Changing gender norms critical to women’s progress post 2015

by Jeni Klugman
Thursday, 5 March 2015 18:36 GMT

A woman holding a sign that reads "Rape is No Joke" protests as people walk into the Centre In The Square venue where Bill Cosby is performing in Kitchener, January 7, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

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In a world where millions of women – and girls - have no say over so many matters like whether and how many children to have, how can we choose just one to prioritise?

On the eve of this year’s International Women’s Day, we have much to celebrate, from the global progress over the past two decades in reducing income poverty, to the cuts in maternal mortality and boosts in primary school enrolment. Yet we still have so far to go to achieve gender equality around the world, it is difficult to choose one single priority for the post 2015 framework.

In a world where millions of women – and girls -  have no say over when, whether and how many children to have, who are unable to buy or inherit land, who are stuck in badly paid occupations, and who, in their hundreds of millions, have been battered by their husbands, how can we choose just one to prioritise?  These are all deprivations that violate basic human rights and hold back development.  

It is, of course, important to be moving forward with concerted efforts on each of these fronts, to address the glaring gender gaps that persist in education, health, violence, economic opportunities and legal rights.

But when we take a closer look at what is driving all of these deprivations, one factor emerges most powerfully again and again.  Adverse gender norms, which are worst for women experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage, like poverty and lack of education. These norms define what is deemed acceptable behavior and desirable attributes for women and men, girls and boys, as well as their own aspirations and expectations – and affect both day-to-day behavior and major life decisions. 

So what are these norms?  Norms like women themselves saying that it is okay for them to be beaten, having no say over major household decisions, or even their health, and being married before their 18th birthday--and often much earlier.  Norms that mean that girls are not expected to finish school and that confine women to the most arduous and lowest paid jobs.  Empirical evidence shows that these deprivations are extensive -- in Niger, for example, virtually every single woman experiences at least one of these deprivations.

So, to expand the life choices of women and girls as part of the post 2015 vision, it is clear that these norms need to change.   In many countries, this also involves legislative reform, because the laws in place formalise discrimination and women’s second-class status. 

These laws mean, for example, that women cannot sign contracts without their husbands’ permission or cannot inherit land. Some laws fail to criminalise assault within marriage.

But laws alone are not enough.  Working at the community level, programs like Tostan in Senegal and elsewhere, and SASA! in Uganda, are among the growing number of efforts that have engaged local leaders and the grassroots more broadly to bring about changes in norms and behaviours.  These programmes are producing much better outcomes for girls and women, such as reduced genital cutting and rates of domestic violence. Education, especially secondary and beyond, can be a game-changer.

Norms reflect a complex interplay of traditions and attitudes, power and habit.  And more equitable norms can’t be the subject of a simple headline target in the post 2015 framework.  But even if norms can be sticky, they need not be stagnant. If we are all working towards a common normative assumption that all girls and women are equal citizens, with equal rights and expectations, this is not only a major achievement in itself but we can surely expect many good things to follow.

Not only for women and girls, but for everyone.

Jeni Klugman is a Fellow in the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government