The physical and mental health effects of gender stereotypes were found to begin in children as early as 10 years of age. Is it time to adjust the way we look at adolescent health interventions?

The Problems Begin At Ten

Gender norms vary from one culture to another, and each country has its own version of how boys and girls should grow up to be. Current adolescent health programs target physical and mental problems related to gender stereotypes that begin to show at the height of adolescence at around 15 years old. A new comprehensive research reveals that should not be so.

A 15-country research released by the Global Early Adolescent Study, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, revealed that the physical and mental health issues brought about by gender norms and stereotypes actually begins to become ingrained in a child as early as 10 to 14 years old.

It's worth noting that the results were equally gathered from 15 countries that are a mixture of low-, middle-, and high-income countries, from the most conservative to the most liberal. These countries include Belgium, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, China, DR Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa, the United States, and Vietnam.

'Gender Straitjacket'

The results show that children who are brought up at an early age with so-called "gender straitjackets" are prone to negative lifelong consequences. The consequences of which are perilous for both boys and girls.

These 'gender straitjackets" reinforce the myths that boys must grow up to be strong and independent, while girls must be vulnerable. Similarly, they found that pubertal girls are seen as embodiments of sex and sexuality, while boys are seen as trouble. For instance, pubertal girls are told not to go outside and to cover up, while pubertal boys are seen as predators.

"A girl cannot go out as she wishes because she is a girl and if a girl came home late her parents would shout at her, but it is okay for a guy," said one girl from Egypt. Unfortunately, both genders suffer from the consequences of these norms, as former friendships are suddenly rendered illegitimate simply because of puberty.

The Consequences Of Gender Straitjackets

The consequences of such practices are dire. For girls, researchers found early school leaving, pregnancy, child marriage, HIV and STIs, violence, and depression as possible outcomes of adhering to the female stereotype.

On the other hand, boys suffer the consequences of being seen as emotionally unscathed. They are more prone to engaging in and being victims of physical violence and are more prone to engaging in substance abuse and suicide. Further, they die more frequently of unintentional injuries and have life expectancies that are shorter than that of women.

Results of the study show that it could very well be time to change and perhaps advance the way we tackle adolescent health problems, especially since they evidently begin at a much earlier age than previously thought. However, apart from tending to the needs of children with regards to the effects of gender norms, perhaps the better way of dealing with such consequences is to avoid exposing children to the stereotypes in the first place. This is, however, easier said than done.

"It also requires the knowledge that children pick up on these gender mythologies at a very young age and they proceed to play out in a variety of ways — often damaging — for the rest of their lives," said Robert W. Blum, M.D. , Ph.D., M.P.H., coauthor of the study.

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