The established gender bias of teens

2017-10-08 05:43
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Kristin Mmari, lead researcher of the Global Early Adolescent Study, a 15-country project, tells about the key takeaways from the study so far.

What did the Global Early Adolescent Study set out to establish?

Our overarching aim was to explore how boys and girls from diverse cultural settings experience their transitions into adolescence. Questions we were interested in included: What changes? How do these changes vary from boys to girls? How do they vary by geographic and cultural location?

We wanted to address these questions because the way in which adolescents experience biological and social changes differs. Factors that play a role include gender, cognitive abilities, education, emotion and life experiences, as well as cultural and social contexts.

Yet information on how these factors manifest and inform gender differences across contexts is quite limited, particularly from low- and middle-income countries.

A particularly interesting, yet unknown, aspect of early adolescence is how boys and girls establish relationships that ultimately shape their sexual and overall health from early to late adolescence.

What are the most important findings from African countries involved in the study?

The key takeaways from the study so far are:

- This is the first global study to demonstrate that we can measure gender norms around the world among this young age group of 10 to 14. Before this study, it was not known whether adolescents in this age group would be able to accurately provide information about what it meant to be an adolescent, and the attitudes and beliefs about gender that influenced their transition into adolescence. Not only did we learn that it is possible to collect data from this age group across multiple cultural settings, but that, in fact, adolescents are astute observers.

- There are consistent forms of patriarchy around the world – girls are perceived to be vulnerable and in need of protection to preserve their sexual and reproductive health. Their mobility and social space is greatly reduced and often enforced by parents to “preserve their reputation”. Girls who are observed with boys are automatically assumed to be in romantic and sexual relationships with them, and this could ruin their reputations or their families.

- Boys expand their social spaces and are given much more freedom and independence. But they also face increased risks related to the environment, such as engagement in violence and/or substance misuse.

- There were more similarities than differences between the sub-Saharan African contexts and the other sites included in the study. However, boy-girl relationships were frowned upon and subjected girls to sexual and reproductive health risks, such as pregnancy and gender-based violence; as a consequence, many parents did not want their daughters to be in the company of boys.

The goal of the study was to get insights that could be used to inform policies that promote sexual and reproductive wellbeing.

What insights were gained and what key interventions should follow?

We already know that norms around gender inequity lead to poor health outcomes among older adolescents and young adults. For example, research has shown that, when men and boys adhere to traditional views about masculinity, they are more likely to report having used violence against a partner, suffered a sexually transmitted infection and misused substances (Pulerwitz and Barker, 2008). Other studies have found correlations between beliefs in gender inequitable norms and HIV transmission rates, contraceptive use and gender-based violence (Barker and Ricardo, 2005).

This study shows that these norms are being established much earlier than we thought. Interventions should start earlier for both boys and girls. Gender as a system that is made up of multiple actors, ranging from parents, teachers, peers and neighbourhoods to the broader media and policy environment should also be addressed.

What happens next?

Phase two of the study will be a large quantitative survey to examine the extent to which changes in beliefs of gender inequitable norms lead to changes in health outcomes, and the factors that may contribute to these changes.

The Global Adolescent Study involved a series of interviews conducted over the past four years with hundreds of early adolescents and their parents in 15 countries, including Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa.

So far, only Nairobi, Kenya, Assiut in Egypt and Ile Ife in Nigeria have been involved. Another four countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Malawi and South Africa, will be included in future products and analyses.

- This article has been edited for length; for the full version, visit: The Conversation

Read more on:    youth  |  gender

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