Challenging what’s normal
During a recent speech on gender equality while visiting Cuba, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau declared that “the hardest thing to change in a society is what is considered normal.” She went on to ask whether it is normal “to face the daily language of violence towards our bodies, our minds, our hearts?”
Unfortunately, for millions of women and girls worldwide, it is.
At least 1 in 3 women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence perpetrated by a partner; half of women victims of homicide are killed by their partners or family members; 1 in 5 women were abused as girls; and tens of millions of girls every year are at risk of female genital mutilation, early or forced marriage, and sexual violence while traveling to or from school.
“The hardest thing to change in a society is what is considered normal.” – Sophie Grégoire Trudeau
Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, women’s rights advocates and allies worldwide launch the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, a time to galvanize action to end all forms of violence rooted in gender inequality.
Together with our partners in Canada and around the world, Oxfam Canada works to raise awareness of the role that social norms play in contributing to gender-based violence. Social norms are collectively-held and often unsaid beliefs about what people do and should do. For instance, in many countries it is commonly believed – by both men and women – that domestic violence is a normal part of married life, and that girls must have their genitals cut in order to be acceptable brides.
Social norms contribute to normalizing violence in Canada as well, where many people believe that men catcall women in the street because “boys will be boys,” or that women shoulder the blame for the 460,000 sexual assaults they experience every year.
Ms. Grégoire Trudeau is right – the hardest things to change are those we consider “normal,” the unwritten rules, what’s engrained in how we think and act. Why focus our efforts on the hardest things to change? Because the laws against gender-based violence in over 125 countries can’t be enforced effectively if they contradict dominant beliefs. Because the influence of social expectations too often outweighs a person’s individual belief that violence and gender inequality are wrong. Because what is learned can be unlearned. And because we can’t shy away from what’s hard if we want to continue to make progress on the right of women and girls to live free of violence.
Today, Oxfam and its women’s rights partners launch Enough, a multi-country campaign to challenge and change the social norms that uphold violence against women and girls. It is spurred by sobering statistics yet inspired by positive stories of change from Oxfam’s work, of women and men who are doing what’s hard.
Komal from India has defied the idea that girls shouldn’t get an education. In doing so, she is also challenging a social norm that supports gender-based violence: that boys should be valued more than girls.
Cheper from Indonesia, reflecting on his own childhood and on marrying a young bride, now works to transform his community’s acceptance of domestic violence and early marriage.
Men and boys are crucial to transforming the social norms that contribute to gender-based violence because they, too, are negatively impacted by what they think society expects of them. In many parts of the world, men are expected to be strong and tough, unemotional, in charge, and the main breadwinners. Although these social norms are slowly changing for the better, many men and boys struggle to live up to these perceived expectations.
As Ms. Gregoire Trudeau aptly put it, the ability of boys “to be able to express their full potential and person… is only possible if they are raised in a culture that celebrates men and women with the same equal rights, freedoms and respects.”
Eliminating violence against women and girls requires the implementation of laws, services and access to justice for women and girls that experience violence, and raising awareness among influential actors and everyday people. Transforming what is “normal” in society – expected, naturalized, unsaid – is the critical piece of the puzzle, and one that we can all help put in place. We can challenge what we hear and see, check our own behaviour and beliefs, and defy expectations that promote gender inequality. And you can help Oxfam and our partners do the same.
“During these 16 Days and always, we are asking you to send courage and hope to women and girls around the world who are living under the threat of violence. In our frontline work, Oxfam has seen the impact of violence against women and girls in the countries where we work. Whether in our own neighborhoods or around the world, what we know for certain is that the underlying beliefs about what are ‘appropriate’ roles for men and women are often a root cause of this violence.
Your support can help increase access to services for survivors of violence and their families, provide women’s economic empowerment through skills-building and entrepreneurship training so they can escape violent situations for good. You can be there with Oxfam as we work to have much needed conversations about social norms that place greater value and worth on men and boys that all too often are used to rationalize violence. You can help make a difference.”