Date of Meeting: 17 March 2021

Meeting Organizer: How to Challenge and Change a Social Norm

ISJC Staff Present: Intern Adam Raine 

Reporter: Intern Adam Raine 

Which SDG does this topic cover? 5

Type of meeting: CSW65 

Brief summary of presentation of information made

Gender injustice is deep-rooted in social norms. Social norms are the values defined by a group and to which members of the group are expected to comply, otherwise risking disapproval, marginalisation and/or exclusion. Religion and culture have a strong influence on the definition of social norms, including those relating to gender. At any given moment, many social norms are presented as fixed. This event brings together gender advocates who are challenging and changing social norms to achieve gender justice. Tackling social norms related to Sexual and Gender Based Violence, Women in Leadership, Child Marriage, Political Voting, Masculinities, FGM and Social Protection. 

Opening Remarks – Reverend Bianca Daebs, Anglican Communion

  • Reflected on gender injustice and that religious discourse regarding inferiority of females has fuelled this injustice and led to female subordination being a cultural norm.
  • ‘In churches, the discourse that leads to violence against women and girls gains strength for being lectured in a sacred space’.
  • If the Church wishes to break practices of inferiority and submission (leading to Gender-based Violence; GBV), we need to repent and give testimony of the Gospel of love, grace, forgiveness, and compassion. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic must not be used an excuse.
  • Education is vital, and changes to behaviour is not expected ‘overnight’. - Calls on church to unite in prophetic action to denounce sin and announce hope.

Child Marriage – Dr Vinu Aram, Religions for Peace, Speaking from India

  • One of the collateral impacts of COVID is Gender inequality on the rise.
  • There is a baby boom but not by choice, as reproductive health services are disrupted.
  • COVID-caused rise in domestic violence, reduction in employment, while women make up majority of frontline staff. - Although work has improved status of women in law, this is not necessarily reflected in social norms.
  • In 1970, 75% of women aged between 20-24 were married as children. In 2015, this is 23%. But what does this mean for a family, for people experiencing poverty and powerlessness? This is where we will realise the work still required. 
  • Dialogue brings us together. Allows us to own the project together, blends traditions, does not apportion blame but finds common ground.
  • Social norms built on self-esteem – people want to be included.
  • We need to address the enabling environment, including poverty, marginalisation and lack of representation.
  • Women’s participation in decision-making will be a key component.
  • Non-linear process – patience and hope must never leave us.
  • Feedback process – continued monitoring.
  • Meet globally to come together, but also meet locally as changes are very fragile.

Masculinity – Professor Ezra Chitando, World Council of Churches, Speaking from Southern Africa

  • ‘Boys and Men must not cry’ social norm must be challenged.
  • Problem: When we tell boys they must not cry, we are running the risk of having generations of men who lack emotional literacy. This results in men who are depersonalised, who are not in sync with their inner feeling and behave like machines. We allow men to have one emotion – anger.
  • When toxic masculinity says men are in charge, are leaders and are strong, that is saying women are subordinate and weak. 
  • Men who do GVB lack emotional awareness. They do not feel for themselves, so lack empathy for others. We need boys and men who are in touch with their feelings.
  • Solutions used by World Council of Churches: Bible study – highlighting powerful crying men, including God and Jesus; Partnerships with other civil society organisations; Engage in intergenerational conversations to promote dialogues that challenge social norms; Partner with religious and tradition leaders to create sensitive, passionate and justice seeking men and women.
  • Promote transformational humanity that transcends ideas of masculinity and femininity.
  • New model – where men can struggle and be part of the struggle.

Female Genital Mutilation – Faunstina Nillan, Side by Side, Speaking from Tanzania

  • Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the removal of the external female genital organ.
  • 1/10 women in Tanzania between 15-49 has undergone FGM, 35% of whom underwent FGM under the age of 1.
  • FGM is a tradition and custom – Rite of passage (status of womanhood), eligibility for marriage, wrongly associated with cleanliness, beauty, chastity and fertility.
  • Challenges: Lack of enforcement of anti-FGM laws; Emerging new techniques such as doing FGM to infants; Economic gain, source of income for practitioners.
  • Solutions: Time-travel method – Community transformation through critically identifying and addressing traditions fuelling social norms. Role play of historic events and hypothetical events to identify differences in contexts. Creates reflections and dialogue. Changing individual beliefs changes societal norms; National Policy Campaign regarding ending violence towards women; Alternative rites of passage; FGM practitioner retraining; Supporting Survivors; Community awareness/myth busting; Investigate new practices/procedures.

