Julie Thekkudan, who is leading the Gender Justice programme at Oxfam India, explains gender-based social norms in India.
What is a social norm?
A social norm is a shared belief on what others in a group actually do (i.e. what is typical behaviour); what others in a group think they ought to do (i.e. what is appropriate behaviour). These social norms, often unspoken, shape the expectations within a group of people, which act as a reference for all. An example of a social norm that is widely prevalent, yet never openly discussed, is the fact that a good woman should respect her husband’s authority. This norm is what both men and women base themselves on and when this expectation is not met, there is high acceptance of violence from both men and women.
Can you explain how these norms came into being?
We live in a patriarchal world, where most decisions are made by the men in the family. If you step outside the family and look at communities or for that matter the polity, the decision-making power mostly lies with men. This automatically leads to the assumption that women and girls have lesser value in society, communities and families. This de-valuing of women and girls has an impact on the actual practices that exist in society, be it in posh parts of Delhi or rural Tamil Nadu.For example, the preference for a son results in sex-selective abortion and a skewed sex ratio; demand for dowry; limited access of girls to education and sometimes even poor nutrition for girls.
Why is it important to address social norms as a problem?
Gender inequality which often leads to violence against women and girls is a complex phenomenon. It is difficult to hold one single factor responsible for it. Our textbooks show images of women in the kitchen and men as farmers, but in reality women constitute over 40% of the agricultural labour in India. Our advertisements have shown that women need to be fair skinned to attain success in life. Our films send signals to impressionable young boys that by stalking a girl, they can get a girl to fall in love with them. So all these factors are linked in perpetuating gender inequality and violence against women and girls. Without changing these unwritten rules and expectation, we will not be able to make much progress. If we want to achieve gender equality, women need to be valued as much as men.
How can we change social norms?
The first step towards this change is to be aware of the existing social norms. Second would be to acknowledge them as a problem. Third and final step is to address them in a constructive manner. All of this is possible if we- on an everyday basis- question existing attitudes, norms and behaviours. The end result to changing social norms is really a behavioural change of individuals and groups. We, at Oxfam India, are trying through grassroots programmes and campaigns to not only challenge these norms but at the same time, enable an environment to form new positive norms.
How soon can we hope to achieve this change?
A change in social norm is a long term process, as it is a change in behaviours of individuals and collectives. This involves a great deal of self-reflection and honesty, something that is not easy to do in a short span of time. When a critical mass of individuals displays changed behaviour that is when social norms will change. That’s our goal.