FinDev Blog

How To Transform Gendered Norms

We can’t achieve women’s financial inclusion without considering harmful social norms and trying to change them
Father and daughter, Haiti. Photo credit: Tim Chambers, 2016 CGAP Photo Contest.


We can’t achieve women’s financial inclusion without considering harmful social norms and trying to change them.

This was the key message I shared during the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation's (SDC) annual Savings and Credit Forum in Bern earlier this month.


Despite great strides in bank account ownership, women are still being left behind: In developing countries, women are 9 percentage points less likely than men to hold an account. One of – if not the – single greatest underlying cause for that stubborn gender access gap is the prevalence of entrenched social norms which dictate what women can and can’t do, including access to financial services.

Yet the reality in our sector is that very few approaches understand or address gendered social norms and the barriers they create for women’s access to and use of financial services. So, here are some key insights I shared at the SDC forum on why anyone interested in closing the gender access and use gap needs to understand social norm change, and how to go about it.

What are social norms and why do they matter for women’s financial inclusion?

Social norms are shared expectations held by a community or society (not individual attitudes) about how people – or different groups of people – should behave. For example, queuing is a social norm. We wait our turn in a queue because others do, because it is expected, and others would disapprove if we cut in line.

While some norms can be empowering, other norms exacerbate the barriers for women to access and use financial services. Because norms shape women’s access to and control over resources, in many contexts they limit their ability to hold land titles and assets, reduce their mobility in public spaces and increase their unpaid care burden. These factors compound to limit their ability to have an account with a financial institution or mobile money service and use it. For example, social norms in Pakistan that mobile money is more for men than for women have contributed to a widening of the gender access gap from 9 percent in 2011 to 29 percent in 2017.

How can we support social norm change for women’s financial inclusion?

The best approach is one that is norm transformative. This means going beyond a focus on mere access, to challenge gender norms that impede women’s economic empowerment.

CARE pursues a norm transformative approach to financial inclusion whenever possible, based on our social norm methodology, and we are mandated to address social norms within our gender equality and women’s voice framework.

CARE's Gender Equality Framework

Every one of CARE’s projects is expected to work across all three dimensions of this gender equality framework. For financial inclusion, that means:

  1. Increasing woman’s agency, such as having the knowledge and skills needed to access and use financial services.
  2. Changing relations, such as her ability to negotiate with her husband and make decisions jointly or for herself.
  3. Transforming structures including discriminatory social norms, so that others respect her financial autonomy.

Too frequently approaches in our sector only focus on increasing women’s agency, and fail to engage men and boys, service providers and governments to create the conditions for women to use their knowledge and resources on equal footing with others.

CARE’s Indashyikirwa (“agents of change” in Kinyarwanda), a DFID-funded project in Rwanda, is a good example of a norm transformative approach. A 2012 study by CARE Rwanda found that gender-based violence was stopping women from participating in Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs). The same 2012 study showed women lacked decision-making power over how their VSLA income was spent. Indashyikirwa tackled social norms head-on by working with 1600 men and women through a couples’ curriculum – a five-month course where couples unpacked unequal power dynamics in their relationship. Around 25 percent of participants went on to become activists in their local community for gender equality and discouraging gender-based violence. Results showed a decrease in intimate partner violence and an increase in joint decision-making and economic outcomes for female VSLA members.

In Western Uganda, CARE with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is currently implementing a digital sub-wallet alongside household counselling, designed to support women’s uptake of financial services and increase their financial autonomy.

CARE Digital Sub-Wallet Plus Household Counselling

The digital sub-wallet developed with Postbank Uganda enables women customers to divvy up their money and allocate funds toward goals based on how they prefer to save and use money. To increase women’s agency over how the money is spent, women enrolled in VSLAs, and their partners and household members were encouraged to participate in household dialogues. 

CARE’s digital sub-wallet and household dialogue innovation is designed to meet the unique needs of women and increase women’s financial autonomy in two rural western provinces in Uganda. Photo credit: CAREThe dialogues consist of a series of facilitated sessions designed to engage female VSLA participants and their male partners on various aspects of household and relationship dynamics, including financial planning, communication and negotiation skills, power dynamics and decision-making. The goal of the dialogues is to create opportunities for change in household norms, especially related to women’s financial autonomy. Early outcomes indicate an increase in joint financial planning.

If you can’t be norm transformative, be norm aware

Norm aware approaches are conscious of and work within existing social norms. They will likely not shift social norms but will help improve women’s access to (though not necessarily use of) financial services. Many practitioners find a norm aware (not norm transformative) approach is all that can be achieved within the timeframe and reality of their context.

Several of CGAP’s Community of Practice members are pursuing thoughtful norm aware approaches. GRID Impact designed a mobile money app targeting low-income financially illiterate women customers, with an onboarding experience designed to make women feel that mobile money is a service for them. BSR’s HERfinance Digital Wages program worked with garment factories in Bangladesh to digitize employee wages, alongside workplace trainings and discussions around equitable household decision-making, to help promote acceptance and uptake around women’s use of mobile money.

The Social Norms Working Group within the CGAP Women’s Financial CoP is bringing together practitioners, researchers and policy makers who are all interested in decoding the role of gendered social norms in promoting women’s financial inclusion. To learn more and join the conversation , you can sign up here.

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