By Kayla Empey
Posted on October 22, 2021
There are several societal norms within Canadian cultural communities and around the world. Although they aren’t commonly or publicly spoken about, these norms dictate what society sees as appropriate behaviour and how humans can acceptably interact with others.
While some of these norms help prevent gender-based violence, many encourage violence and contribute to why many abusive situations are not usually addressed.
There are many reasons norms are instilled in society. Many people feel the desire to conform, or are scared of the disapproval and punishment they might receive if they don’t follow the rules. There can also be feelings of guilt and shame that come from violating norms, because of the strong pressure to follow what others are doing.
The World Health Organization says that a common example of societal norms promoting violence is how society views alcohol and in turn its relationship to violent behaviour. A person committing a violent crime under the influence of alcohol is not considered as guilty as one committing the same crime when sober, suggesting that the effects of alcohol can encourage and even justify violent behaviour. Additionally, in many cultures alcohol is considered to be positive, because it helps people be less reserved and insecure. However, this increase in courage can also lead to an increase in violent crimes—which is often overlooked.
There are also many traditional beliefs that men are socially superior to women, and therefore have the right to control or assert power over their partner. This idea makes women vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. These imbalanced power dynamics can also cause physical punishment to be seen as acceptable when a child misbehaves. Even legal acts like spanking a child can quickly escalate.
Norms can also encourage sexual abuse because sex and sexuality can be seen as taboo subjects that are not to be discussed. In society there is stigmatization against women who have experienced sexual abuse, making survivors feel guilty about their experience and less likely to report the assault. Additionally, women are often considered responsible for a man’s sexual urges; this can be seen when women are blamed for being sexually abused based on what they were wearing, or how they were behaving, this practice only shames the survivor and deems the abuser not guilty.
Experiencing mental health problems can also be stigmatized, which deters people from seeking help and causes violence to persist.
Social norms may also cause a person to believe that instances of gender-based violence are a private or family matter, not to be talked about with anyone else.
Cultural intolerance can also increase violence. Often certain communities, nationalities, sexualities or ethnicities are stereotyped or seen as the “other,” which can encourage violent behaviour towards them.
These are just some of the examples of how social norms can perpetuate violence, but there are many more based on different societies and cultures.
How to change
Social norms are not fixed, they can and do change as beliefs change within a society.
The Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Helpdesk provided three steps that can be taken in order to change social norms that encourage gender-based violence.
1) Shifting attitudes, expectations and behaviours
Before social expectations can change, individual attitudes must change. VAWG says the first step to changing social norms is to shift individual attitudes of what behaviour is deemed acceptable and to remove the pressure to conform with ideals you do not agree with. Violent behaviours are less likely to be reprimanded if individuals accept the norms and assume everyone else is going to accept them as well. When we begin to dismantle attitudes towards social norms, behaviours will start to change as well.
Shifting attitudes also includes having public debates and discussions. While an individual can change their personal behaviours, it will not shift social expectations until people can hear and share with others. VAWG suggests activities such as workshops or group discussions, as well as using media to reach a larger scale of people.
2) Publicize the shift in attitudes
The goal is broader societal change, therefore shifting norms should be directed towards the whole population rather than only individuals or communities of people. In order to do this, VAWG says that positive role models should be publicized. Role models can be persuasive in getting people to adopt new norms and see why their previous behaviours were harmful. This can include community leaders, religious figures, celebrities or any person who challenges particular norms.
It is important that society promotes the benefits of new behaviour rather than reinforcing negative behaviours. Raising awareness about violence and harmful norms can include explaining what negative behaviours are, but sometimes this can only make these behaviours more prominent and reinforce them. Instead of just telling people what not to do, there should be a focus on what positive behaviours will replace the old norms.
3) New norms should be rewarded
Lastly, to shift away from harmful norms, new attitudes and behaviours should be rewarded. If new norms are encouraged through positive reinforcement, then there will be more of a reason for individuals to make a collective shift.
It is important to remember that norms will not change overnight, and shifting attitudes may not come in the form you expect. However, it’s important to remember that any steps society can take to dismantle these norms can be steps towards preventing gender-based violence.