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When Social Norms Offer Windows of Opportunity

by on Nov 30, 2017  |  posted in Women's Economic Empowerment  |  0 Comments

What are Social Norms?

Social norms are the unspoken rules of behaviour, either explicit or implicit, that are considered acceptable in a group or society. Gender norms are a subset of social norms that dictate the types of behaviours which are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for people based on their gender (1). In the Arab World, gendered social norms are traditionally viewed as constraints and obstacles to increased women's economic engagement and empowerment. Arab women, and men, exist in a space constructed by the intersection of religion, culture and, not insignificantly, politics. However, women more than men in the Arab World continue to face daily challenges due to gender norms that are engrained in culture, religion, and family structures and these challenges continue to affect the way women are able to participate in economic and public spheres.

How Do We Approach Women’s Economic Empowerment?

For decades, international development programmes have been working either directly with or around deep-rooted gendered social norms to improve women’s economic empowerment and labour force participation rates. The Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund (AWEF,) a DFID (UK Department for International Development) funded women’s economic empowerment programme working in Egypt, Jordan and the oPt (occupied Palestinian territories), is coming at this challenge from a somewhat unique angle. AWEF believes that gendered social norms can in fact be sources of unique opportunities and chances for women to engage and benefit from economic activities. This idea was raised in MarketShare Associate’s (MSA) “The Social Norms Factor: How gendered social norms influence how we empower women in market systems development” and as a consortium partner in AWEF, MSA has been supporting the programme’s approach of viewing certain social norms as sources of opportunities, not only constraints. AWEF asks: Are there actually opportunities for women hiding within certain social norms?

The short answer is yes. However, only if women have the right tools can they turn social norm lemons into lemonade!

Using a market systems approach to deliver women’s economic empowerment, in certain interventions, AWEF strives to engage women in functional upgrading-schemes that will not only increase their earnings but that will also change perceptions and attitudes around women in non-traditional roles, producing role models and champions for other women. These interventions provide women with the tools needed to move into higher functions along the value chain creating new opportunities for women in select sectors (2). In other interventions AWEF is forging partnerships with key market actors, such as the Palestinian Standards Institute (PSI) to introduce women in decision-making positions with the intention of demonstrating the value of women’s voices and paving the way for other market actors to adopt similar practices.

What Interventions are at Play for Female Paravets in Occupied Palestinian Territories?

One of the more unique interventions AWEF is currently working on and one that supports the approach of viewing selected social norms as opportunities and not only constraints is its female paravet intervention in the oPts (Occupied Palestinian Territories).

Female sheep herder in oPts.

The oPTs has approximately 30,000 sheep herds, with an estimated 25,000 women playing active roles in their operation, especially among small herds of 35 or fewer animals. AWEF’s in depth sector analysis showed that the women-led herds suffer close to 30 percent productivity loss due to poor vaccinations and inadequate animal health care. Currently, most veterinarians are male and deep rooted social norms of gender separation restrict their access to women’s herds whose sheep and goats are raised in close proximity to the herder’s homes and often in their backyards. This lack of access has a direct, negative impact on the health and milk productivity of the livestock of small female herders.

AWEF analysed this current social norm constraint as a unique opportunity for women, and is designing a programme to build a cadre of female paraveterinary technicians (3) who will both provide services to small female herders as well as introduce women to a new function along the value chain which currently does not exist. This intervention is an example of where a deep rooted social norm provided a unique opportunity for female economic engagement and empowerment. In building a cadre of female paravets, AWEF will also be creating female role models that can pave the way for other women to consider entry into previously restricted functions and entry into higher functions of the value chain.

Why Role Models Matter: AWEF will leverage Aya Mletat to inspire female paravets with her unique professional experience as a 30-year old young mother of two, who established her own sheep farm at the age of 20 and provide training and mentoring to male and female herders in her community and surrounding communities. According to Aya Mletat, social norms were restricting her business in the beginning, where men refused to deal with her as sheep trader and mentor for herders. However, her determination, enthusiasm and technical capabilities were drivers that enabled her to be accepted in herding communities dominated by men. From her experience in the field, Aya believes that female paravets will not only will contribute to improving the productivity and income of small women herders but they will also enhance women`s agency with improved voice and choice around livestock management.

