Discriminatory social institutions are “formal and informal laws, social norms and practices that restrict or exclude women and consequently curtail their access to rights, justice, resources and empowerment opportunities” (OECD Development Centre, 2014).
Social norms act as powerful prescriptions for how women and men should behave and what is expected of them. They interact with legal norms. For instance, even when women are legally allowed to own property, they may not due to social stigma towards women’s property ownership (World Bank, 2014).
While social norms have long been overlooked by public policies, they are now part and parcel of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in September 2015. SDG 5 “Achieve Gender Equality and Empower all Women and Girls” focuses on social institutions such as unpaid care work, violence against women, early marriage and women’s political participation (Nowacka, 2015).
Social norms as an underlying driver of gender inequality
A considerable body of research indicates that the persistence of discriminatory social norms throughout the world remains a major obstacle to achieving gender equality.
Social norms which consider the mother as the caretaker in the home are one major reason why women spend on average three times more of their time than men on unpaid domestic work (OECD Development Centre, 2014), with obvious consequences on their employability.
Social norms attributing more value to boys than girls drive son bias and selective abortions, leading to a deficit of female population in the countries concerned. There are an estimated 90 million missing women worldwide, most of them in China and India (OECD Development Centre, 2014).
Social norms can also legitimise domestic violence. Globally, 35% of women consider that violence from their spouses may be justified “under certain conditions” (OECD Development Centre, 2014).
Social norms confining women to the private sphere limit their political participation. On average, only one in five parliamentarians in the world is a women (OECD Development Centre, 2014)
Measuring the impact of social norms on development
The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) elaborated by the OECD Development Centre (2014) aims to capture and measure gender-based discrimination in social institutions − social norms, practices and laws − across 160 countries.
The SIGI examines five dimensions of social institutions that affect the life course of a girl and woman:
- Discriminatory family code
- Restricted physical integrity
- Son bias
- Restricted resources and assets
- Restricted civil liberties
For each of these dimensions, the index looks at the gaps between women and men in terms of rights and opportunities as reflected in data on legislation, practices and attitudes (OECD Development Centre, 2014).
The SIGI data demonstrates that, despite significant gains in recent years, discriminatory social institutions remain widespread in all regions of the world. Above all, they result in negative domino effects on women’s development pathways throughout their life cycles. Early marriage, for example, affects the education of girls and thus the employment opportunities of adult women. Early pregnancy leaves lasting marks on women’s health. This shows how gender gaps in social institutions translate into gender gaps in development outcomes, with high costs not only for women’s empowerment but also for economies at large (OECD Development Centre, 2014).
While social norms have long been regarded as a permanent and untouchable fixture, recent research (see for instance World Bank, 2014; Jones & al, 2010) shows on the contrary that it is possible to change them when they cause harm. From this perspective, a study of the OECD Development Centre (2013) outlined several leads to guide public policies intended to transform discriminatory social norms, such as:
- Legal reforms aimed at ensuring the equality of men and women before the law.
- Economic incentives and other strategies geared towards women’s economic empowerment.
- Community mobilisation, awareness raising and education at the local level.
Example of community-based mobilisation: the Samburu Women Trust in Kenya
At age 7, Jane Meriwas narrowly escaped a forced marriage. In her Samburu community of Northern Kenya, girls were traditionally seen as a resource for their families, with parents receiving cattle in exchange for the union. With the help of a local priest, the girl managed to avoid the early marriage her family was planning for her. She was able to go to school and graduated from university.
Today Jane, who is now an adult, heads the Samburu Women Trust, an NGO that fights against early marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM) among pastoralist communities in her region (High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2010). Through a network of indigenous women’s organisations, the NGO promotes culturally sensitive approaches based on advocacy, mutual support among women and education to fight from within the social norms that subjugate women (Samburu Women Trust, 2015).
World Bank (2014), Voice and Agency. Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity, World Bank, Washington, www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/Gender/Voice_and_agency_LOWRES.pdf.
OECD Development Centre (2014), Social Institutions and Gender Index. 2014 Synthesis Report, OECD Publishing, Paris, www.genderindex.org/sites/default/files/docs/BrochureSIGI2015.pdf.
OECD Development Centre (2013), “Transforming social institutions to prevent violence against women and girls and improve development outcomes“, Issues Paper, OECD Development Centre, Paris, www.oecd.org/dev/poverty/OECD_DEV_Policy Brief_March 2013.pdf.
High Commissioner for Human Rights (2010), “From herding goats to protecting women’s rights”, www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/WomensRights.aspx, webpage consulted on 13 November 2015.
Jones, N., Harper, C. et Watson, S. (2010), Stemming girls’ chronic poverty: Catalysing development change by building just social institutions, Chronic Poverty Research Center, Manchester, www.chronicpoverty.org/publications/details/stemming-girls-chronic-poverty.
Nowacka, K. (2015), “How to make the SDGs walk the talk about gender equality and women’s empowerment”, OECD Development Centre, Paris, www.oecd.org/dev/development-posts-gender-equality.htm, webpage consulted on 24 November 2015.
Samburu Women Trust (n.d.), website, www.samburuwomentrust.org/?page_id=26, consulted on 24 November 2015.
Ferrant, G., Nowacka, K. et Thim, A. (2015), “Living up to Beijing’s vision of gender equality: Social norms and transformative change”, Issues Paper, Centre de Développement de l’OCDE, Paris, www.oecd.org/dev/development-gender/BeijingPolicyBrief_Final_wreferences.pdf
UNFPA (2008), State of the World Population 2008: Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights, United Nations Fund for Population, New York, http://www.unfpa.org/publications/state-world-population-2008#sthash.iTDbVHZ4.dpuf
OCDE (2012), Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, Editions OCDE, Paris, http://www.oecd.org/gender/closingthegap.htm
UNESCO (2014), Gender Equality, Heritage and Creativity, UNESCO Publishing, Paris, http://www.uis.unesco.org/Library/Documents/gender-equality-heritage-creativity-culture-2014-en.pdf