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Study Finds Beliefs About Boy and Girl Differences Start at Early Age


Girls look in a mirror as they put makeup on during a beauty and fashion fair inspired by the U.S. "Beautycon" event, a gathering of fashion bloggers and YouTube personalities, May 28, 2016, in Paris. Researchers found that in most of the world's cultures, by the time girls are 10 years old, they have been taught that their key asset is their physical appearance.

For VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

No matter where they live, children get a strong message about what is expected of them as they grow up.

And, in most countries in the world, these expectations are closely tied to gender.

Boys learn that they have to be strong. They are encouraged to explore new things and have adventures. But, researchers say these expectations leave them with an increased risk of HIV, homicide and suicide.

Girls get a message that their bodies are both assets and problems. They need to look good, but not too good. They need to stay away from boys so they do not bring dishonor to their families.

Dr. Bob Blum is the director of Global Early Adolescent Study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He led the study. He says it is the first of its kind.

"There was no research at all, no understanding at all of young adolescents."

He said people held the belief that children are not receiving messages about gender, gender-based violence, rape and things of that nature. But the study came to a different finding.

The researchers talked to 450 poor children and their parents about gender expectations. The talks took place in a total of 15 countries of mixed wealth. Children in the study were between ages 10 and 14.

The World Health Organization, or WHO, and Johns Hopkins Medicine healthcare system were partners for the study.

Poverty's effects

Dr. Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli works on adolescent health for the World Health Organization. He says poverty has a powerful effect on keeping these damaging ideas alive.

It means boys will be pulled out of school and sent to work. Girls will not be educated, or they will be removed from school as soon as they reach their early teen years. And, they will be forced to marry young.

"If I see the daughter in my house as a burden, and a burden that I need to watch over very carefully because I don't want her to have sex before marriage because, if she does, she's not marriageable. Then what do I do?... I keep her under very tight control and I get her married off as quickly as I can."

But there is a push for change. In Nigeria, study researcher Bamidele Bello found that girls do not want to be limited by their gender.

She said they want to become doctors and professors. They have big goals and do not want their gender to limit them.

In Shanghai, China girls are told they should be economically independent and should not depend on men for financial help. At the same time, girls are told their husbands will leave them if they do not do housework.

This burden does not affect men, said researcher Xiauan Zuo. He said traditional culture requires women to be obedient.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Blum says they found that even in the most liberal societies, children internalize the belief that boys are strong and independent and girls are weak and dependent.

Children receive these messages all the time – from brothers and sisters, classmates, teachers, parents, family members, religious leaders and sports team leaders.

The researchers also found that, in most cultures, by the time girls are 10 years old, they have been taught that their main asset is their physical appearance.

Lead co-researcher Kristin Mmari said girls around the world are concerned about their bodies and other peoples' attitudes toward them. She said in New Delhi, India, the girls talked about their bodies as a big risk that needs to be covered up. And in Baltimore, Maryland, girls told researchers their main asset was their bodies and that they need to look good, but not too good.

Chandra-Mouli said violence against women is extremely common. He said one in three women experience violence from their husbands or other sexual partners.

But the researchers found that gender expectations put boys in danger, too. The social pressure to become strong and independent makes them more likely to be victims of physical violence or homicide. And, there is a higher chance they will have unhealthy behaviors, like tobacco, drug and alcohol use.

Where to go from here

The study said that societies that want healthier young adults need to make changes in gender messaging.

The WHO wants to use the study findings to create programs that change ideas about what is normal for each gender before children reach age 15.

Blum said the researchers will measure changes in their subjects over the next few years to see how beliefs about gender affect individuals' lives. And, they want to see whether programs change these results.

Blum and other researchers from the study discussed their findings at the National Press Club in Washington.

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report.

I'm Jill Robbins. And I'm Alice Bryant.

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Words in This Story

gender – n. the state of being male of female

HIV – n. a virus that causes AIDS

homicide – n. the act of killing another person

asset – n. a valuable person or thing

internalize – v. to make something, such as an idea or an attitude, an important part of the kind of person you are

tobacco – n. a plant that produces leaves which are smoked in cigarettes and pipes

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