Under this intervention, women herders will have the opportunity of interacting directly with female paravets, gaining knowledge and improving their skills in herd care instead of relying on their husbands or other men in their family to pass along information to them. Of the 30,000 holders of sheep and goats in Palestine, at least 25,000 women play an active role in the subsector, especially amongst small holders (up to 35 heads) so targeting these women could have significant impact. Women will also attain a higher sense of ownership and commitment to their work as it is traditionally considered unpaid work and they rarely enjoy any decision-making abilities around this family business again due social norms that constraint their interactions with vets, traders and the herding community in general. Men in these communities will also experience the benefit female paravets in that their services will ultimately improve household incomes and reduce the time and resources currently spent seeking vet services which are often at clinics far from their local community. In terms of improving women’s agency and decision-making capacity, with improved women’s knowledge and skills around livestock health as a result of their interactions with female paravets, women will increase their confidence and capacity to manage their herds and improve women’s overall role in livestock management.

To further support this intervention, AWEF has partnered with major local veterinarian medicine companies who will add another level of public support to the new cadre of 20 female paravets and provide further endorsement of this new opportunity.

Social Norms are Changed Through Women’s Economic Empowerment

AWEF believes that social norms can shift when people begin to experience the economic benefits of new behaviours. Addressing social norms both directly and indirectly is strategically mainstreamed in all AWEF interventions with the underlying goal of identifying when social norms open windows of opportunities for women. Promoting women in non-traditional roles within value chain functions, like the paravet function, not only contributes to improving female paravets incomes and levels of agency but it moreover provides the opportunity for other women in traditional roles to be more encouraged to explore new roles by viewing social norms in a new light.

(1)Male and female are not the only genders that exist. The analysis portion of this blog focuses on these two genders because of their specific significance to the nature of the AWEF programme.

(2)AWEF Jordan is training small women dairy processors in jameed certification to improve the production quality and income generation of their products and enable women to increase sales to previously male dominated markets. AWEF Egypt is working with large private sector market actors in the ready-made garment and citrus sectors to instill gender targeted recruitment practices to introduce women into more senior and management roles which are currently male dominated.

(3) Persons trained to assist veterinarians. Includes veterinary nurses, and also animal technicians who assist in laboratory animal care, animal welfare work and field testing of large numbers of agricultural animals. In developing countries these personnel are used more extensively in carrying out preventive and treatment work in the small groups of animals that are likely to be owned by small farm holders. A number of them usually work under the direction of a veterinarian.


Sherry Youssef is an international development consultant with over 20 years’ experience designing, implementing and managing programmes around the globe. She is the Technical Director for the UK DFID Funded Arab Women’s Enterprise Fund (AWEF) under implementation in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. Previously she established and managed DAI’s Youth and Workforce Development Practice and where she the Global Practice Lead. Sherry was also a USAID YouthPower IDIQ Manager for DAI. As the Program Manager for NetHope, Sherry managed USAID’S IYCE (Innovations for Youth Capacity and Engagement) Programme overseeing the design, development and piloting of a one of a kind serious online social game to stimulate youth engagement. Sherry has a BA with honors from the University of Texas at Austin and an MA and Certificate in International Business Diplomacy from Georgetown University.


Ruth OrbachAWEF is funded by the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID). DFID will contribute £10 million to help poor women access markets; this could include support to grow or start businesses or to develop new products. DFID’s contribution—delivered through technical assistance and grants—will also fund market analysis, strategy development, and other support to market actors. It is anticipated that the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) will match this contribution with £10 million in Sharia-compliant Islamic finance to support loans through microfinance institutions and to fund activities that improve access to finance for poor women. AWEF is funded through 2020.

AWEF is implemented by three organisations: DAI, which leads the consortium and is responsible for programme management, results, and financial controls; MarketShare Associates, which specialises in market systems programming, monitoring, and evaluation; and Education for Employment, a network of NGOs that works across education, entrepreneurship, and employment in MENA.

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