Political Voting – Dr Angela Haager, Luteran Church Foundation, Speaking from Mexico

  • Provides a brief history of women in Mexican politics. In 1923, women were able to contest the election, with the first elected female receiving death threats.
  • In 1955, women were first allowed to vote, but not all states allowed. Often the women would be required to vote as directed by their husband/father/brother, or prevented from going to vote all-together.
  • Progress was (and is) made by Women joining together in political alliances and organisations to demand change.
  • The role of the Church played (and plays) was to insist on agency of women, but still sees women as ‘mothers first’.
  • It is still a social norm that the political equality is within a patriarchal structure, and that women must join together as a prophetical voice of freedom.

Domestic Violence – Mousumi Saikia, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), Speaking from United Kingdom

  • GBV is at the intersection of faith and gender.
  • In their work on protection, response and prevention, they’ve learn faith as an essential part of community structures – forms the values, political, social and economic identity of these communities.
  • Gender and faith have intersected negatively. Closely related by how scriptures are interpreted by those in power, usually men, used to legitimise patriarchal hierarchies and inequality.
  • Can also be a force for change. Religious leaders have a key role to play because of the trust they have of the community.
  • IRW are using a behaviour change framework focussing on heart, head and hands. Heart – changing attitudes and beliefs of norms rooted in scripture. Head – developing the knowledge and skills, action planning to promote gender justice. Hands – passing on messages through meaningful interaction between faith leaders and community, and in creating a protective environment.
  • As members of the community, faith leaders can have the same prejudices themselves. They therefore need to go through a process of education and change (including scriptural and theological reflection) before they can pass this on to their communities.
  • Organisations are facilitators of change but not agents – faith leaders are. The root causes and structures which allow GBV occur in a private sphere. Therefore, a good knowledge of the social context and sensitivity is needed to promote change from within communities rather than impose an external solution. 
  • Voice of survivors is critically important. 
  • In-depth intersection analysis of community required before starting conversations with faith leaders.

Family Violence – Belinda Lauria, ACT Alliance, Speaking from Australia

  • Millions of women and children around the world are abused and exploited in the places they should feel and be at their safest. Transformational change is required to the social norm that condone and support gender inequality, and violence to women and children. Structural change is required – leaders must change the social norm.
  • Violence is an expression of inequality as is preventing choice/agency of women, such as to own property and employment, as well as silencing children. 
  • Patriarchal religious structures have prioritised keeping the family together over the wishes and safety of women and children. Has contributed to women and children experiencing family violence.
  • Must work systemically to instigate change at national, subnational and community level.
  • Church has played a part in manifesting harmful narratives, underpinned by cultural adaptations of biblical scripture which have been utilised by some to normalise harmful behaviour.
  • However, we are hearing alternative voices countering harmful rhetoric. Faith-based organisations can do this through theologically framed gender equality messaging – using biblical principles to uphold equality, status, and voice of women.
  • For example, Faith Actors and Theologians (partner in Africa) used the Bible to advocate through a theological lens – designed and facilitated by local theologians to be appropriate for context across communities.
  • Alternative perception of male and female roles.
  • The Bible has been taken out of context and cultural adapted over time which is causing harm to women and girls. This has become internalised and institutionalised. Has also impacted on women’s status in the church, and women’s subordination to men. - Faith leaders can help bridge the gap between the global commitment for gender equality and the reality of community practice. Through: enhancing opportunity for women in public spheres; increasing representation in groups such as Anglican Women’s Union. Enhances women’s voice.
  • Engage men, boys and tradition leaders to critically address attitudes.
  • Family violence is a sensitive issue which requires culturally and faith-sensitive methods.
  • Churches need support from gender and protection experts and women’s groups. This will also allow the church to influence secular organisations.
  • COVID has increased family violence, so the need for transformational change is vital. With most of the world hold some religious belief, this can be a vehicle for such change.

