Changing Norms for Gender Equality

by Jeni Klugman

As we mark the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, 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, as documented by the recent No Ceilings report launch by Secretary Clinton and Melinda Gates.

Well into the twenty-first century, we are still in a world where millions of women and girls have no say over when, whether, or how many children to have, are unable to buy or inherit land, are stuck in badly paid occupations, and, in their hundreds of millions, have been battered by their husbands. These are all deprivations that violate basic human rights and hold back development.

It is 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 powerfully again and again: adverse gender norms that define what is deemed acceptable behavior and desirable attributes, as well as aspirations and expectations, for women and men, girls and boys. These gender norms affect both day-to-day behavior and major life decisions, and their negative impact is compounded for women already experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage, like poverty and lack of education.

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 theireighteenth birthday, and often much earlier.  Norms that do not expect girls to finish school, and that confine women to the most arduous and least 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 formalize discrimination and women’s second-class status. These laws can prevent women from being able to sign contracts without their husbands’ permission, or inherit land, for example. Other laws fail to criminalize 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 behaviors, and secure much better outcomes for girls and women, like reduced rates of genital cutting and domestic violence.  More generally, school education, especially secondary and beyond, can be a game-changer.

Sometimes good news can come in the aftermath of conflict. Indeed qualitative research suggests that norms can change relatively quickly, as traditional roles and expectations are disrupted because women take on more responsibilities outside the home. However, armed conflict and associated economic stress can threaten men’s sense of masculinity in ways that increase the risk of violence. It is also true that some of the most adverse norms prevail in post-conflict societies, like in Timor Leste, where ninety percent of women think it is okay to be beaten by their husband, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the figure is seventy-seven percent.

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 development 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, we can surely expect many good things to follow—not only for women and girls, but for everyone.

About the Author

Jeni Klugman is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard University, where she is teaching a course on gender inequality and development. She was gender director at the World Bank until July 2014, and previously served as director and lead author of three global Human Development Reports published by the UNDP. She sits on several boards and panels, including those related to the World Economic Forum and the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities. She holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the Australian National University and postgraduate degrees in both Law and Development Economics from the University of Oxford where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

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