Are gender norms the new magic bullet in development?


By Dr Caroline Harper, Head of Programme, Principal Research Fellow, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion, Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

This blog is part of a special series marking the launch of the updated
Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)

Gender-normsThe terms gender and social norms have become increasingly used in development discourse. They focus on the core of discrimination: people’s attitudes and behaviours as held and enacted by individuals, as housed in social institutions, and as codified in formal and informal laws. These attitudes and behaviours push women and girls to the margin of society, leaving them disempowered and often impoverished. But changes in these social and cultural rules are not simply cosmetic; social norms are being actively contested and changed, and these changes have the potential to endure and make a real difference.

However, changing norms, or the rules underpinning discriminatory attitudes and behaviours in our daily lives, can face difficulties on multiple fronts. For one, norm change can look dangerously like a magic bullet for fixing social problems. As work on norm change grows in popularity in the development sector, these efforts risk overlooking the complexity of what works to change norms and the multi-level nature of change that is required. At the same time, others see norm change as too challenging. Efforts to change norms can be difficult, highly political and risk provoking backlash.

So is it worth trying to address norms? And if so what action is required?

The language of norms can be interpreted differently. Some see norms as rules of behaviour at the level of culture or society. Others focus on social norms at the level of the individual, as people’s beliefs about what others expect of them and with norms existing primarily inside the mind. In reality, both interpretations exist at the same time. People constrained by norms are not free to simply change their minds; they are constrained by the power dynamics and institutions that oblige certain behaviours. At the same time, changing people’s minds can lead to shifts in behaviours, such as what edutainment (education + entertainment) and other communications initiatives can engender.

Whilst strategies about what works to change discriminatory or harmful norms are becoming clearer, it is still the case that many feel norms are too complex to address, that they are part of other people’s culture and outside the scope of development activity, or that they capture just the way things have always been. Furthermore, connections between discriminatory norms and progress in areas such as agricultural development, economic growth or improved health outcomes are sometimes hard to articulate.

However, if these discriminatory norms are not addressed, then we will not achieve the aspirations envisioned in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Agricultural progress, for example, is held back by gendered norms that limit women’s property rights, their ability to build skills or limit their time for productive activities since they are constrained by the care economy. These factors also limit the growth of economies since women’s potential to contribute to the workforce is held back. The health of societies is also limited by gendered norms that, instead, drive ill health through the discriminatory attitudes of health providers or gendered exposures to risks and diseases. Educational progress too is limited as the aspirations of girls are marginalised when girls are kept out of school or fail to benefit from female role models.

Addressing norms is vital for sustainable change despite their complexity. Increasingly, we have tools to understand how norms change. Look at the learning platforms and communities of practice, such as the Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms platform. Look at the measurements assessing progress in norm change, such as the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) at the OECD Development Centre. New areas of research on norms related to the care economy and its impact on women’s time use, such as ODI’s research on care work and SIGI’s work on the care economy, or related to how edutainment can lead to change, such as ODI’s research on communications initiatives, help us appreciate the vital levers of progressive change.

Progress is not always one way, of course. As a professional colleague in Uganda highlighted, “Social norms have held women hostage – even when they appear liberated … things we thought we had overcome 20 years ago are now becoming the norm again, and in a more powerful manner.’’ Backlash is a frequent outcome of norm change processes when power holders are challenged to release their control. But overall trends are positive with more women in politics, improved health outcomes and slowly improving economic opportunities. The challenges, however, remain in three fundamental ways:

First, changes in underlying discriminatory attitudes are too slow, and more focused and genuine effort is urgently required. For example, changes in women’s labour force participation have barely shifted. During the 20 year period of 1992 to 2012, the gender gap in labour market participation narrowed by just two percentage points, dropping from 28% to 26%. Worldwide, the chances for women to participate in the labour market remain almost 27 percentage points lower than those for men. In regions where gender gaps in participation have been high, they remain so. Moreover, women continue to be in female-dominated occupations with lower earnings (UN Women, 2015 Secretary-General’s report ).

Second, understanding norm change requires detailed attention to multiple strategies. It is most definitely not a magic bullet, and society-wide changes have to be considered alongside more targeted interventions, such as edutainment initiatives, to change hearts and minds.

Third, attention remains poor on both the full range of gender identities and issues of intersectionality. Recent analysis (forthcoming from ODI’s Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (CPAN)) shows some positive success from initiatives in India, for example. One such initiative worked to end the stigma against women sex workers facing both gender discrimination and a stigma because of their occupation. Another initiative helped Dalit women in informal slums around Delhi facing discrimination on the grounds of gender, caste and class advocate on their own behalf to claim their rights. Mass media initiatives can be powerful at changing intersecting norms because they often present non-discriminatory behaviour skilfully woven into storylines. These ‘show and not tell’ as we see in the case of the Somos Diferentes Somos Iguales soap opera series in Nicaragua. An evaluation of the series found that it led to more positive attitudes on gender equality, to greater acceptance of sexual and gender minorities, and to less discrimination against people living with HIV.

Addressing norms in all these ways — and more — will provide an impetus for sustained change to meet the SDGs. Efforts to improve well-being and alleviate poverty require norm change, and greater research and learning are necessary to forge ahead on more effective, sustainable transformation. Norm change is not the mandate of any one discipline, sector or actor. It is incumbent on us all to recognise how the often hidden and implicit rules of gendered behaviour ultimately hold back sustainable and inclusive development progress that is in our collective and universal best interest.