Global study finds children are forced into gender roles in early adolescence

Category: General principles

16th October 2017

The Global Early Adolescent Study finds that girls are considered vulnerable and protected, while boys are set free to roam and explore, with lifelong consequences.

Across the world, from Beijing to Baltimore, children are 'straitjacketed' into gender roles in early adolescence, with the world expanding for boys and closing in for girls.

The Global Early Adolescent Study breaks new ground by talking to children and their parents in 15 countries around the world and finding a remarkably similar story.

"We found children at a very early age - from the most conservative to the most liberal societies - quickly internalise this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent," said Robert Blum, director of the Global Early Adolescent Study, based at Johns Hopkins University.

"And this message is being constantly reinforced at almost every turn, by siblings, classmates, teachers, parents, guardians, relatives, clergy and coaches."

Over four years, the researchers talked to 450 children aged 10 to 14 with a parent or guardian, from low-income families in Bolivia, Belgium, Burkina Faso, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa, the United States and Vietnam for the research produced with the World Health Organisation.

The researchers found that gender-based restrictions rationalised as "protecting" girls actually made them more vulnerable by emphasising subservience and implicitly sanctioning even physical abuse as punishment for violating norms. They say that in many parts of the world these stereotypes leave girls at greater risk of dropping out of school or suffering physical and sexual violence, child marriage, early pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Boys in both New Delhi and Shanghai, for instance, talked about being encouraged to spend time outside of the home in unsupervised exploration of their environment, while girls said they were told to stay home and do chores. Shaming and beatings for those who sought to cross the divide was reported by girls and boys in both cities.

Some parents accepted that boys were not always strong and independent. But, says the report, "even in sites where parents acknowledged the vulnerability of their sons, they focus on protecting their daughters."

Much of it is about girls' sexuality. "Around the world pubertal boys are viewed as predators and girls as potential targets and victims. Messages such as 'do not sit like that, do not wear that, do not talk to him, boys will ruin your future' support the gender division of power ... In some places, girls come to internalise these norms to even a greater extent than boys," says one of the papers in the study published in a special supplement of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Girls' mobility is restricted. "A girl cannot go out as she wishes because she is a girl and if a girl came home late her parents would shout at her, but it is okay for a guy," said a girl in Assuit, Egypt.

Both girls and boys were saddened that their early easy relationship with the opposite sex was no longer allowed. "They played together as children and were friends, but now with puberty, those friendships are no longer legitimate," says the report.

Even in wealthier parts of the world, the gender norms were still apparent. Edinburgh in Scotland was the only city where boys and girls did not think the boy must always take the initiative in a relationship. In every country, young girls talked of a constant emphasis on their physical appearance and had been taught that their bodies were their key asset.

"In New Delhi, the girls talked about their bodies as a big risk that needs to be covered up, while in Baltimore girls told us their primary asset was their bodies and that they need to look appealing - but not too appealing," said Kristin Mmari, associate professor and the study's lead researcher for the qualitative research.

Boys are not unscathed, says the report. Because of these gender norms, "they engage in and are the victims of physical violence to a much greater extent than girls; they die more frequently from unintentional injuries, are more prone to substance abuse and suicide; and as adults their life expectancy is shorter than that of women. Such differences are socially not biologically determined."

One paper compared young people's attitudes in China, India, Belgium and the United States. It was more acceptable for girls to push against the gender boundary than it was for boys. In all four countries, it appeared to be increasingly acceptable for girls to engage in certain stereotypically male behaviours, like wearing trousers, playing sports and pursuing careers. But "boys who challenge gender norms by their dress or behaviour were by many respondents seen as socially inferior," said the researchers. Both boys and girls said the consequences for boys who were perceived as adopting feminine behaviour, like painting their nails, ranged from being bullied and teased to being physically assaulted.

The authors say interventions to change gender stereotyping need to happen at a much earlier age. By the age of 10, it can be too late. "Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviours rooted in gender roles that can be well established in kids by the time they are 10 or 11 years old," said Mmari.

"Yet we see billions of dollars around the world invested in adolescent health programs that don't kick in until they are 15, and by then it's probably too late to make a big difference."

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