Briefing paper
6 November 2023

Social norms, gender and development: A review of research and practice

Author: Tara Patricia Cookson, Lorena Fuentes, Maria Klara Kuss, Jennifer Bitterly
Published by: UN Women
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This discussion paper provides a “state of the evidence” on social norms change within the field of gender and development. The paper presents findings from a scoping review of studies and evaluations of programmatic interventions to shift social norms, as well as insights from a broader body of evidence tracing how social change happens. It answers four questions:

  • What are social norms?
  • How do social norms change?
  • How are social norms measured?
  • What role (if any) should global development organizations play in shifting social norms?

In doing so, the paper traverses a divided evidence base that, on the one hand, does not adequately reflect the varied social, political, and economic drivers behind historical changes in social norms, including the role of women’s and feminist movements, and on the other, grasps the complexity of social norms but does not lend itself to clearly defined theories of action.

Key lessons include:

  • Social norms should be approached as one lever in a broader toolbox of programmatic options.
  • Feminist and women’s rights movements are key agents of social norms change.
  • Sustainable investments in social norms programming requires shifts within development practice itself, including how change is measured.

This paper is part of the UN Women discussion paper series.