Do Gender Norms Become Less Traditional with Displacement? The Case of Colombia

Eliana Rubiano-Matulevich


Between 1997 and 2018, more than 6 million people in Colombia were forcibly displaced, affecting 90 percent of the country’s municipalities. This paper examines the effect of internal displacement on gender norms in Colombia, including norms relating to reproductive health, economic opportunity, mobility, violence against women, and patriarchy. The analysis considers a person’s reference network, i.e., the group of people whose actions and beliefs individuals care about when they act. When people are displaced, they may adapt their behavior to comply with the norms held by a new reference network in their settlement location.

The analysis is based on data from the Demographic Health Survey (DHS) for 2005, 2010, and 2015. The surveys are representative of the female population ages 13-49 at the national, urban, and rural levels, and collect information on health outcomes and socio-economic characteristics. The most recent waves include questions on attitudes towards gender equality, women’s role in society, gender-based violence, and intra-household decision-making. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) were oversampled in the three survey waves and represent 7 percent of the individuals who migrated internally each survey-year.

Key findings:

  • While displacement does not alter attitudes towards the use of contraception (most women in the sample agree with the use of contraception), displacement does reduce women’s ability to use and decide on contraceptive use. This may reflect several factors including: poor access to sexual and reproductive health information and services; different attitudes around the ideal family size; control exerted by male partners or female relatives over the use of contraception; and less ‘gender-equitable’ practices within the household, which tend to the transmitted through the family and passed down to the next generation.
  • Displacement is associated with more traditional attitudes to women in the domestic sphere, a diminution in women’s ability to make decisions about money they earn, and a slight redistribution of unpaid domestic work. Displacement reduces the probability of disagreeing with the statement ‘a woman’s main role is family caregiving and cooking’ by 6-8 percentage points. Reference networks are strongly correlated with less traditional behaviors around domestic chores but do not influence women’s decision-making power over money.
  • It is not clear whether displacement is associated with less traditional gender norms around mobility. Displacement does not alter the attitudes of women towards wives’ ability to go out without telling their husbands. However, displacement appears to increase the likelihood that women participate in decisions about visits to relatives and friends, and knowing someone who has greater decision-making power around mobility is also associated with less traditional behaviors.
  • Some attitudes and behaviors around violence against women appear to change with displacement. Displacement reduces the likelihood of disagreeing with the statement ‘it is better not to tempt men when they are mad,’ but increases the probability of supporting the statement ‘women stay in abusive relations because they like it.’ IDP women are more likely than non-displaced women to state that they would call out a friend who abuses a woman.
  • There are no apparent changes in patriarchal gender norms, but there are important changes around women’s attitudes which might indicate slow shifts in intra-household dynamics. IDP women are significantly less likely than non-IDP women with similar characteristics to disagree with statements such as ‘families with men have less problems’ and ‘a good wife obeys her husband,’ but there is no significant difference when asked about men as heads of household and men’s last word in household decisions. Displaced women are also more likely than non-displaced women to disagree with all patriarchal statements at the same time. In terms of behaviors, displacement does not alter women’s say in important household decisions.


Overall, forced displacement has mixed effects on gender norms. Gender norms that tolerate violence against women become weaker with displacement, while gender norms that limit women’s economic opportunities become more rigid with displacement. These findings are consistent with prior research showing that even though displaced women work for pay outside the home, they nevertheless continue to be the main caregivers in the household.

The results also reveal a misalignment between attitudes and behaviors in specific domains of gender norms. For example, displacement is associated with less traditional patriarchal attitudes such as ‘families with men have less problems’ or ‘a good wife obeys her husband,’ but women’s ability to decide about contraception and earnings decreases following displacement.

The findings underscore the complexity of gender norm change, which can be contradictory and improvements in one area do not imply that all others will automatically follow.