Through my work on gender equality and women’s rights, I have learned that gender roles are culturally defined, and that gender-role related behaviours follow social norms. However, my desk-based research revealed a lack of evidence on how social norms, in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights, are shaped by culture and traditions.
I conducted in-depth interviews in Zimbabwe to find out more about persisting social norms on sexual and reproductive health and rights there and who upholds them. My research was part of Progresio’s recently release case study report “The Price of Womanhood.” I was interested to find out how those social norms and values are shared with girls, and how they learn about what is expected from them.
When a woman named Laurelle started to explain the impact of bridal showers on her own and other women’s understanding of what is expected from them by their culture, I knew I had found an answer:
Even before marriage, women are taught what a ‘real’ woman is through bridal showers, where there is one key message: if your husband is to see you as a real woman, you always need to be submissive, that is why he will marry you. They also tell us our role is in the kitchen and bedroom. All women say it in different ways, but the key message is – ‘Get married and be submissive.’
Laurelle described how bridal showers involve respected women from the community explaining to the bride, and the bride’s friends, about what is expected from a wife. Other interviewees I spoke with also confirmed that a girl’s transition into womanhood is defined through and accompanied by informal events set up to prepare her for marriage. Grace, who is in her 40s, spoke to me about how bridal showers are disempowering to women:
I go to a lot of bridal showers and kitchen parties and I find them so disempowering, because it is only about the man. No one looks at the girl, who gets married too. The church organised my kitchen party and it was really conservative because it was organised by the church, so the key messages were: ‘One who finds a woman finds a good thing,’ and ‘You need to be good to your husband by submitting yourself.’
Besides identifying traditions and customs, the report also highlights some of the underlying values and rationales that are attached to some common social norms. Three key messages emerged.
First, girls are expected to marry young because they are not seen of much value until they are married. Society attaches a high value to marriage, which means girls and young women lack self-confidence and a feeling of ‘power within’. Marrying young means transitioning into a new social status in which young women and girls are treated with respect. Being able to find a husband is also seen as a sign that they have been raised well, which earns their mother more respect. Lastly, early marriage is seen by parents as an opportunity to protect a young woman or girl’s purity and avert pre-marital sex.
Second, young women and girls are expected to give birth early after marriage because this is an opportunity to prove fertility in a society that values family and children highly. Showing that they are able to bear children enhances their value as a woman and will increase the respect that society has for them. The expectation is also attached to the lobola—a payment that the groom’s family has paid to the bride’s family as a cultural tradition. The pressure to give birth has been traditionally exercised by the young woman’s aunt, but if the aunt lives far away, powerful women in the community or family put pressure on the young woman instead.
Lastly, lobola manifests social norms that might limit women’s free decision-making over their own bodies, such as when and how often they want to get pregnant. In such cases, the husband and his family, who contributed to saving for lobola, can limit a woman’s agency over her sexual and reproductive decisions.
The findings from the report are important because they help to better understand what hinders young women’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. The findings are also important because they help to better understand the power relations between stakeholders in the communities and girls, whose sexual and reproductive health and rights need to be protected. And lastly, the case study report helps policymakers to prioritize root causes of gender inequality that have been identified in the report.
Policymakers must prioritize the understanding of social norms and customs that impede girls’ access to their full sexual and reproductive health and rights—and this report highlights why that’s so important.