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Campaigns for behaviour change

Last edited: January 03, 2012

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Legal and to a certain extent policy/institutional change, on their own, have proven insufficient to reduce violence against women and girls (VAW). Many forms of VAW continue to be widely perceived as private, relatively unimportant matters, or a normal part of life. Campaigns for behaviour change aim to prompt “ordinary people”, as well as those in positions of authority, to change their knowledge, attitudes and practice related to VAW. Behaviour change can contribute to reducing the prevalence of VAW (primary prevention), and to ensuring that VAW survivors protect themselves from further harm (secondary prevention).

Both individual and societal levels need to be addressed to encourage such change (VicHealth, 2005. Review of Communication Components of Social Marketing...). Since the psychological and social processes that prompt behaviour change depend on many factors, different well-established theories emphasize different aspects that are likely to trigger change. One can appeal to people’s minds (cognitive theories) so as to influence their attitude about a certain behaviour (theory of reasoned action), enhance their motivation and opportunities to successfully test a different kind of behaviour (social cognitive theory), or show the risks associated with VAW and emphasize the benefits of ending it (health belief model). One can guide the members of your target audience through a learning (or un-learning) process (stage/step theories), and use the influence of others (social influence, social comparison and convergence theories) to encourage behaviour change. Appealing to people’s emotions (emotional response theories) is also considered a key element in prompting behaviour change. Finally, communication theory traces processes by which a new idea or practice is communicated in society (e.g. diffusion of innovations theory), and how certain aspects of communication influence behavioural outcomes (e.g. input/output persuasion model) (Coffman, 2002. Public Communication Campaign Evaluation,  and O’Sullivan et al., 2003. A Field Guide to Designing a Health Communication Strategy).


  1.  The theory of reasoned action explains behaviour as a result of the person’s intention to perform that behaviour. That intention is influenced by (i) the person’s own attitude towards the behaviour, or (ii) the belief that people important to the person think she/ he should or should not perform the behaviour. Of course, the person’s own ideas are influenced by the society she or he lives in. (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980. Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behaviour)
  2.  Social cognitive theory suggests that self-efficacy—the belief that one has the skills and abilities necessary to perform the behaviour —and motivation are necessary for behaviour change. In other words, a person has to believe she/ he can perform the behaviour in various circumstances and, she/ he has an incentive (positive or negative) to do it (Bandura, A., 1992. Exercise of personal agency through the self-efficacy mechanism).
  3.  The health belief model identifies two factors that influence health protective behaviour: (i) the feeling of being personally threatened by disease, and (ii) the belief that the benefits of adopting the protective health behaviour will outweigh the perceived costs of it.
  4. The stages of change model views behaviour change as a sequenced learning process in five main stages (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance). The model holds that to get people to change their behaviour, it is necessary to determine at which stage they are and then to develop interventions that move them to the following stages (Prochaska, J. et al., 1992. In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviours).


   5.The diffusion of innovations theory traces the process by which a new idea or practice is communicated in society, and which factors influence people’s thoughts and activities in view of adopting new ideas (Ryan and Gross, 1943). 

6. The input/output persuasion model emphasizes the hierarchy of communication effects and considers how certain aspects, e.g. message design, source and channel, as well as audience characteristics, influence behavioural outcomes of the communication (McGuire, 1969).

7. Social influence, social comparison, and convergence theories state that one’s perception and behaviour are influenced by the opinions and behaviour of others, especially when a situation is uncertain (Festinger, 1954; Kincaid, 1987, 1988; Latane, 1981; Moscovici, 1976; Rogers and Kincaid, 1981; Suls, 1977).   

8. Emotional response theories suggest that messages which provoke an emotional response have better chances to prompt behaviour change than those low in emotional content (Clark, 1992; Zajonc, 1984; Zajonc, Murphy, and Inglehart, 1989).

Adapted from Coffman, 2002. Public Communication Campaign Evaluation,  and O’Sullivan et al., 2003. A Field Guide to Designing a Health Communication Strategy.

The advantage of following one of these theories (or combining more than one) in designing a campaign is that one can build the strategy on an established body of research. However, applying these theories is no guarantee for success, as many factors influencing human behaviour are beyond the campaigners’ control. Hence, regular monitoring of the reactions to and outcomes of the campaign is of key importance.



Some common behaviour change campaign approaches based on the theories described above include the following:

  1.  Showing that VAW is a crime that must be stopped: This common campaign type is grounded in the theory of reasoned action. It aims to influence behaviour by making perpetrators, survivors and witnesses of VAW aware of the fact that VAW is unacceptable, and by inviting its audiences to speak up against VAW, seek support or report it.


