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Report: Teens scarred by damaging gender stereotypes

By Protus Onyango | September 25th 2017

Gender stereotypes and associated health risks get ingrained in children at the onset of adolescence, a new report shows.

This is also the time the myth that girls are vulnerable while boys are strong is reinforced, according to the report dubbed It Begins at Ten: How Gender Expectations Shape Early Adolescence around the World, which studied 15 countries, including Kenya, and involved some 900 adolescents.

"It does not matter the child's background, whether they were brought up in Nairobi, Baltimore, Beijing, or New Delhi. The stereotype gender expectations linked to increased risks of everything from HIV and depression, violence and suicide are the same," says the study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the World Health Organisation.

“We found that children at a very early age, from the most conservative to the most liberal societies, quickly internalise these myths,” said Robert Blum, director of Global Early Adolescent Study based at Johns Hopkins University during the release of the report last week.

“This message is being constantly reinforced by siblings, classmates, teachers, parents, guardians, relatives, the clergy, and coaches.”

The report noted that there are many culturally enforced gender stereotypes that have been associated with increased risk of mental and physical health problems that become firmly rooted in children between 10 and 14 years of age. 

Researchers said interventions to help youths out of associated challenges should start early to avoid health risks of 'gender straitjackets' that include abuse and suicide. 

“Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviours rooted in gender roles that can be established in children by the time they are 10 or 11 years old,” said Kristin Mmari, associate professor and lead researcher at the Global Early Adolescent Study.

She added: “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 to make a big difference.”

In Kenya, the study was conducted in the Korogocho slums, one of the most densely populated informal settlements in Nairobi.

Local researchers Beatrice Maina and Caroline Kabiru found that adolescents' reaction to puberty was based on the observations they make about their body changes, emotions, and responsibilities.

"These included physical and physiological changes adolescents observe in themselves and the changes in assigned responsibilities or duties they get entrusted with," they said.

"Adolescents' responses to changes on their bodies include anxiety, shame and pride. They desire greater privacy. Parents' reactions were broadly supportive of their children's pubertal transition. However, mothers' communication approaches may sometimes be inappropriate in terms of using fear, scare tactics," Kabiru said.

Parents' reactions to changes in their children appeared to be influenced by their (children's) interest in interacting with members of the opposite sex.

Most adolescents indicated that they reacted to changes on bodies by trying to hide them.


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