Gary Barker

New Gender Equity Focus: Think about the boys as we empower the girls

Many of us are aware of the disadvantages that adolescent girls face in low-income countries. We know that young women and girls represent a staggering 70 per cent of the 15- to 24-year-olds living with HIV in Africa, and we know that they are often made vulnerable by the sexual behaviour of some older men. We’ve seen the data on girls’ school achievement in parts of Africa and Asia and on child marriage. The call for action to empower adolescent girls is being heard in the United Nations, in parliaments and in schools worldwide – and it must continue.

I frequently hear the issue discussed around my kitchen table in Washington, D.C., where my adolescent daughter and her friends like to say, “Girls rule!” One day I asked them, “What about boys? How are they doing?” “I think it’s just as hard for them,” one of my daughter’s friends tells me. “They have to act tough all the time.”

The pressure to act tough and to fulfill the rigid roles around what it means to be a man is what causes trouble for boys, for girls and for all of us – and this must be part of our discussion on empowering adolescent girls. We know that around the world, boys are frequently brought up to believe that being a man means not showing emotions or concern for health issues and, too often, seeking sexual conquests over sexual intimacy.

In sample survey research that we have carried out in Latin America, Asia and Africa, men who believe in inequitable forms of manhood are less likely to consistently use condoms, more likely to drink alcohol in excess, less likely to seek health care, more likely to use violence against female partners and more likely to have been arrested. We see the results of these rigid norms in global statistics on violence. Young men aged 15 to 24 die at higher rates than young women worldwide due to traffic accidents and violence. Men represent 80 per cent of smokers and alcoholics worldwide, and the rate of suicide among young men is about three times that among young women.

We know from global research that boys and young men are more likely to face and use physical violence in schools. And while girls’ enrolment is increasing in much of Asia and Africa, we see boys in Latin America, the Caribbean, North America and Europe faring worse than girls in terms of school achievement.

No matter where we look in the world, gender creates straightjackets for boys and girls – in different ways, but in ways that need to be understood for the sake of both sexes. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, young men perceive themselves as stuck in “youthhood” or “waithood” because they cannot find employment or acquire land and therefore cannot marry or form families. In such settings, where being socially recognized as an adult man means having a family and work, lots of young men feel excluded and angry. This anger and sense of being excluded and subordinated by the “big men” who have power in part underlie the conflict and urban violence that are present in many parts of the world. From Rwanda to Brazil to the slums of Mumbai, I’ve heard similar stories from young men who feel they cannot become “men” because no work means they have no social identity and no space to be recognized and respected.

We see these issues play out in numerous ways around the world. In longitudinal studies of hundreds of boys in the United States, Niobe Way of New York University finds that during early adolescence, boys speak about having and wanting close male friendships. They play basketball and baseball with friends, but they also share their “deepest secrets” and greatly value these intimate exchanges. But as these boys become men, they become fearful that these friendships will appear girlish or gay. At 15 and 16 years old – when the suicide rate among boys reaches four times the rate among girls in the United States – the boys in Dr. Way’s studies speak with much emotion about losing the intimate friendships they found so important a year or two earlier. They, too, fall victim to rigid views about manhood that limit their ability to develop connections with others.

We have too often ignored the fact that boys and girls are both “gendered” and shaped by these social ideas and structures that dictate what it means to be men and women. Rather than seeing boys and men as allies in changing gender disparities, we too often cast them only as perpetrators or potential perpetrators of violence.

We must hold individual men accountable for the violence and injustice they commit – against girls, other boys, women and men – and we must continue to question the inequalities that women and girls face. However, as we continue to understand the needs and vulnerabilities of adolescent girls, let’s make sure we look at the boys, too. Let’s make sure we engage boys and men for the benefit of girls and women, and for the benefit of boys and men themselves. And let’s make sure that we dismantle the gender straightjackets that limit and, too often, contribute to prematurely ending the lives and curtailing the life options of girls and boys, men and women.

As International Director of Instituto Promundo, Dr. Gary Barker is a globally recognized expert on gender socialization and masculinities. He previously served as Director of the Gender, Violence and Rights Portfolio at the International Center for Research on Women. His research and programme development have called attention to the need to engage men and boys as allies in achieving gender equality and the need to understand how norms related to manhood contribute to men’s use of violence against both women and other men and boys.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.