When we look at a newborn baby, can we tell if it’s male or female? No, not without looking at its genitals. Why not? If we think about it, we’ll find that the only fundamental difference between a male baby and a female baby is their sex organ and nothing more. As the baby grows into a child, if it’s a boy then he’s given cars and guns to play with. As he grows into a teen, he’s taught to be tough and that showing emotion equates to weakness. As he steps into adulthood, society dictates that he provide for his family and become the ‘head’ of the household. If the baby is a girl, she’s given dolls and haari patil to play with. As she becomes a teen, she is taught to be meek and submissive. When she grows into an adult she’s told her ultimate destination is motherhood and that she must take on the role of caretaker for her family.
What changes take place during a person’s growth that prompts them towards one defined path and not the other? Well, the short answer is, society. These behaviors, values, and attitudes assigned by society simply on the basis of a person’s sex organs are called gender roles. The physiological diversity designed by nature is for the purposes of reproduction; nothing in our biology defines that men cannot be nurturing, or that women cannot be breadwinners. It is our society that influences the impression of what it means to be a boy or a girl and a man or a woman. These harmful social norms and stereotypes limit the potential of what women and men can do. They are all around us, and deeply ingrained.
Gender roles and in effect, harmful gender stereotypes and wrongful gender stereotyping are some of the root causes for discrimination, abuse, and violence in numerous areas and can lead to violations of a wide array of human rights.
The Global Early Adolescent Study conducted jointly by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) has found that whether a child is in Baltimore, Beijing, or New Delhi, the onset of adolescence triggers a common set of rigidly enforced gender expectations associated with increased lifelong risks of mental and physical health problems.
For girls, those risks can include child marriage, pregnancy, leaving school early, sexually transmitted infections, and exposure to violence.
The recent rise in incidents of sexual, physical, and mental violence against women have appalled us all. These events are not born out of a silo, they are the result of rigid constructions of femininity and masculinity and stereotyped gender roles. Features like superiority, dominance, and looking down on women are associated with the male role, placing men in the position of power and women in the position of compliance. Sociological research shows that structural and individual violence are parts of the hegemonic male role – even though it varies, depending on the historical context and in interaction with other markers of “identity” such as class, ethnicity, religion, and region. In 2017, the UNODC found that 137 women and girls a day died as a result of violence by a relative or partner. In some parts of the world, the WHO says between one and two-thirds of women become “victims of physical and/or sexualized violence” at some point in their lives. Boys suffer, too, from increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, and shorter life expectancy than women - especially if they try to challenge masculine norms.
If we want to change this, then we have to stop perpetuating the myth of gender roles entirely. And that means helping men and women overcome the limits of societal dictations of what to do and what not to do. Sustainable development relies on ending discrimination towards women and providing equal opportunities for education and employment. Gender equality has been conclusively shown to stimulate economic growth, which is important, especially in countries with higher unemployment rates and less economic opportunity. UN Women reported that in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, half of the economic growth over the past 50 years is attributed to girls having better access to education.
Moreso, gender equality is the number one predictor of peace – more so than a state’s wealth, level of democracy, or religious identity. Creating a world of gender equality and gender justice means building collective power rather than dominating power. It means creating a world where people and the planet can flourish – regardless of age, race, gender, class, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation, and gender identity. The next step towards a more equal and just society is one without gender roles.
Fableeha Bushra Choudhury is a regular contributor to swayong.org.