Example: A replicated example is the Zero Tolerance Campaign, initiated in 1992 by the Edinburgh District Council (UK) with the objectives to raise awareness for the manifestations, effects and extent of violence against women and children (VAW); unmask preconceptions and myths on VAW; show such acts of violence to be criminal offences which must be subject to judicial sanctions; inform victims about their rights and the support that is available; and demonstrate the need for effective legislation. Formative research in three local high schools found that young people aged 12-16 had a high level of tolerance towards violence against women in within marriage, with the majority of the interviewees expressing some likelihood to use violence in their future relationships.

Zero Tolerance developed a strategic principle that is still widely used, the three P’s denoting key areas of intervention to end VAW: prevention (of VAW crimes), provision (of quality support services), and protection (legal protection for women and children).


Source: Rosa Logar, as quoted in EUROWRC, 2000. Prevention of Domestic Violence against Women – Good Practice Models.

 2. Making VAW survivors aware of solutions and encouraging them to take action: This approach, often inspired by the health belief model and social cognitive theory, is essential in secondary prevention. It is usually combined with raising awareness for women’s rights.

Example: The Bursting the Bubble campaign is an initiative of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria (Australia), a government-funded service for people affected by domestic violence. The campaign uses the internet to reach teenagers who have witnessed physical domestic violence against their mother or stepmother, or who have experienced direct physical, emotional or sexual abuse by a parent or care-giver. The colorful campaign site is designed to “help you to work out what’s okay in a family and what’s not”, and offers guidance as to how teenagers can protect themselves and where they can seek help. 72% per cent of the viewers who participated in an on-line survey stated they would use the tips provided on the website.

A fuller case study is available in E-Campaigning in the Campaign Communications section of this module.

3. Showing that VAW affects the entire society and must be stopped: This approach, also inspired by the health belief model, aims to encourage people who consider they are not directly affected by VAW, to recognize it as a problem that needs to be addressed. It can be an effective element in campaigning for policy/institutional change.

Example: In several countries, studies are available which calculate the cost of VAW for the national economy (e.g. Report by the Australia National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and Children, 2009). The findings from such studies can be usefully integrated in this type of campaign.

For similar studies, see the Costs and Consequences section of Programming Essentials Module on this site.

4.    Addressing perpetrators and encouraging them to change:

Example: A well-known, successful example is the Western Australian Freedom from Fear  campaign, which combined several approaches, showing that domestic violence is a crime that can result in legal sanctions, that spouse abuse also harms children, and that violence-prone men need specialized treatment. This campaign is anchored in the health belief model that seeks to influence the targets by exposing the harmful effects of undesirable behaviour, and offering practical guidance as to how  such potential harm could be averted – in this case, by seeking socio-psychological treatment. Within the first 21 months of the campaign, the Men’s Domestic Violence Helpline received more than 6.000 calls, mostly (64%) from men seeking treatment to stop their violent behaviour.

Source: Gibbons & Paterson, 2000. Freedom from Fear. Campaign against Domestic Violence: An innovative Approach to Reducing Crime.                                    

5. Making change to end VAW appear attractive and rewarding: Social marketing, grounded in the theory of reasoned action, seeks to convince its target audience that adopting a specific behaviour is good for them and appropriate within their society. It has been used extensively in family-planning campaigns, HIV prevention and other health-related issues. Social marketing is considered a highly effective tool in disseminating messages (WHO, 2009. Promoting Gender Equality to Prevent Violence against Women).

Example: The Consent is Sexy campaign was initiated by the South African NGO Nisaa and designed by Adlib Studios in close co-operation with students from the University of Witwatersrand (2009). Posters that can be downloaded from an interactive website show that saying no to non-consensual sex, and respecting a partner’s “no”, can be perfectly “cool”. In order to engage the audience in discussions on consent and to avoid a patronizing tone, the posters ask questions rather than offer ready-made solutions. All poster messages were tested and developed with representative focus groups drawn from the Wits student body. An online survey with college students yielded extremely positive feedback, and comments posted on the site suggest a lively dialogue, which suggests that students are receptive to the campaign message. 

6. Providing models for target audiences to take action to end VAW: All theories outlined above can inform this approach.

Example:  Soul City in South Africa uses a TV soap opera and community-based activities to model constructive ways for communities and individuals to end VAW. In one Soul City TV episode first screened in 1999, neighbors protest against the violent behaviour of a husband by beating their pots and pans near the character’s house. Within weeks, pot-banging to stop partner abuse was reported in several communities in South Africa (Lacayo & Singhal, 2008. Pop Culture with a Purpose! Using edutainment media for social change).

7. Guiding the target audience through a personal development process: A relatively complex campaign approach on VAW consists in provoking and supporting personal development processes for the target audiences to “unlearn” harmful behaviour over an extended period of time. Such campaigns require a mix of mass communication and person-to-person contact.

Example: Raising Voices is among the pioneers of this approach. It is inspired by the “Stages of Change Theory”, which describes the main phases of individual learning processes related to behaviour change. Raising Voices mobilizes communities to obtain commitment from individuals and institutions to ending VAW. A large number of easy-to-use resources – detailed guides, training manuals and audio-visual materials – are available from its website.