Global Resources

Gender justice and social norms - processes of change for adolescent girls

Author: R. Marcus, C. Harper
Publisher: Overseas Development Institute
Publication Date: Jan 2014

This publication presents the analytical framework for the current phase (year two) of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) DFID-funded multi-year policy research programme, ‘Transforming the lives of adolescent girls’, which explores gender justice for adolescent girls in Ethiopia, Nepal, Uganda and Viet Nam. The current phase of this programme explores the changes and continuity in norms related to education and early marriage, along with a systematic-style review of the impact of communication and media activities on a wider set of discriminatory gender norms affecting adolescent girls.

This conceptual framework paper integrates an understanding of what gender norms are, and how they are experienced; an analysis of the broader or structural forces that create conditions in which gender norms and practices either are entrenched or can change in a more gender-egalitarian direction; and an understanding of the social psychological processes by which gender norms change. These three elements form the building blocks for the conceptual framework for the current phase of the programme, which focuses on how gender norms change and the processes that lead to these changes.

The following key messages are highlighted:

· No one theoretical perspective on norm maintenance and change fully captures the processes and range of factors that hold gender norms in place or underpin change in particular situations. It is productive to combine insights from analysis of structural processes that facilitate norm change, studies of social convention and conformity, and analysis of agency and resistance.

· Social norms are part of the way in which gendered power inequalities are maintained. Analysis of these power inequalities is thus vital for understanding different groups’ capacity to challenge norms.

· Processes of norm change can be rapid and abrupt or incremental and unnoticed, or somewhere in between.

· Since gender norms are often held in place by several factors simultaneously, challenging discriminatory norms frequently requires action on more than one factor simultaneously.

· The vast majority of the world’s population lives in contexts affected by large-scale structural changes, such as globalisation, increasing access to education, and the rapid spread of communications technology, which can profoundly affect gender norms. While these are largely leading to more egalitarian gender norms, such changes can evoke resistance movements which asset discriminatory gender norms.

[adapted from the author]