Gender expectations are universal for adolescents around the world – not necessarily in their exact specifications, but in their prevalence and the effects they have on young girls and boys.
A novel 15-country study released by the Global Early Adolescent Study has found that the onset of adolescence triggers a surprisingly common set of rigidly enforced gender expectations that researchers connected to an increase in lifelong risks of everything from HIV to violence and suicide.
In the most comprehensive study to date, researchers analyzed data from high, low, and middle-income countries encompassing how children entering adolescence perceive growing up as their respective genders. The countries range from China to Bolivia and Scotland to the United States. Public health experts from around the world joined together to assess how a variety of culturally enforced gender stereotypes – all associated with increased risk of mental and physical health problems – become established between the ages of 10 and 14.
“We found children at a very early age – from the most conservative to the most liberal societies – quickly internalize this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent,” says Robert Blum, director of the Global Early Adolescent Study 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.”
Blum believes that these findings point towards a need to restructure adolescent health interventions in order to focus on much younger age groups, as these interventions usually focus on adolescents 15 years or older.
“Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviors rooted in gender roles that can be well established in kids by the time they are ten or 11 years old,” explains Kristin Mmari, associate professor and lead researcher for the qualitative research at the Global Early Adolescent Study. “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.”
Researchers found that, in countries around the world, children are made to believe in gender-based restrictions, some of which are rationalized to “protect” girls yet leave them vulnerable to subservience and physical abuse. In many of the countries studied, these stereotypes leave girls at an increased risk of dropping out of school, being exposed to violence, child marriage, early pregnancy, and HIV.
Boys were also found to be harmed by stereotypes they learn in early adolescence. Emphasis on physical strength and independence make them more likely to be victims of physical violence as well as homicide, and more likely to use tobacco or similar substances.
Mmari states that many of the gender stereotypes found in this study come as no surprise. Unfortunately, they are ingrained in children at a young age and are relatively common across cultures and economic status. Helping children beat the issues that come along with imposed stereotypes would need to be a concerted effort across many nations.
“Change can happen, but it requires political will and a variety of interventions,” says Blum. “It also requires the knowledge that children pick up on these gender mythologies at a very young age and they proceed to play out in a variety of ways – often damaging – for the rest of their lives.”
By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer