Gender stereotypes are firmly rooted in today’s youth by age 10, according to a recent global study that warns such beliefs can raise the risk of depression, suicide, violence and HIV.
The investigation, which spanned 15 countries, suggested vast amounts of money were wasted on stereotype prevention programmes for teenagers, because efforts must begin far earlier.
“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 Kristin Mmari, lead researcher for the qualitative research at the Global Early Adolescent Study, a partnership between the World Health Organisation and Johns Hopkins University.
“Yet we see billions of dollars around the world invested in adolescent health programmes that don’t kick in until they are 15, and by then it’s probably too late.”
The study included 450 early adolescents matched with a parent or guardian. Interviews were conducted in South Africa, Bolivia, Belgium, Burkina Faso, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Scotland, the US and Vietnam.
Researchers found gender stereotypes which emphasised female passivity could encourage abuse. 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 were encouraged to spend time outside of the home, unsupervised, to explore the world.
When it came to relationships, boys were consistently viewed as being the ones allowed to take the first step except in one city - Edinburgh, Scotland.
Meanwhile, girls across the world were taught that their bodies were their key assets.
“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,” Mmari said.
Boys, too suffered from stereotypes that emphasised physical strength and independence, which could make them more susceptible to violence and substance abuse.
While there was increasing acceptance for girls who wanted to dress or act like boys - particularly in Belgium, China, India and the US - there was “almost zero tolerance for boys” who pushed back against typical gender roles.
“Boys who challenge gender norms by their dress or behaviour were by many respondents seen as socially inferior,” and were often bullied, teased and beaten.
“We found children at a very early age quickly internalise this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent,” said Robert Blum, director of the Global Early Adolescent Study.
“And this message is being constantly reinforced by siblings, classmates, teachers, parents, guardians, relatives, clergy and coaches.” - AFP