Domestic violence
US researchers have analysed how gender norms affect gender-based violence Getty

There are a number of challenges in developing strategies to change inequitable and harmful social norms that result in gender-based violence, American researchers have said.

Such gender norms are not only related to domestic violence, but also to behaviours such a smoking, alcohol abuse, and multiple sexual partners, which can lead to poor health outcomes.

The Safe Passages study, by the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University, addresses how gender norms influence sexual and domestic violence.

"If the community expects boys to dominate and be sexually aggressive and girls to be passive, then there is a general assumption that girls must be coerced into sex," said Rebecka Lundgren, who led the study.

"Boys who are not aggressive may be ridiculed or looked down upon. Yet, boys and young men rarely have the opportunity to observe and learn from male role models who protect and support the girls and women in their lives."

But how should we address this behaviour? Lundgren says parents and other family members, teachers, religious leaders, and peers should discuss and reflect on these norms and consider alternative ways of demonstrating masculinity and femininity - in a way that leads to strong healthy relationships.

"Efforts to transform gender roles to lay the foundation for positive and respectful relationships must begin early and continue throughout life," she explained.

"Ideally this change begins with parents and grandparents, who consider the messages they are passing on to children when they encourage boys to grow up to be 'big and strong' and girls to be 'nurturing and kind'."

Rigid gender roles are harmful for both men and women, Lundgren added. So-called "real" men must provide for their families and are perceived to be less manly if unable to do so, which can result in violence.

The role of women, on the other hand, is to maintain family harmony, even if it means accepting occasional violence.

One way to eradicate such thinking, Lundgren said, is to find and support leaders within the community who advocate new models of masculinity and femininity. Campaigns and programmes that communicate with both boys and girls, rather than single sex efforts, have the greatest likelihood of success.

In the study, Lundgren and Adams conducted research in a post-conflict setting in Northern Uganda with high rates of gender-based violence, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies. The researchers spoke to men, women, and children returning to their communities after two decades of war – the lifespan of an entire generation.

Community members, despite experiencing social and cultural upheaval that legitimised domestic violence, demonstrated a desire to rebuild traditions and to challenge gender norms.

Lundgren stressed that the need to understand gender norms and how they generate gender-based violence is universal.

"Helping societies to value more equitable gender norms - a critical step towards preventing intimate partner violence - requires that individuals be respected, valued and appreciated. Interventions that provide positive social support can facilitate beneficial change," Lundgren said.