What Are Social Norms, and How Can Understanding Them Help Us Prevent Gender-Based Violence?

The same social rules that keep us from cutting in line at the bank can help us prevent gender-based violence.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

If you pick your nose in a business meeting, chances are there would be swift, negative social feedback ("gross"). If you walk into a bank and people are waiting in line for service, you know to also stand in the line to wait for service, as opposed to, say, running through them like a game of Red Rover.

We all know the rules about nose-picking and queuing; these are clear social norms that can help keep our daily social interactions running smoothly. But social norms may also sanction practices that are extremely harmful, like gender-based violence, experienced by over one in three women throughout the world. In many communities, people consider it to be normal, acceptable behavior, for example, for a husband to beat his wife.

This is where the same social rules that keep us from cutting in line at the bank can help us prevent gender-based violence. First, let's take a closer look at how social norms work:

1. Social norms are the unspoken rules of behavior that are considered acceptable in a group. Research tells us that they are determined by 1) what I think others are doing, and 2) what I believe others think I should do. I wait in line for service because everyone else around me does, and because they think I should, too. I know this because if I skipped the line, I expect that people around me would be none too thrilled and would probably voice their disapproval. Hence, social norms are maintained by our expectations of others' approval or disapproval.

2. When it comes to norm-setting, the people who matter to us and who influence our own behavior are not just anyone, but rather people in our "reference group." Usually, we only care about the people in our community, or those around us in a given situation. This can be people we look up to, e.g., peers, neighbors, trend-setters, parents, and so on. Norms are specific to different cultural and social contexts.

3. We may not be right about what we think other people are doing and thinking. So, social norms are more about our expectations about others than necessarily what they actually do and think. This means we may be able to change individuals' behaviors just by changing their expectations about others, and not the other way around.

So, why do social norms matter for programs aimed at stopping gender-based violence?

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the best ways to end gender-based violence, I'm excited by the lessons and ideas we can draw from social norms theory.

Traditional interventions aimed at behavior change usually target an individual's attitudes and knowledge. However, if a practice is a social norm, then it involves a whole group of people, not just an individual. Emerging evidence shows that individuals' behaviors may be more influenced by what they think others do and think (social norms). So even if you succeed in changing someone's attitudes about using violence, he may still use violence if there is a social norm to do so, due to fear of others' disapproval (e.g., friends teasing him that he is controlled by his wife and not a "real" man). We need to focus on the role of social expectations in determining behaviors.

For CARE, this has important and exciting implications for how we design our program strategies to prevent gender-based violence. A social norms approach points us towards a more nuanced understanding of how positive social change happens, so we can put strategies into place to facilitate that change more systematically.

In Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, CARE and Johnson & Johnson have partnered to pilot strategies to move the needle on social norms that harm women and girls.

In Sri Lanka, CARE is working on seven tea plantations to reduce domestic violence by addressing the social norm of men using aggression and violence against their wives during arguments. CARE and partners are developing a media campaign to "make more visible" equitable gender roles and rejection of violence within households, in order to shift within whole communities what people perceive as "normal" and acceptable.

In Ethiopia, CARE is working with whole communities and married adolescent girls to understand and shift harmful social norms around early marriage.

Given that social expectations are often powerful drivers of behavior, social norms theory offers a promising approach to preventing the use of gender-based violence across contexts.

Editor's Note: CARE is a partner of Johnson & Johnson, which is a sponsor of The Huffington Post's Global Motherhood section.

Before You Go