Published on Let's Talk Development

Understanding the dynamics of gender norms in Somalia: A behavioral approach

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An all-girls team taking part in the Choices impact evaluation behavioral games. | © Save the Children Somalia REALM An all-girls team taking part in the Choices impact evaluation behavioral games. | © Save the Children Somalia REALM

In 2018, during the design of an impact evaluation for a gender norms intervention targeting adolescents in Somalia, we were challenged to address potential concerns in the measurement of changes in attitudes and norms. The key concerns were that any self-reported survey findings may reflect some social desirability bias rather than changed attitudes; and that it may be difficult to directly link survey responses to specific behaviors. To overcome these issues, we decided to complement our survey data with behavioral games , drawing on innovative ideas from the field of social psychology. This approach provided us with valuable insights.

Our new working paper, titledRebel with a Cause: Effects of a Gender Norms Intervention for Adolescents in Somalia presents the results of the impact evaluation of Choices, a gender norms program aimed at girls and boys aged 10-14 years in Somalia, implemented by Save the Children for both in- and out-of-school adolescents.

An Innovative Approach

To investigate the shifts in attitudes and norms, we adopted an experimental approach inspired by the renowned social psychologist Solomon Asch, whose work highlighted the impact of group dynamics on individual judgments. We adapted Asch's experiments to assess conformity in gender attitudes among adolescent peers, both in private and public settings. This approach allowed us to explore how gender attitudes might differ when expressed privately versus publicly and to establish a causal link between the gender norms program and observed behaviors in our study sample.

The Methodology

We conducted 50 sessions during the endline survey, with each involving 20 adolescents, equally divided between boys and girls, from both treatment and control groups. In these sessions, participants were initially randomly grouped into teams with varying gender compositions and were asked to select leaders and deputies for their teams. Subsequently, each adolescent privately responded to three gender attitude statements and participated in two line-matching games, similar to traditional self-reported survey questions. These exercises were then repeated within their teams, enabling participants to publicly express their gender attitudes and line choices, which could potentially deviate from their private responses.


Infographic of boys vs girls group

Our study primarily focused on conformity as a behavioral outcome, measuring the likelihood of adolescents changing their privately held gender attitudes when placed in groups of peers of the same or opposite sex and when expressing their attitudes publicly.  We also considered position effects and potential peer effects from teammates who attended the Choices program.

Key Findings

Positive Program Impact: The Choices program had a positive impact on privately reported gender-equitable attitudes among both boys and girls.

Gender Composition Matters: Adolescents adjusted the attitudes they expressed within a social peer group, demonstrating significant social influence based on the gender composition of the group. Boys tended to endorse more gender-equitable responses when girls were present in their teams, while the opposite was true for girls.

Public Expression: Choices program participants were more likely to publicly express their gender-equitable views, even when facing opposing opinions within their teams. This suggests the potential for significant long-term implications for life choices related to education, employment, marriage, and fertility.

Dynamics Specific to Gender: Importantly, we found no evidence of the program influencing the desire to conform, as indicated by the line-matching game. This supports the notion that the observed social dynamics specifically relate to gender attitudes and norms taught by the program, rather than conformity/rebellion in a broader sense.

Broader Implications

Our results have broader implications for understanding various forms of social influence. We encourage further research to explore social dynamics with alternative reference groups, shedding light on the complexities of how society shapes attitudes and norms. By employing an innovative blend of social psychology and field research, we have uncovered valuable insights into the delicate dance between individual beliefs and social expectations, particularly concerning gender norms in Somalia. 

We would like to acknowledge and thank David Evans who was instrumental in shaping our approach to the evaluation.


Niklas Buehren

Senior Economist, Gender Innovation Lab, World Bank

Rajdev Kaur Brar

Consultant, Gender Innovation Lab, World Bank

Sreelakshmi Papineni

Economist working at the Gender Innovation Lab

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