Gender norms expose adolescents to health problems

Girls playing a game of tug of war
Copyright: Panos

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  • Researchers identified gender norms that influence adolescent health
  • They found that boys are prone to injuries while girls are viewed as victims
  • Experts call for a need to address challenges faced by young adolescents

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[MUTARE, ZIMBABWE] Culturally enforced gender norms that could lead to lifetime pain and suffering in teenagers need to be tamed at early adolescence, a study says.  

The study conducted by a consortium of fifteen countries and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last month (20 September) involved interviews with early adolescents and their parents or caregivers to explore how gender norms are formed in adolescence, and how they eventually lead young people to sexual and other health risks.

The main objective of the study was to understand transitions into adolescence with a focus on problems, opportunities, and contrasts between young people’s social discourses as they grow up, says Kristin Mmari, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of reproductive health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

“Gender norms and beliefs have significant implications for adolescents. The consequences for teens, especially girls in the developing world include child marriages.”

Kristin Mmari, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

The study was conducted in ten countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and the United States.

“There has been substantial attention and research that has focused on 15-19-year olds, thus neglecting adolescents between the ages of ten and 14 years,” says Mmari. “Such approaches are problematic because they overlook the needs of younger adolescents who face the greatest risks and complications related to unhealthy behaviours such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).”

Researchers interviewed 167 girls and 160 boys aged 11-14 years old and 287 caregivers or parents.

“Gender norms and beliefs have significant implications for adolescents. The consequences for teens, especially girls in the developing world include child marriages, early school leaving, pregnancy, HIV and STI risk, violence exposure and depression,” Mmari says, noting that as young people grow up they engage with and construct their own gender-based understandings of what it means to be a boy or a girl.

According to the study, pubertal boys are viewed as predators while the girls are viewed as being more vulnerable and potential victims. Such norms make boys engage in physical violence to a much greater degree than girls, thus resulting in boys having more unintentional injuries and being more vulnerable to substance abuse and suicide.

Beatrice Maina, a co-author of the study and a research officer at the African Population and Health Research Center, Kenya, adds “The responsibility of action lies with both national and international stakeholders in adolescent health programming. 

“They all need to work together to allow for multidimensional focus to improve gender equality, quality education and good health in the developing world.”

Gertrude Shumba, executive director of Family AIDS Caring Trust in Zimbabwe, tells SciDev.Net that the study results must be a wake-up call for African countries that have seen massive transformation in family structures and relations.

“The results are a pointer to what should be done to address the challenges that young people face in the developing world as they live and interact amongst themselves, adults and influences from social institutions such as media and schools,” says Shumba.
“Governments in Africa must put in place harmonised gender policies that foster teenagers’ growth and ensure cultural values and norms help shape children development and securing them from exploitation.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.