The Role of Social Norms in Decisions to Provide Schooling to Children with Disabilities

Eastern and Southern Africa

Boy with cerebral palsy, his mom and sister in Zambezi, Namibia


In many Sub-Saharan countries, children with disabilities are the first to suffer from neglect, abuse, and violence and the last to benefit from reforms. Despite conducive legislation and policy environments, programs designed to have all children access education seem not to help them. As part of a much larger cross-regional social norm initiative to address harmful practices, UNICEF’s Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa has pledged to continue the investigation of the social context of disability, having made it a corporate priority.

As a first step, the present UNICEF report is meant to capture the possibility of conceptualizing social norms surrounding disability and provide empirical evidence whether social norms are present in people’s thinking on disability. A broad, context-based model of the social problem of disability was developed first, including components related to social expectations, similar to Bicchieri (2017), but further developing a richer contextual and cultural component. Included are dimensions related to behaviour systems of maintenance and control as well as the survival of behaviour over time. With the help of local governments, the model was then qualitatively tested in Eswatini, Kenya, and Namibia, through ninety focus group discussions, with parents, teachers, children (including those with disability) and local experts in two economically contrasting regions per country.

Qualitative research is best suited to capture how people think about an issue, irrespective of differences in context, and offer input for psychometric assessment in later stages of the initiative. Analyses showed that: (a) widely held practices of actively hiding children with disability are related to three broad social norms: (1) overprotection, (2) a mind-your-own-business demeanour, (3) and avoidance of quick decisions by fathers; that (b) these norms are grounded in mechanisms of social maintenance; and that (c) all three countries show cultural differences in qualities of sociality.

Together, the findings underscore a need for attention to intersectionality in addressing disability, rather than single-issue organizing, particularly when it comes to the combination of disability, culture, gender violence, and poverty. This can be addressed through various C4D strategies including publicizing positive deviants’ successful stories across the s the region.

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Dr Symen Brouwers, UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office
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