Sexual and reproductive health

Gender inequality in early adolescence must be addressed for health and well-being throughout life

Special supplement on the Global Early Adolescent Study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health

20 September 2017: When children move into early adolescence, they begin to take on new gender roles associated with femininity and masculinity, often reinforcing socially and culturally conventional gender norms related with being women or men.

Group of adolescents in Bangladesh.
Ricci Coughlan/DFID

Special Supplement

These gender roles have an impact upon the decisions that young people in early adolescence make, and therefore upon their health and well-being. They have an impact on the choices young adolescents make in relation to sexual and inter-personal relationships, which can have an effect on their health and well-being throughout the rest of their lives.

In order to ensure health throughout people’s lives, it is therefore crucial that countries address gender inequality, particularly unequal gender norms in early adolescence.

To address this, an international research consortium from 15 countries, have been working together over the past 6 years to gather evidence on gender norms in early adolescence in order to inform interventions to improve health outcomes for young people. This is the Global Early Adolescent Study, an important effort which has been led by WHO, HRP and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, in order to understand how gender norms are formed in early adolescence and how they predispose young people to risking their sexual and reproductive – and overall – health.

Five key findings of the Global Early Adolescent Study

  • Unequal gender norms develop in early in childhood, and intensify in early adolescence.
  • There are some similarities and differences in how unequal gender attitudes and norms manifest across different geographic and socio-cultural contexts .
  • Societal expectations of boys and girls differ, and so do their own gender attitudes – across all contexts, puberty is associated with an expansion of boys’ worlds and a shrinking of girls’ worlds. Boys don't always recognize their own privilege and when they do challenge norms, they are punished. Girls recognize their own disadvantage and are more willing to challenge norms, but need support to exercise their agency.
  • Race, ethnicity, class and immigrant status influence gender norms and attitudes – these norms and attitudes can vary within sub-populations of the same geographical area.
  • There is strong evidence that peers and parents are influential in shaping gender norms and attitudes. There is some evidence that schools and teachers also shape norms and attitudes. Evidence on the influence of the media is beginning to emerge.