21. Gender Equity

ThreadWest Africa lessons – Norms changing strategies

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Subject: African societies and social norms


In African societies that I am familiar with, social norms related, for example, to marriage, FGM and family planning are embedded in the culture.  They are defined by elders and passed down from generation to generation. And it is the elders who are responsible and who are the moral authority to ensure that these norms are respected. Our communities, whether urban or rural, are carefully structured and are hierarchical with elders, adults and young people.  For many matters related to the life of the society including marriage, FGM, pregnancy, maternal and child health and family planning, the norms are defined by the elders. For all of these matters, decision-making is collective, not individual.  Rules and roles are well-defined and strategies are developed by elders to support the development and growth of young people.

Young people learn from elders and elders take pleasure in playing this teaching role given their objective which is to pass onto to young people a stable society. Social norms are shared by the members of the community and, therefore, in more collectivist societies like ours, changing norms requires collective change.

As an African, it is these norms that nurture our collective spirit of interdependence and responsibility to the groups of which we are a part.  People’s identity is defined by the social ties that bind them together.  In this context, the individual is obliged to conform to the group norms while at the same time he/she enjoys the support of the members of the group.

Mamadou Coulibaly