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Tackling Social

Gendered social norms often look quite similar across societies and cultures — many people believe that men are breadwinners, while women are natural homemakers; men are better leaders while women are too emotional to make effective decisions; men are strong while women need protection — and so on. These harmful norms and stereotypes exist in some form or another in most cultures and contribute to experiences of violence against women and girls by defining women as lesser. But how these norms manifest or are expressed, how they affect both men and women, and how they are kept in place is much more nuanced.

That is why, to prevent violence against women and girls, we need to conduct research to understand the drivers and reinforcing factors that create the underlying social context in which such violence occurs. Campaigns and programmes that wish to transform harmful, violence-supportive social norms should be as specific and nuanced as the contexts in which they are implemented.

At the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) Forum 2017, I attended a panel called “Adolescents’ Perceptions of Sexual Violence.” One presentation stood out for me in particular, which was a study on the harmful social norms that drive violence against women and girls among young Tunisians in outer urban areas, presented by Salma Jrad from the Gender Justice Team at Oxfam Tunisia. Here’s what I learned.


In Tunisia, 47.6% of women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, and 55% of women understand violence to be an ordinary part of life. Further, over 90% of the Tunisian population believe that women should be discreet about any violence they experience; that it is a private, domestic matter.


The Gender Justice Team at Oxfam Tunisia will join Oxfam’s global ‘Enough’ campaign to end violence against women and girls with a campaign targeting negative social norms by promoting new positive norms. The target audience will be young people, as they have the greatest potential to break with traditional societal attitudes. The team has conducted research on how social norms are constructed among young people in relationships, under what circumstances violence becomes acceptable or normal, and what the social sanctions are for not adhering to specific norms.


The research indicated that young people were influenced by a number of diverse reference groups — the groups of people important to an individual when he or she is making a particular decision. Many members of the family, including sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles, intervene in a young couple’s life, and the mother was consistently reported to be the most influential in the majority of situations. Unexpectedly, it was reported that mothers were often the ones who held the more conservative views, and fathers were referred to when making economic decisions and for soliciting moral advice.


The three social norms that were identified as drivers of violence included:

1.     Women should not strive for equal decision making in their relationships.

This social norm was identified through comments such as that women felt that they needed to ask permission from their partner to meet a friend and to notify them when they will return home. Women also cited that they were expected not to agitate their partners, and that a controlling partner was not necessarily considered a violent partner. Women were sanctioned with beatings when they didn’t show a sufficient obedience in marriage, and were often rejected for marriage for having had premarital sex.

2.     Women should prioritise the home and family over public or professional life.

This norm came through in comments such as that a woman’s role was in the domestic sphere and that men should be the breadwinners for the family; that men cannot take care of children; and that women get their status from the accomplishments of their children. Sanctions for transgressing these social norms included economic, physical and psychological violence, and public shaming.

3.     Women should behave in public in a way that respects male domination.

Women in Tunisia are expected to prioritise family life over a career, creating an obstacle to women’s participation in the public sphere. Women are expected to be demure and quiet in public spaces, and if they are too vocal are called ‘rajela’, which denotes a woman with a man’s characteristics. Similarly, if a man takes part in duties traditionally taken by a woman, such as sharing the caretaker role at home, he faces public shaming by being called ‘mraoui’, a word meaning ‘woman’, and which has negative connotations.


The research found that people tended to only identify behaviour as violent when it was extreme, and rape is still often not considered rape in some cases, such as in marriage. Women are still seen as the property of the family and have limited roles beyond the family sphere. There is also a strong pressure on men to balance both positive and negative norms regarding their masculinity. In fact, social norms posed a burden for both women and men.


Oxfam Tunisia finished on a positive note. Tunisian society is currently going through a period of strong social change. The revolution in 2011 produced a new constitution where women’s rights were guaranteed and which allowed civil society to exist and be active. Women also now make up 50.7% of university graduates. Additionally, the Tunisian Parliament passed a historic law to end violence against women in July 2017, and Tunisia is the first country in the Middle East and North Africa region to have withdrawn all of its specific reservations regarding the implementation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The next step for the Gender Justice team is to work with journalists, partners and the private sector to design a national campaign. We look forward to seeing the messaging they come up with when the campaign launches in November during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence.

This was first published by The Equality Institute. Permission to publish on the SVRI Blog was given by the author.

Written by Marta Jasinska, Communications and Marketing Manager at The Equality Institute

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