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International Women’s Day 2018: gender norms and gender justice

Written by Rachel George

The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have rallied public debate on gender roles and abuse of power. These debates, though critical, are hardly new – they’re just getting louder.

We have known for a long time that patriarchal regimes and gendered power imbalances constrain the rights and opportunities of women and girls. It is widely acknowledged that women and girls face particular harm from damaging gender norms and unequal power dynamics. This harm includes, but certainly isn’t limited to, early and forced marriage, violence and unequal access to education, employment and health services.

Gender norms – the social norms of masculinity or femininity that express expected behaviour – often reflect and cement inequitable gender relations. International Women’s Day and this year’s vibrant social media campaigns provide an opportunity to consider the role of harmful social and gender norms, as well as what we can do to address them.

Here are some key things to keep in mind.

Adolescents and young people are particularly vulnerable

While harmful and discriminatory gender norms can impact all people of all ages, adolescents and young people are impacted in particular ways. Adolescence is a decisive time, as boys and girls transition from childhood to adulthood their roles in the family and community often change suddenly. As developmental changes occur, peers and adults often begin to treat young people differently based on their gender. Girls, for example, can suddenly have their mobility restricted, be forced into early marriage, and prevented from going to school. This can adversely affect a young person’s wellbeing, including their psychosocial wellbeing, in a range of ways. Yet adolescence is also a time of opportunity; mentorship, education and life-skills programmes can help positively impact young peoples’ expectations, behaviours and trajectories.

Gender norms can, and do, change

Just like societies, social and gender norms change over time. Change can occur quickly, or slowly, it is often non-linear and can prompt resistance or backlash. Multiple factors can alter gender norms, including economic development, urbanisation, migration, conflict or disaster, and the spread of communications technology. Change may be influenced by deliberate efforts to encourage it, such as new laws, policies or programmes or social and political activism.

Recent research in Ethiopia, Nepal, Viet Nam and Uganda has identified recent changes in gender norms. The research indicated that girls and women in these countries are increasingly seen as having potential beyond marriage, motherhood and farm work. In Uganda, parents, grandparents and young men aspiring to marry are placing greater value on girls’ education. Increasing numbers of girls are attending school, and for longer, often until the end of lower secondary schooling. Traditional ideas about masculinity are also changing, slowly giving way to more egalitarian ideas. In Nepal, some boys reported wanting to be more supportive husbands and fathers compared to older generations. In Ethiopia, husbands are increasingly reporting that a willingness to make joint decisions with wives is seen as a desirable trait.

Certain practices, policies and interventions can be useful for challenging harmful gender norms

One discrete practice or policy won’t shift gender norms entirely but there is growing evidence that avenues exist for supporting positive changes and tackling harmful attitudes. Media, for example, can help by generating opportunities for people to reflect and discuss ideas. The GREAT project in Uganda used a serial radio drama series to effectively promote more gender equitable attitudes and behaviours. Legal change can also offer important support – particularly if it builds on existing changes in behaviour or attitudes to help shape new standards to which people are held to account. ODI’s research shows that, in Ethiopia, public awareness campaigns in support of new laws prohibiting children under the age of 18 from marrying helped curb the practice of child marriage.

Engaging men and boys matters

Norms of masculinity can sometimes condone sexual harassment and violence, and changing these can cause friction and harm when they lead to perceived losses in status. Empowerment programmes that only engage women and girls often have limited impact. Initiatives such as Promundo’s Programme H and Save the Children’s ‘Choices’ programme have demonstrated that working with men and boys can shift beliefs about gender norms and reduce gender-based violence. GAGE research is considering how engaging men and boys in critically reflecting on gender can help improve efforts to support more equitable relations.

IWD 2018: moving forward

The current world-wide social media focus creates an opportunity to consider the global perspective. This issue impacts people in all societies and is compounded when it intersects with other areas – including age, disability, race, sexual preference or gender identity. With the conversation on gender and power gathering pace and increasing in volume we are presented with a unique opportunity to capture the attention of those in power – leveraging media attention to thrust harmful gender norms into the spotlight and hold people to account.

This International Women’s Day must focus attention on gathering evidence so we can better understand how to influence norms globally and achieve sustainable gender justice.