Raising awareness on social attitudes that lead to violence against women

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Oxfam India introduced its revamped newsletter ‘Voice’ with an issue on gender a year ago. With this fifth edition focussed on gender, it has truly come a full circle as we prepare to launch a four year multi-country campaign challenging gender based social norms.

November really is an auspicious month. I hope all of you had a wonderful Diwali. For Oxfam India and worldwide, the month brings the start of the 16 Days of Activism campaign to end violence against women.

November 25, which is International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, marks the beginning of the campaign that culminates on December 10, International Human Rights Day.

It is still shocking to note that 60 percent of men in India believe that it is fine to beat their wives - citing trivial reasons like not being served a hot meal on time!

In the past, Oxfam India has worked on reducing violence against women, with special focus on domestic violence. But when we delved deeper, we understood that the core issue is that ‘women and girls in India are not valued’.

One of the symptoms of this devaluation is the lack of mobility and access to education for girls in India. But all is not so gloomy. You must have met Jyoti Devi by now. She is a 12-year-old ‘agent of change’, who is leading from the front and ensuring education is safe and accessible for all children in her village in Uttar Pradesh.

Jyoti is our inspiration as we take the first step towards spreading awareness on these gender-based social norms.

The excitement doesn’t end at Diwali this month. Oxfam Trailwalker was back in Mumbai on November 20-22 and in Bengaluru from January 22-24, 2016. I look forward to your support and participation in the ultimate endurance and team challenge, and to doing your bit by walking for equality.

5 Questions / 5 minutes

5 minutes

Julie Thekkudan who is leading Gender Justice programme at Oxfam India talks to us about gender based social norms in India.

What is a social norm?
The fact that women are expected to have babies and take care of the home and the family, while men are expected to be the breadwinners is a good example of a gender based social norm. These are unspoken rules prevalent in our society and are often reflected in how people, especially women and girls, are expected to behave. Social norms are constantly defining appropriate or inappropriate ways of acting or thinking for an individual or a group.

Can you explain how these norms came into being?
Patriarchy, is a good place to start. Ideally, 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 males. This automatically leads to the assumption that women and girls have lesser value in society, communities and families. Preference for a son through sex-selective abortion, dowry or lack of education and nutrition for girls are just some of the ways this norm is practiced.

Why is it important to address social norms as a problem?
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. Such social norms are constantly influencing our thoughts and shaping our behaviour which is why it is important to call them out as a problem. Moreover, if we hope 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 these existing social norms. Second would be to acknowledge them as a problem. Third and final step is to tackle them in a constructive manner. All of this is possible if we on an everyday basis question existing attitudes, norms and behaviour. The end result of change in social norms is really a behavioural change of individuals and groups. We at Oxfam India are trying through grassroot 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 display changed behaviour that is when social norms will change. That’s our goal.

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Written by: Oxfam India staff

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