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Harmful social norms: the last mile for women in extreme poverty?

Addressing harmful norms that keep women in chronic poverty will be necessary for reaching the ‘last mile’ of extreme poverty reduction by 2030. But to have the best chance of success, there are evidence gaps that urgently need to be filled.

In the Thematic Paper The role of social norms in ending extreme poverty (June 2023), DEEP Researcher Amanda Lenhardt states that one of the factors contributing to certain social groups – including women – sometimes being ‘left behind’ by policies and programmes aimed at reducing extreme poverty are the harmful social norms relating to women’s perceived roles in society.

Defining ‘harmful’ social norms

Social norms can provide order and predictability to society, but they can also reflect and reinforce power structures.

As such, they are often too complex to define categorically as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. So for the purposes of this blog – as in the full paper – we’ll refer to social norms as ‘harmful’ when they result in net welfare losses, compared to the welfare that would result from their absence. Language is important when discussing social norms, and efforts to understand their role in poverty reduction need to reflect on how the framing of social norms can be made inclusive and avoid cultural paternalism.

Harmful social norms: a key driver of women’s poverty

Women and girls are more likely to live in poverty than their male counterparts. And harmful social norms appear to be a key driver.

For example, women have a disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic care. According to the UN Women 2015 report, ‘the vast majority of women still work in insecure, informal employment’. Meanwhile, according to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law Report 2023, there are legal barriers that prevent women’s full economic participation in 176 countries.

The problem is not necessarily being fixed. In recent years, an escalation of patriarchal backlash has emerged where ‘gender itself is politicised to create divisive narratives…to create order amidst crises’ (Edström et al., 2023).

Gaps in evidence amidst harmful social norms

When it comes to understanding how to develop solutions for women in poverty, there are gaps and limitations in existing data.

For instance, many studies look at poverty at the level of the household – not at the level of the individual. This means that the disproportionate impact that poverty has on women and girls is often overlooked.

More studies are also needed to understand the underlying drivers of poverty linked to harmful social norms related to gender, particularly in those countries where institutions to address gender discrimination are weakest.

Here are a few further key areas where more data is sorely needed:

Affirmative action: When people from marginalised groups can take part meaningfully in decision making, it can help ensure the interests and needs of their communities are reflected. Likewise, any issues contributing to impoverishment in their communities are more likely to be considered.

We know that quotas and reservations have been introduced to promote the inclusion of specific groups in education, labour markets and political institutions. And we can see evidence of immediate outcomes of affirmative action for some countries – such as women’s representation in politics in India. But few studies explore the transformational impacts of affirmative action policies.

Sensitisation campaigns: Sensitisation campaigns aim to change attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate harmful social norms.

In Rwanda, for instance, sensitisation programmes have been introduced as part of land registration policies, informing officials and communities of women’s rights to land ownership. Rwanda’s land titling reforms have contributed to more formally married women being joint landowners – however they have led to a decrease in informally married women having documented land ownership.

And while Rwanda leads the world in women’s representation in parliament, misogyny and gender discrimination continue to limit women’s agency and decision making.

While some immediate outcomes from these types of programmes have been observed, more transformational outcomes have tended to be neglected or show negligible results.

Lifelong impacts of poverty: Harmful social norms are strongly associated with incidents of families being impacted by poverty for generations. To address this chronic poverty, it’s important to implement policies that engage with the normative structures that keep certain groups in poverty, and tailored programmes that can help prevent it.

Here’s an example of a social norm relating to gender: parents may know that it is beneficial for a child to attend school, but this may be overshadowed by norms that condone child marriage. Parents in poverty who are facing economic or social pressures might lean into these norms, leaving children without formal education at a disadvantage as they enter adulthood.

More longitudinal data is needed that looks at the lifelong impacts of poverty and the markers of chronic poverty among those who experience it over a lifetime.

Deep focus countries: Prioritising new and better evidence

DEEP priority countries are predicted to have some of the highest rates of extreme poverty by 2030. They also rank high on the prevalence of harmful social norms. Compared to other countries, they tend to have weak institutional capacity or commitment to addressing these norms.

When we look at indices that measure the impact of harmful social norms in DEEP focus countries, we can see that some areas stand out for prioritising new and better evidence to investigate how these norms affect poverty reduction strategies. For example:

  • Nigeria ranks highest on the Minorities at Risk index. The country is also predicted to have the highest poverty rate among DEEP focus countries by 2030.
  • Tanzania ranks high on the number of people projected to be living in poverty in 2030 (24 million in extreme poverty) while ranking low on indices for gender equality. Significant policy reforms and programming to address the social norms are needed here.
  • Bangladesh ranks lowest on the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) among DEEP focus countries, suggesting a greater focus on gender discrimination is needed to support women and girls to escape poverty.

Reaching the last mile

As well as the evidence gaps outlined above relating to ending extreme poverty for women, there are even broader questions around the relationship between social norms and poverty that need to be tackled.

For instance, there is a lack of evidence on how addressing harmful social norms could contribute to ending extreme poverty – and on how failure to do so may make efforts to end poverty untenable, or worse, result in a backlash towards women.

We know that harmful social norms can be relevant to a host of characteristics, and the risk of impoverishment due to harmful social norms is, in fact, greatest when marginalised group identities intersect – from socioeconomic status to geographic location; race, caste, and ethnicity; sexuality; and disability.

Few evaluations of social norms initiatives present disaggregated results for different social groups. Likewise, most national-level or internationally comparable data don’t disaggregate findings for relevant social groups.

To reach that critical ‘last mile’ of poverty, we collectively need more evidence on the impact of harmful social norms facing these intersecting inequalities. DEEP is committed to continuing to build evidence, insights and solutions to help make this happen.

Learn more about the role of social norms in ending extreme poverty here.

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