Women in Leadership – Dr. Lydia Mwaniki, All Africa Conference of Churches (ACC), Speaking from Kenya

  • We are born male, female or intersex, society teaches us masculine and feminine stereotypes. Men are associated with leadership and strength, where women are associated with weakness, emotion, care taking and subordination.
  • Dr Lydia highlights that her personal story is one which combats the negative social norm surrounding women in leadership. She received education at a time and place when education for girls was not common. She leads men, but is also a mother, grandmother, wife and widow. Her story diversifies norms, encourages women and girls to excel in leadership. As a woman theological, she interprets the Bible in liberating ways for women, and men.
  • Her book (Gender and Imago Dei) shows how religion and culture has been used negatively to marginalise and exclude women from church leadership and offers fresh insights for a liberating reading of the Bible which supports God’s desire for gender equality.
  • ACC has: Engaged with men to create male champions for gender justices and address contextual gender issues issues (last year with Nigeria, Malawi and Uganda, this year with DRC, Cameroon, Benin, and Kenya; Engage with youth – youth representatives from across continent to address and challenge social norms such as FGM and Child Marriage; Engage with religious leaders.

Question and Answer

Q – How can we ensure people breaking social norms are not stigmatised? 

  • Faustina Nillan: Awareness and training on effect of harmful practices. Bridging intergeneration conflict.
  • Vinu Aram: Self-esteem, involve people; Intergenerational dialogue, survivors, those with power, those with future power; Public hearing – groups of women testify with support of other with around them.
  • Faustine Nillan: Changing the narrative from myth to truth.

Q – COVID-19 and how increase in family violence can be tackled

  • Mousumi Salkia: Study in Iraq has led to learning. Consider GBV services essential and keep open (at least virtually) for women and girls to access. Raise awareness with health workers and identify women. 
  • Angela Haager – Women needed in public spaces in civil and religious society. COVID makes it hard for women to meet but it is important that the continue to do so.

Closing remarks – Eric Sanchez, Christian Aid

  • WHO identified 1/3 young women subject to physical/sexual violence, mostly at home from family and/or partner. This doesn’t yet include impact of COVID. Domestic abuse helplines are getting dramatically busier.
  • 10M more child marriages over next 10 years due to school closures and economic hardship due to COVID. Also expecting 2M more cases of FGM over next decade.
  • Social norms sustain these violent practices, accelerated by COVID.
  • Religion and culture have strong influence on defining social norms, including gender inequality.
  • Many social presented fixed, but our panel has challenged that. Interventions that address gender norms, behaviours and inequalities, and challenge notions of masculinity linked with aggressive behaviours are more effective at change social norms that condone violence towards women.
  • Because gender inequality and unequal power relationships are the root cause of GBV, social change which address these root causes is vital at reducing and eliminating GBV.
  • A holistic approach is needed which see change at institutional, community, family, and individual level.
  • At the core should be Women’s right organisations, but allies also needed from men and boys, religious and tradition leaders. 
  • Religious leaders have authority and are role models and are a vehicle to changing beliefs. Worldwide, over 80% of people identify with a religious group. Promoting respectful traditions of girl’s rights, changing laws and social norms that keep women from political participation, using religious texts to address toxic masculinity.
  • Coalitions that bring together many groups, including faith leaders, is key to challenging gender inequality and changing social norms that condone GBV.

What was of particular significance to share with The Salvation Army globally?

The Salvation Army participates in a great variety of communities around the world and has a large scope to addressing gender inequality. We must ensure correct teaching within the church in regards of equality of male and female, while ensuring we are authentic to this position. Salvation Army leaders must acknowledge their role in changing the beliefs of their congregations and communities where these are not true to the scriptural equality of gender and put programmes in place which combat harmful social norms that perpetuate genderbased violence.


Tags: SDG5: Gender Equality