Enforcing gender stereotypes in children puts young girls at risk of HIV/AIDS and depression, and leads boys to suicide and drug abuse, an international study stated.
The research, which spanned 15 countries, found that children around the world – whether in liberal or conservative cultures – take some gender biases to heart at a much younger age than previously thought, Reuters reports. These stereotypes include the perception that boys are aggressive and are troublemakers, while girls are vulnerable and need protection, the research said.
Robert Blum, director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute and director of the Global Early Adolescent Study, observed,
Before this study, there was a general belief that at 10 or 11 years of age, (adolescents) were not clued into any issues around gender norms and values.
He added, “Young adolescents do not live in the world of childhood… they live in a transitional era where they’re acutely aware of what’s going on.”
The institute and the World Health Organization interviewed around 450 teenagers over a period of four years in countries such as the United States, Malawi, Belgium, China and India.
Blum said, “There are tremendous commonalities in young people in as diverse places as Beijing and Kinshasa.” For example, pre-adolescents already know where they can get a backstreet abortion in countries where the procedure is illegal, and can understand that certain types of friendships are no longer seen as appropriate after puberty, Blum said.
The gender “straitjacket” is especially dangerous for girls, the study noted. A constant stress on appearance and perceptions of vulnerability make girls submissive and can condone abuse as a punishment for diverging from these gender rules, the study said. This means girls are more at risk for physical and sexual violence, child marriage, early pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.
For boys, putting an emphasis on physical strength and independence makes them more likely to become violent or drug abusers.
These harmful stereotypes and expectations become entrenched at the ages of 10 to 14, not during mid-teens. Blum said this means mental and sexual health programs need to begin earlier. “If we start intervention at the age of 15, we may be too late. These gender norms become solidified in early adolescence, they’re exposed to them since they were born.”