, Environment

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Zambian community

Since our founding, Population Media Center has understood the importance of social norms for a sustainable future. In fact, our Theory of Change is built around Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Social norms are patterns of collective behavior that are reinforced, propagated, and sustained by “unwritten” rules. In recent years, the science of social norms has been evolving rapidly, with interest in entertainment-education – PMC’s specialty – gaining traction. Meanwhile, issue activists and development practitioners have gained a new appreciation for the power of social norms to positively impact sustainability.

This is why, in September 2018, PMC began new work to expand our expertise. The Social Norms Impact and Evaluation Project, funded by The J.H. Grantham Environmental Trust, is an 18-month project (September 2018 – February 2020) designed to bolster PMC’s capacities to effect and measure social norms change. It’s critical, from a mission perspective, that we continually apply the best social norms science.

To achieve world-class results for this project, we recruited Dr. Amy Henderson Riley (Thomas Jefferson University College of Population Health) as our principle investigator. Dr. Riley is a rising star in the field of entertainment-education research. She, along with key PMC staff, are implementing an exhaustive four phase project. First came a literature review on recent advances in social norms science– followed by a comparison of these findings to PMC’s current operations. The results were then distributed to all staff, plus two highly-credentialed external consultants for critique, feedback, and suggestions. The third phase, which is nearing completion, is field testing two new social norm monitoring and evaluation tools. Phase four, “Evaluate and Implement,” will include lessons learned and best practices for deploying these tools to PMC project locations around the world.

“Over the last decade,” notes Dr. Riley, “there has been a huge shift in the social and behavior change communication field to focus not just on individual behavior change, but social change as well.”

PMC chose to test the new monitoring and evaluation tools in Zambia, where we have two shows currently on the air, Siñalamba (“Breaking the Barrier”) and Kwishilya (“Over the Horizon”). For this effort, we recruited Ms. Sarah Stevens, MPH, Global Health and Research Manager at the Drexel University School of Public Health, to travel to Zambia and provide quality control as the tools were tested. This testing required ethics approvals (the study was approved by both Thomas Jefferson University and the Zambian Institutional Review Board), pretesting, and many meetings between PMC staff, Dr. Riley, Ms. Stevens, and Zambian data-collecting experts. Then, over the course of ten days in August, we administered 400+ quantitative surveys (each with 60 questions) and 16 hour-long focus group discussions.

The results provided by these instruments will shed light on social norm constructs around family planning use and desired family size in the lives of married Zambian women, aged 19 to 34. For example, we asked, “I’d like to talk about what other people think about the number of children you desire. Do you think other married women ages 19-34 in this community expect you to have a certain number of children?” This should provide us information regarding injunctive social norms (aka “Doing what I believe others believe I should do”) and strong clues on how to promote change around these norms.

As any successful business will note, ongoing investment into research and design is crucial for staying ahead of the competition. Even though PMC is a mission driven NGO, and does not directly compete for profits, we do have some extremely fierce competition to deal with: the social norms and community behaviors that keep women and girls oppressed, population growing rapidly, and environmental damage gaining velocity.

Thanks to supporters like you, The J.H. Grantham Environmental Trust, and the experts we are working with on this project, we are confident our ability to tackle unsustainable social norms is only going to get better. We look forward to keeping you updated on this important initiative.


Picture of Joe Bish

Written by Joe Bish

Joe is the Director of Issue Advocacy at Population Media Center. He holds a Master of Science in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing from Antioch University New England.