Why gender norms?

Our community of practice and learning is intended to share experience and knowledge on how gendered norms change, with the aim of enhancing policy and practice and thereby wellbeing outcomes for adolescents and young women.  

This is obviously a very large question which can be informed by multiple perspectives, some of which we will explore as this platform develops. Here we outline why we think the increasing interest and energy to address harmful and discriminatory gendered norms are important in the ongoing story of the fight for well-being and gender justice:

The term ‘norms’ is not new, but its increased usage in development circles is certainly new.  Many now working to change norms would previously have used somewhat different terms to describe this area of work including: discrimination; unequal social relations; unequal gendered power relations; patriarchy; oppression of women or identity based oppression; or gendered inequality, being a few.

However, the term norms does not mean one thing to all people. There are a wide range of scholars using the term social norm from economists to the behavioural sciences and whose interests in norms have not necessarily focused on gender equality or power relations, but have emerged from a focus on harmful attitudes or behaviours. 

For the purposes of introduction to this platform we highlight the emergence of this term within the development lexicon as an important step in recognising that action to change gender inequitable beliefs, behaviours and practices are a valid endeavour for civil society, for governments, for donors and for other actors seeking well-being and equality outcomes for women and girls.

This willingness to address norms may signal a more open approach to sensitive and contextually complex issues, which in previous decades were simply put to one side as ‘too complex’, or more defensively ‘our culture’.  The relationship of international human rights to the issue of gender norms is, we think, an important one as governments who are signatories to human rights agreements cannot deny the legitimacy of enquiry and action on discriminatory and harmful norms.

It is imperative to work towards clarity on what we mean by norms, and the related change processes around gendered social norms, for two main reasons:  

  • Firstly, to keep this issue of gender norms, (however it is termed over time), firmly on the policy and practice agenda 
  • Secondly, and of equal importance, changing the core beliefs, behaviours and practices which uphold and perpetuate gender inequalities, is a sustainable way of making change happen in pursuit of social justice and gender equality