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Addressing harmful and unequal gender norms


in early adolescence
Early adolescence (age 10–14) is an important window of opportunity to address gender socialization as the basis
for health and social justice. This Comment explains why this is the case and provides illustrative examples of
existing evidence on strategies to promote gender equitable attitudes in young adolescents.

Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli, Marina Plesons and Avni Amin

G
ender and other social inequalities of early pregnancy and its consequences Second, at puberty, the relative influence
shape our lives and behaviours and for maternal health outcomes3,4. This of social networks on gender attitudes
negatively influence a number of also compromises their educational and and behaviours shifts7. Parents remain an
health and social outcomes. Norms about economic opportunities, and their ability to important source of gender socialization
what it means to be a man or a woman and make decisions4. The percentage of countries through explicit communication, non-
those that ascribe higher value to being male with gender gaps in school attendance verbal cues or role modelling of gendered
compared with being female are one of the increases from 37% for primary education to behaviours between parents, within
ways in which societies perpetuate gender 54% and 77% for lower and upper secondary the household and within their own
inequalities. Individuals internalize these education, respectively5. Adolescent girls social networks7. At the same time, peer
norms in developing their identities, as well (age 10–19) are more likely than boys to relationships increasingly shape the way
as their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, experience sexual violence3. Girls ages 15–19 adolescents view the world, recognize social
throughout the life course. This is known account for 8 out of 10 new adolescent expectations and understand their roles
as gender socialization, which is defined human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as boys and girls7. While peers provide
as the process by which people learn to infections in sub-Saharan Africa4. Globally, social and emotional support and social
behave in a certain way as male or female boys and men are the main perpetrators of protection, they also can exert negative
as dictated by societal norms (widely interpersonal violence3. Adolescent boys social pressures7.
shared social expectations) and attitudes (age 10–19) are also more likely than girls Third, gender norms are further
(individual beliefs)1. While the process of to engage in health-harming behaviours, reinforced in schools and by the media.
gender socialization begins before birth such as alcohol and drug use, and early and For instance, school textbooks rarely
and occurs throughout life, this Comment unprotected sex6. depict working women and portray men in
aims to unpack three key reasons why early more diverse and prestigious roles8. In the
adolescence (age 10–14) is a particularly Gender norms become entrenched media, the largest analysis to date of
important window of opportunity to address Early adolescence is a transition period movie screenplays found that close to 80%
gender socialization. when enormous physical, cognitive, had a male lead9. In advertising, women
emotional and social changes occur. are more often depicted at home in
Sex differentials in outcomes emerge Alongside this, gender beliefs and attitudes dependent roles10.
Starting in early adolescence, sex differential that have been fostered since early As a result of all of these influences,
patterns in health and social outcomes childhood further intensify. Research adolescents learn not only that boys and
emerge that cannot be explained by from eight countries in the Global Early girls have different roles, but also that what
biological differences alone. In terms of Adolescent Study (GEAS) identifies several is male is more valued and powerful than
mortality, the most common causes of findings about gender socialization7. what is female. A global study found that
death during childhood (age 5–9) in 2016 First, girls and boys ages 10–14 describe substantial proportions of boys and girls
were the same for both boys and girls: changes in their own and others’ gender agree that wife-beating is justified in some
lower respiratory infections and diarrhoeal attitudes and expectations for appropriate situations — if a wife burns the food, argues
diseases2. In early adolescence (age 10–14), behaviours, clothing and roles during with her husband, neglects the children,
lower respiratory and diarrhoea remain this period7. For example, boys are often refuses to have sex or goes out without
top causes of death for girls, while top “encouraged to be strong and demonstrate permission11. When society deems such
causes for boys change to road injury heterosexual prowess”, and are burdened behaviours to be acceptable, they translate
and drowning2. Later in adolescence (age with untenable demands of being tough that into learned behaviours. For example,
15–19), top causes of death for girls become encourage risk-taking and impede social globally nearly one in three ever-partnered
maternal conditions and self-harm, while support and care-seeking7. Meanwhile, girls girls aged 15–19 years has experienced
top causes for boys become road injury and are “taught to be nice and submissive”7. intimate partner violence in their lifetime3.
interpersonal violence2. Pubertal girls are sexualized and learn Similarly, research on child marriage has
These differential patterns are in that their value lies in their bodies and demonstrated that girls who grow up in
part explained by gender inequality. For appearances7. Girls are also held responsible contexts where their mothers, aunts, sisters
example, more than 700 million women for their own protection through stringent and friends were married in adolescence
alive today were married before their expectations of modesty, restricted mobility often have internalized expectations of their
18th birthday, placing them at higher risk and emphasis on domestic roles7. own early marriage12.
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Strategies for egalitarian attitudes been implemented in different settings7. Conclusion


