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How Changing Social Norms is Crucial in Achieving Gender Equality

United Nations Population Fund




Influencing Gender Norms

Gender equality Gender norms Social norms Influencing gender norms

How Changing Social Norms is Crucial in Achieving Gender Equality

How Changing Social Norms is Crucial in Achieving Gender Equality

Released by the United Nations Population Fund, this document presents some of the most promising strategies for changing social norms and achieving gender equality. A greater understanding of the conceptual background of social norms and norms change provides a schematic – a skeleton outline – for social transformation. The compendium presents the tested processes of social norms change and a programme design framework, as applied to programming to end female genital mutilation. These processes are iterative, simultaneous and self-reinforcing and can be applied to other thematic areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Key Points

  • Changing social norms is about real-life situations and experiences, and it also involves theoretical concepts with which some people may not be familiar. T
  • How do we change harmful social practices, abandon old social norms, and/or adopt beneficial new ones? Two key principles apply: i) Enough people have to believe that enough other people are changing their behaviour, and ii) Seeing is believing.
  • In contrast to individually held attitudes or beliefs, a social norm is defined by “shared” beliefs – expectations – about a behaviour or practice.
  • Discriminatory gender norms are upheld not only through the behaviour rules in everyday life that children quickly internalize – at home, at school, in the workplace, at markets and in other public places – but also by wider social institutions.



  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
    • The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
    • Background
    • General observations
  • Changing maladaptive social norms
    • Amplifying the issue of “changing maladaptive social norms” to gender norms transformation
    • Three main clusters of gender ideologies
  • Conceptual background and illustrative case studies
    • The definition of social norms and the concept of expectation
    • Diagnosing a social norm
    • Khadija’s dilemma and the power of social sanctions: an illustrative case study of the conceptual background
    • Attitudes do not correlate with practices
    • Pluralistic ignorance, or the systematic bias in the information people reveal to each other
    • The spread of social norms through relevant social networks/reference groups
    • Social norms and fertility transition: an illustrative case study on the conceptual background
    • Three regulatory systems and associated emotions
  • The process of social norms change and illustrative case studies
    • Abandoning old social norms and adopting beneficial ones
    • The power of value deliberations:an illustrative case study of the process of change
    • Designing a media message to entertain and educate:an illustrative case study on the process of change
    • Saleema: unharmed, intact, pristine:an illustrative case study on the process of change
    • Shifting to daughter preference in one generation:an illustrative case study on the process of change
  • A theory of change
    • Adherence to a new behaviour
    • Creating space for discussion with governments, institutions and services, and public declarations
    • Promoting positive change regionally and globally
    • A move towards resonance and amplification
  • Recommendations
    • Social norms and gender rules
    • Enhancing the capabilities of individuals
    • Context is crucial
    • Conclusions
  • Figures
    • Descriptive and injunctive norms
    • Diagnostic process for identifying collective behaviour
    • Interactive shift of attitude and coordinated shift of practice
    • Prevalence of versus support for FGM among women aged 15–49 years old
    • Social networks representing intermarrying communities
    • Social norms change: programme design framework
    • Creating a new norm first, and then abandoning the old one
    • Sex ratio at birth changes in the Republic of Korea, 1980–2014
    • Key outcomes of FGM programming
    • Factors in the abandonment of an old norm and creation of a new norm
    • Factors that contribute to continuing or abandoning FGM
    • Social norm formation at the global and regional level
    • Movement to accelerate the abandonment of FGM
    • Table 1. Co-existence and harmonization of law, morality and culture
    • Seeing is believing
    • Human behaviour may not be choice-based
    • Hidden gender dynamics and exercise of agency
    • Girls and economic vulnerability
    • Girls and emphasis on purity
    • Norms’ activation is usually an automatic process
    • Social norms are unwritten rules
    • Punishment and a person’s sensitivity to the norm determine compliance
    • A mother’s story: challenges faced by those who begin the process of change
    • Attitude is meant to be an evaluative disposition
    • Pluralistic ignorance: definition
    • Pluralistic ignorance: a belief trap
    • Comments on Figure 6
    • Understanding a social practice
    • Change may take place at intervals
    • Censuring the abusers
    • Importance of language
    • FGM terminology: from shame to pride
    • Public declaration of Tutti Island, Sudan
    • An important hypothesis
    • Norms reproduce underlying gendered relations of power
    • Economic vulnerability and dowry


This document was originally published on the UNFPA website.

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