Gender and social norms

What's the issue?

Social norms are unwritten rules that regulate acceptable behaviour in a group. Certain norms can increase HIV-associated risk, as well as other sexual outcomes. They can, for instance, increase risk of transmission by reducing condom use, or increase vulnerability by increasing likeliness of sexual violence. 

Gender-related social norms define what is expected of a woman and a man in a given group or society; they are both embedded in institutions and nested in people’s minds. They play a role in shaping women’s and men’s (often unequal) access to resources and freedoms, thus affecting women’s and men’s voice, agency and power. 

Empirical evidence suggests social norms have an influence on various health-related actions (drinking alcohol, condom use, child marriage, sexual violence and intimate partner violence). Structural drivers of HIV are influenced by (and influence) social norms. 

The STRIVE consortium has examined the ways in which social norms intersect with other structural drivers of HIV to increase the risk of HIV infection including: 

  • women’s ability and willingness to leave abusive relationships
  • the ability of young people to resist alcohol advertising and promotion
  • the degree to which girls receive parental support to complete secondary school
  • the impact of stigma on individuals’ willingness to disclose their status.

What have we found?

  1. Social norms are unwritten rules that regulate acceptable, appropriate and obligatory actions in a given group or society
    In order to understand and, ultimately, shift harmful social norms, a shared definition is necessary. STRIVE has worked to conceptualise what social norms are and how they operate and has contributed to and built on efforts to achieve a unified and practical approach to social norm change.

  2. In research, monitoring and evaluation practices, it is important to capture social norms adequately in order to design change interventions and to track norms change over time
    Identifying the operating norms up front is critical to focus programmatic efforts on the right issue and/or to enable practitioners to adapt the programme. In STRIVE research studies, we learned how different (and sometimes contrasting) norms can interact to drive people’s practices. For example, in the Samata study in India, we learned that norms around girls’ sexual conduct might act as a barrier to their going to school.

  3. Not taking gender norms into account in designing an intervention can increase harm
    Social norms interventions do not exclusively aim at changing harmful norms. When there is no social norm sustaining a harmful behaviour, practitioners can help people create a new positive norm. Effective change strategies must extend beyond just changing norms, considering the whole framework of factors that contribute to sustaining a harmful behaviour. 

What impact have we had?

STRIVE’s work has contributed to research and interventions on social norms, and to funding to pursue them. An influential three-day STRIVE workshop on social norms brought together conceptual thinkers, programmers and practitioners, intervention evaluator and funders to explore the utility of applying a social norms perspective to intimate partner violence, child marriage and other social issues; catalyse a dialogue between practitioners who are seeking to transform norms and thinkers who are developing and testing social norms theory; build capacity to incorporate a social norms perspective when designing programmes and to capture shifts in norms as part of programme evaluation. A number of initiatives were seeded as a result of this workshop.

Key resources