Do social norms drive violence against women?

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is common in Timor-Leste with 59% of women having experienced either physical or sexual violence perpetrated by a domestic or intimate partner.1 Research has shown 74% of women and 53% of men (aged 15-49 years) believe a husband hitting or beating his wife is justifiable.2 What are the social norms that contribute to these beliefs? Our researchers supported Belun Timor-Leste to explore the impact of social norms on VAWG in Timor-Leste for the United Nations’ Spotlight Initiative, notably UNFPA.

An outdoor gathering of Timorese woman many have swaddled babies. One woman is offering food

Social norms are rules that set a standard for appropriate and inappropriate behaviour within a group of people. When people consider harmful behaviours as typical and acceptable by community standards, social norms become an obstacle to positive change. VAWG is one example presenting a global challenge.

Focus group discussions were held with men and women with and without disability in Bobonaro, Ermera and Viqueque municipalities to learn more about community attitudes toward VAWG and what people understand as constituting ‘violence’. Participants were prompted to explain what behaviours are encouraged, tolerated, and frowned upon in their communities. Shared beliefs and attitudes that made violence against women appear acceptable and normal were identified. The expectation that wives ‘obey’ their husbands was a common example. This included complying with requests for sexual intercourse, and unless a wife was sick or tired, this was considered appropriate. Female participants also described strategies of resistance used by women to avoid unwanted advances and sexual assault.

Addressing problematic gender norms has become a priority for global development programs aiming to eliminate VAWGs and aligns with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)’s strategic vision. The UNFPA vision calls for eliminating VAWG including harmful practices, such as negative social norms. Social norms theory tells us the driving factors behind common behaviours are not always rooted in community attitudes. Social norms coexist alongside other factors, such as individual agency and people’s access to, and control over, resources. How household members cope with and respond to stress due to financial and food insecurity are important factors to consider.

In discussions around household finances, gender-defined roles and expectations appeared to have less influence on problematic behaviour. Unilateral decision making, such as husbands withholding money from their wives to buy necessities or vice versa, was considered appropriate and necessary when money was scarce. This contradicted the community ideal that good and effective communication between spouses is necessary for a harmonious household.

It is critical to highlight the role social norms play in sustaining gender-based violence at the household level. Understanding the role of financial and economic factors, such as the need to buy necessities in an environment of scarce resources, is also important. We also cannot ignore the individual agency and personal attitudes of household members in this process, including women’s bodily autonomy and decisions made by perpetrators. Sound communication between spouses is important for resolving household disputes before they turn violent, and women use various means of resisting physical, sexual, and economic violence perpetrated by male partners.

A social norms perspective offers a window into the complex and multidimensional environments where gender-based violence occurs. For interventions to be effective at eliminating VAWG, a holistic approach is needed.

The Spotlight Initiative is a joint European Union and United Nations program aiming to prevent VAWG by, among other interventions, promoting gender-equitable social norms, attitudes, and behaviours in target countries.

Felix Kiefel-Johnson is a Technical Advisor at the Nossal Institute. Felix is an early career researcher passionate about understanding and promoting disability inclusion across the Asia-Pacific region

1 The Asia Foundation. 2016. Understanding Violence against Women and Children in Timor-Leste: Findings from the Nabilan Baseline Study.

2General Directorate of Statistics, Ministry of Finance/Timor Leste, and ICF. 2018. Timor-Leste Demographic and Health Survey 2016.

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Felix Kiefel-Johnson