How business can tackle social norms which hold back women’s economic empowerment

by 06th Sep 2017
Paulina Sibanda and her husband Opheus Dube cook together in their kitchen in Zvishevane region, Zimbabwe Paulina Sibanda and her husband Opheus Dube cook together in their kitchen in Zvishevane region, Zimbabwe

Across the world, women make a significant contribution to agricultural supply chains, in spite of complex hurdles that limit their inclusion and their leadership. The UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (HLP) identified seven key drivers for women’s economic empowerment (WEE), and the HLP called on governments, private sector companies and civil society organisations to step up their work on WEE by increasing investment, finding new types of partnerships and expanding their actions to more of the ‘drivers’.

Driver 1 (Tackling adverse norms and promoting positive role models) and Driver 3 (Recognising, reducing and redistributing unpaid work and care) focus on issues that may be new, even for companies who are committed to promoting WEE. How can companies contribute to change in social norms and tackle the issue of unpaid care work? Here are a few examples which Oxfam is involved in.

Unilever and Oxfam partnership

Surf, which is owned by Unilever, recently launched a three-year partnership with Oxfam that aims to expand choices for women and girls, by recognising, reducing and redistributing the amount of time spent by women and girls on unpaid care work. This includes laundry, cooking, cleaning and collecting water, as well as caring for people. In some parts of the world, this takes up as much as six hours a day.

Analia Mendez, Global Director, Social Mission Expertise, Home Care, says of the partnership:

“Collaboration is the key to making a real difference on development issues and this programme is a great example of partnership, combining Oxfam’s proven methodologies in addressing unpaid care work and our expertise in marketing, technology and consumer insights.”

The initiative involves:

  • Providing better access to water and laundry infrastructure, with new or improved communal laundries, household laundry facilities and water systems/centres.
  • Challenging and seeking to change harmful social norms that currently mean women bear the brunt of household chores with a communications programme involving local agents and household visits, and local radio, TV and social media campaigns.
  • Advocating for public policies that change the distribution of unpaid care work, by building a body of research evidence to inform policy makers and building the capacity of women leaders and women’s organisations for more effective stakeholder engagement.

The programme, which is the first of its kind, is running in the Philippines and Zimbabwe, directly changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Through public communications, it will also reach millions globally, promoting activities focused on recognising the impact unpaid care work has on women and girls’ lives, and changing norms to achieve more equal responsibility for unpaid care work.

Practitioner Learning Group on social norms in the economy

This year the SEEP Network and Oxfam convened a Practitioner Learning Group on social norms in the economy which has brought together 12 people from six organisations from civil society and the private sector (Mars Chocolate, CARE, International Youth Foundation, Promundo, Swiss Contact and Oxfam) to learn together and share insights on how to address the challenge of shifting social norms in the economy at scale. This involves building our collective understanding of how to tackle gender norms and roles, such as those linked to early marriage or violence against women, as well as ‘economic norms’ such as what is considered work vs. leisure, and the perceived skill and value placed on different economic activities.

These norms shape and distort markets and economic policy by influencing cost-benefit analyses and investment decisions. As part of this initiative, Oxfam has developed a diagnostic tool to identify key norms that limit WEE in specific contexts and strategies for change. The tool has been tested in Bangladesh by Oxfam’s Empower Youth for Work programme, funded by the IKEA Foundation. Others also plan to test the diagnostic tool, such as Swiss Contact in Kosovo. A practitioner guide for norms change will be published later this year. See to know more.

System Innovation Lab for WEE

Oxfam is currently in the inception phase for the “System Innovation for Women’s Economic Empowerment in Agriculture” (SIWEE), one of Oxfam’s HLP commitments. The World Cocoa Foundation, Diageo, Marks & Spencer, The Body Shop and others are involved in setting up the initiative.

Through this initiative we aim to address some of the complex barriers to WEE through a “social lab” approach. We will set up multi-stakeholder groups consisting of women’s rights organisations, multinational companies, local businesses and government representatives in selected countries. In the process of conducting joint action research participants, we will develop an in-depth understanding of barriers to WEE and develop and implement innovative pilot projects to address these barriers. There will be a focus on ensuring social norms are considered, given that this is the underlying cause of so many issues from sexual violence in the workplace through to what is considered women’s paid or unpaid work.

The initiatives above are evidence of the unique expertise and important role that private sector companies have in partnering with others to deepen our understanding of how to create change, and co-developing solutions that lead to transformational change for women.

Claudia Canepa

Claudia Canepa coordinates Oxfam's Knowledge Hub on Women's Economic Empowerment in Agriculture. She has been working on Economic Justice programming that promotes women in agriculture in Oxfam for the past seven years. She has over 16 years experience in knowledge management and learning processes in non-profit organisations, academia, multilateral donor agencies, and the public sector.