In Sisum’s childhood home in a rural village of Bhutan, the men eat dinner first and the women must wait until they finish. But at her uncle’s house in the city, where she lived while in school, the family eats together. “Such practices are not allowed there,” she says. “They are all educated, and they feel it is not right.”
She remembers the day she asked her parents about the village’s tradition. Her mother told her the practice had been followed by their ancestors. When she later asked her father, she said, he became angry and lashed out at her mother, telling her that before the marriage she was nothing, and without him she would have no food or shelter. He said it was up to the men whether she ate at all, Sisum recalls. She feared her mother would have been beaten if her brother had not stepped in.
The young woman’s experience reflects findings on the state of gender relations in a new study that convened focus groups involving more than 4,000 men and women from a range of ages, economic mixes, and rural and urban communities in 20 countries.
By working with single-sex focus groups in 97 communities, and discussing how gender norms shape the participants’ everyday lives and decisions, the researchers were able to look deeper into how gender norms affect decision-making at the household and individual levels, as well as markets and formal institutions.
Relaxing gender norms
The picture that emerged from every focus group across the 20 countries was of communities that continue to adhere to long-held gender norms of men as breadwinners and women in domestic roles. Children learn those norms early – “If we went to school, who would do the housework?” a girl from rural Tanzania asked.
But within many homes and communities, particularly in cities, there is a clear relaxing of traditional norms as more men and women assume new responsibilities.
Girls are being allowed to stay in school longer, and they are aspiring to become scientists and business leaders. In fact, a larger percentage of teenage girls than boys in the study – 60 percent to 40 percent – expressed the desire to earn a graduate degree. “Now women can go out to work and hold a high ranking job, even in the army and the police. This is a great change since our parents’ time,” a young man from urban Sudan said.
The women talked about wanting their daughters to be more courageous, and about their own increasing opportunities to earn incomes and about feeling more control over their lives. Most of the participants, with the exception of rural men, also nominally agreed with the ideal of equality between men and women. “The moment that you know that you can do things by yourself and not have to depend on a man is the moment you begin moving up,” said a woman from urban Tanzania.
The relaxing of gender norms is not necessarily changing traditional norms, though, as the conversations revealed.