How do gender norms change?

August 2015
Rachel Marcus and Caroline Harper with Sophie Brodbeck and Ella Page
Because societies and economies change over time, so do gender norms. Change in gender norms can be so slow that people hardly notice change or very rapid. This Research and practice note outlines some of the main drivers of norm change, including broad processes such as economic change or the spread of communications technology, or by government-led action, such as law or policy reform or the spread of education. Drawing on case studies from Uganda and Ethiopia, the Note also explores individual factors affecting norm change, including an individual’s economic situation, which may affect their room for manoeuvre or willingness to adopt new norms and practices.

The note outlines some of the main changes identified in relation to norms around child marriage and girls’ education, based on primary research in Ethiopia, Nepal, Uganda and Viet Nam. In all four countries, it was clear that shifts in these two areas reflected a wider set of changing norms and values, as well economic transformations and the effects of policies and programmes.  It was also striking how connected these different forces were: for example, a changing sense of possibilities for girls’ futures is contributing to girls attending school past puberty in many of the research communities; this is also driven by government investment that has increased the availability and reduced the costs of education, and by (in some countries) growing demand for educated wives, so that social pressures towards marriage in mid-adolescence have started to wane.