Women - Commentary

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The gender rules

Of all the issues that influence the adolescent experience, none is more profound than gender: the countless, unspoken cultural rules that govern the behaviour of females and males in every country on earth, almost from the day they are born.

Adolescent boys and girls are both vulnerable -- but in different ways. They both face sexual pressures, but boys' sexuality is affirmed, while girls' is denied. They may both come from poor families, but in most cultures it is the girls whom poverty forces out of school, not the boys. They may both have to work, but for boys it is outside the home, expanding their horizons; for girls it is inside the home, restricting their experience. At adolescence, a boy faces the pressure of societal expectations to 'be a man', while a girl loses whatever freedom she had as a child.

Those differences show up clearly in the division of responsibilities at home. Studies by the population council in Kenya, for example, show that 8- to 14-year-old girls work at domestic chores for 19 hours a week, boys for 14 hours. By the time they reach the 15- to 19-year-old age group, girls' workload has shot up to 32 hours a week, while the workload of boys has increased by just 4 hours. In Bangladesh, out-of-school boys spend just 12 minutes a day on domestic duties, compared to the 5 hours girls spend.

Nor are girls just working in their own homes. Ninety per cent of the children working as domestic servants -- one of the most exploitive forms of child labour -- are girls, and a survey in India found that 9 out of 10 households employing domestic servants preferred 12- to 15-year-old girls.

Family honour

In many societies, an adolescent girl is closeted in the home for the sake of the family's honour, which depends on her virginity and modesty. If she is out in the world, coming into contact with men outside her family, she risks her family's reputation. For this reason, young women are frequently married off as fast as possible. The median age of marriage for girls in Bangladesh is 14; in Senegal, 16; in Nigeria, 17; and in Egypt, 19.

These limits become visible in many secondary school classrooms, where a majority of the seats are filled by boys. Boys have higher rates of enrolment in secondary school than girls in about three quarters of developing countries outside Latin America. More than four times as many Yemeni boys attend secondary school as do girls, 36 per cent to 8 per cent. In Nepal, 49 per cent of boys are in secondary school, compared to 25 per cent of girls, and in Turkey, 67 per cent of boys attend, compared to 45 per cent of girls. (See story)

A girl with minimal education, raised to be submissive and subservient, married to an older man, has little ability to negotiate sexual activity, the number of children she will bear or how she spends her time. In much of the developing world, women who have not completed primary school have two to three more children than those with some secondary education.

A young woman's lack of schooling also has a profound effect on the lives of her children. In Indonesia, the children of women with no formal schooling are almost three times more likely to die than those born to women with at least a secondary education.

Education is not a magic pill. But it can boost a young woman's confidence and teach her 'life skills', equipping her to make her own judgements. It may enable her to assert her right to choose whom and when she marries and to shift the skewed distribution of power between herself and her husband. Education can also provide vocational skills, potentially increasing her economic power, thus freeing her from dependence on her husband, father or brother.

However, that economic power often comes with a price. Most of the more than 1 million women employed in Bangladesh's garment factories begin working during adolescence. Forced by poverty to leave school, they accept the trade-off of a job that pays relatively well but exploits them, sometimes requiring them to work a 12-hour shift, seven days a week.

Although a job can raise self-confidence and provide the income needed to delay marriage, both the adolescent girl and society pay a high price in the long term when she drops out of school to go to work.

It is a tragic irony that adolescents were largely ignored by their elders until HIV/AIDS began to threaten their lives. Combining issues of sexuality, inequality, culture and poverty in complex ways, this disease encapsulates the adolescent experience in the late 1990s. Young people age 15 to 24 account for more than half of all new HIV infections, and teenage girls become infected at twice the rate of boys.

HIV disparities

In some countries, the disparity is even greater, as in Malawi and Uganda, where HIV-infected females age 15 to 19 outnumber infected males six to one. In Eastern Europe, HIV-infection rates went up sixfold between 1995 and 1997. Worldwide, 1 in 20 adolescents contracts a sexually transmitted disease every year.

Copyright © UNICEF/96-0571/Toutounji

Education equips girls with skills and confidence, enabling them to take their place in the world. These adolescent girls learn computer graphic design at a school in Damascus (Syria).

In the age of AIDS, being knowledgeable about reproductive health and having control over sexual activity is a matter of life and death for young people. Both boys and girls are in jeopardy: boys because of their sexual risk-taking; girls because they generally lack the social power to set the terms of relationships, given males' traditional dominance in sexual matters.

In most encounters, the males are older, further enhancing their control. A study in Mali found that girls had their first sexual encounter at a median age of 15.8 years, compared to 20.7 years for boys. In Tanzania, female teachers had to be recruited as 'guardians' to protect young female students from the sexual advances of their male teachers. Among 53 countries reporting on marriage and cohabitation among 15- to 19-year-old males and females, every country had a higher rate for females -- and in many countries it was far higher. (See story)

Although the adolescent birth rate is falling in every region except sub-Saharan Africa, girls age 15 to 19 still account for more than 10 per cent of all births worldwide. One fifth of adolescents in the United States are parents before age 20, one half in Guatemala and Nicaragua and four fifths in Bangladesh.

Young women's immature bodies simply are not ready to have babies. Pregnancy-related deaths, mostly from obstructed labour, infection, haemorrhage, abortion and anaemia, are the leading cause of mortality for girls age 15 to 19 worldwide. The risk of death from pregnancy-related causes is four times higher in this age group than for women older than 20.

Having children when she is still a child herself interferes with a young woman's ability to make the most of her own life. Pregnancy typically ends a girl's schooling, and whatever free time she has is taken up by the demands of childcare.

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