Brain development in early adolescence For example, in South Africa, Stepping Nearly 25 years after the landmark
presents a unique window of opportunity Stones aimed to encourage gender-equitable International Conference on Population
for intervening to build and foster positive, relationships by building communication and Development, the global health and
equitable gender norms. Typically between skills and stimulating critical reflection development communities recognize that
ages 9 and 12, nature flips on a switch in among peers, and showed reductions in gender socialization shapes adverse health
the endocrine–neurological axis, initiating perpetration of intimate partner violence and social outcomes, especially those related
a cascade of changes in the brain13. First, and in sexually transmitted infection rates to sexual and reproductive health. We are
there is a second cycle of synaptogenesis among adolescent boys. beginning to identify what influences gender
concentrated in the pre-frontal cortex, the Supporting parents in promoting gender attitudes in early adolescence. By addressing
region responsible for organizational ability, equitable attitudes is another area for gender socialization in early adolescence, we
strategic thinking and impulse control13. intervention7. For example, the Real Fathers can work to foster gender equitable norms as
Second, the brain undergoes an extended Initiative in Uganda provides mentoring a critical investment in shaping adolescents’
pruning process13. As more nerve axons to first-time fathers to support positive, health and wellbeing and their trajectories
become myelinated, neural communication nurturing relationships and reduce physical into adulthood. This is the basis for creating
and signal transmission become faster and punishment of children and intimate a more just society. ❐
more effective13. partner violence.
These physiological changes have Working with schools, including teachers Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli*,
enormous cognitive implications1. Thinking and school curricula, is another avenue Marina Plesons and Avni Amin
shifts from concrete to abstract, and the to build gender equitable attitudes7. For World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
brain is able to handle multidimensional example, The Good School Toolkit, which *e-mail: chandramouliv@who.int
concepts1. Reasoning skills strengthen and has been implemented in Uganda, guides
creative abilities blossom1. Adolescents schools to build equitable and positive Published: xx xx xxxx
expand their ability to compare feelings, educational environments. It has shown https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0318-3
explore reasons for their feelings and reductions in the prevalence of physical
regulate their emotions13. As a result, they violence against children in schools. References
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and Middle-Income Countries: Conceptualization, Influences and
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changes prime the adolescent brain’s ability example, the television series Sexto Sentido 2. Global Health Estimates 2015: Deaths by Cause, Age, Sex, by
for experience-dependent learning1. aimed at adolescents in Nicaragua, which Country and by Region, 2000–2015 (WHO, Geneva, 2016).
3. A Statistical Snapshot of Violence Against Adolescent Girls
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challenge unequal gender norms, and there promising results in improving attitudes (AA-HA!): Guidance to Support Country Implementation
(WHO, Geneva, 2017).
is growing research from interventions in towards gender equality. 5. Global Education Monitoring Report 2016: Gender Review
a few settings that this is possible7. Taking Gender socialization cannot be addressed (UNESCO, Paris, 2016).
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rewarded when they challenge it7. Research socialization must be integrated into large-
shows that young adolescents often have scale platforms (for example, health and Acknowledgements
limited autonomy, thus this work must be educational systems). To work, they also This work was funded by the UNDP–UNFPA–UNICEF–
WHO–World Bank Special Programme of Research,
complemented with interventions directed require a legal and policy context that
Development and Research Training in Human
at gatekeepers in adolescents’ lives14. promotes the human rights of adolescents, Reproduction (HRP), a cosponsored programme executed
Recognizing the importance of peer whether though protective legislation by the World Health Organization (WHO).
influence, group-based participatory against child marriage or policies that allow
education that fosters critical reflection for comprehensive sexuality education to be Competing interests
on what it means to be a boy or a girl has taught in schools7. The authors declare no competing interests.

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© 2018 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved.