Teens risk suicide, drugs and AIDS due to gender "straitjacket": study

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gender stereotypes put girls as young as 10 at risk of HIV/AIDS and depression, and lead boys to abuse drugs and commit suicide, a major study across 15 countries said on Wednesday.

Children around the world - in liberal and conservative cultures - internalize damaging beliefs that boys are aggressive troublemakers, while vulnerable girls need protection, at a much younger age than previously thought, the research found.

“Before this study, there was a general belief that at 10 or 11 years of age, (adolescents) were not clued into any issues around gender norms and values,” Robert Blum, director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, said.

“Young adolescents do not live in the world of childhood... they live in a transitional era where they’re acutely aware of what’s going on,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The U.S.-based university and the World Health Organization interviewed about 450 adolescents over four years in countries ranging from the United States and Belgium to Malawi and India.

“There are tremendous commonalities in young people in as diverse places as Beijing and Kinshasa,” said Blum.

Pre-teens know where to get a backstreet abortion in countries where it is illegal and understand that certain friendships are no longer acceptable after puberty, he said.

The gender “straitjacket” is especially harmful for girls.

Constant emphasis on their physical appearance and perceptions of vulnerability make girls subservient and can sanction abuse as punishment for violating gender norms, the landmark study found.

This leaves girls at a greater risk of physical and sexual violence, child marriage, early pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, it said.

For boys, an emphasis on physical strength and independence at an early age makes them more likely to abuse drugs and get involved in violence.

Damaging expectations become entrenched between the ages of 10 and 14, rather than in mid-teens, which means adolescent mental and sexual health programs need to start younger, Blum said.

“If we start intervention at the age of 15, we may be too late,” he said.

“These gender norms become solidified in early adolescence, they’re exposed to them since they were born.”

In countries such as the United States, India, Belgium and China, it is increasingly acceptable for girls to defy gender stereotypes but not for boys, who get bullied and beaten up for appearing feminine, it said.

Recent shifts in gender roles in the United States and northern Europe show that cultures can change, Blum said.