Hesperian Health Guides

Raising boys and girls as equals

In this chapter:

Children start learning gender expectations as soon as their parents and other adults know if the baby will be a boy or a girl. These gender roles often lead to an unequal access to resources and decision-making power that harms women’s health. One way to make sure girls and boys will be equally valued is to raise children with the same expectations, rights, and responsibilities.

Changing how we pass on ideas about gender

There are many ways a group of parents, teachers, and other adults can work with children to help all of them develop their full capabilities equally, free of harmful gender expectations. Parents can support each other by meeting regularly to talk about how gender expectations affect the ways they are raising their children.

Adults can teach girls and boys to respect each other, share things fairly, and cooperate on tasks together. Boys should not to be shamed for showing emotions, especially feelings of fear or sadness. Adults can help boys name and express their feelings, and also help girls say what they think and feel without fear of rejection or ridicule.

boys and girls playing a game together

Both boys and girls can learn to do all kinds of chores and share the same responsibilities, such as cooking, cleaning, caring for younger brothers and sisters, tending crops and animals, and using tools and machines.

A parents’ group can organize to make sure that girls and boys have the same opportunities at school, such as playing sports or taking certain classes. Adults can also help children create puppet shows or plays that use new stories or change traditional ones so they do not reinforce gender roles. (An example would be a story about a girl who rescues a boy from a monster instead of the boy rescuing the girl.)

It is also important to talk with children about the stories and magazines they read, the songs they listen to, and the TV shows, movies, and videos they watch, and help them question harmful gender roles when they are promoted in these media.

Activity Changing the rules

  1. Ask people to name important events that boys and girls experience as they grow up. List all the ideas.
    a group making a list.
    Coming of age ceremony
  2. Ask how gender expectations affect traditional events, for example:
    • How is the birth of a boy received differently from the birth of a girl?
    • How are expectations about marriage different for a young man and a young woman?
    • Are these differences necessary or important? Why? What benefits are there to having different traditions for girls and boys? What benefits might there be in making traditions more similar?
    • When growing up (or raising your child), how did the differences make you feel?
  3. Divide into small groups and ask each group to pick an event. For each event, ask the groups to think of some ways they could show that girls and boys are equally valued.
  4. Bring the groups back together and ask people to present their ideas.
  5. To end the activity, plan how to bring some of the ideas to the community.
a man speaking while holding a baby.
We made a drama for our village meeting about greeting the births of our daughters just as we do the births of our sons. We paid the midwife the same as if a boy had been born, held a ritual, and had a big party!

Mentoring can play an important role in building a person’s self-esteem. The caring attention of an older person has helped many girls change their own expectations about who they are and what might be possible for them. Similarly, boys can benefit from mentoring to learn to take the feelings of and possibilities for girls more seriously. The older person might be a teacher who sees certain strengths in a girl and encourages her to develop them. Or the person might be an auntie who looks out for young people, helping them to see their capabilities and work toward goals.

Girls become leaders

The Girl Child Network was started by a teacher in Zimbabwe, herself a survivor of rape as a child. She and the other founding members, some of them survivors of child abuse who are now staff members of this thriving organization, developed an approach to healing and support for girls that focuses on building self-esteem and leadership. Their approach results in well-spoken and capable young women who know their rights and can speak for the rights of girls. They have clear goals for themselves and plans for how to achieve them. They also know how to protect themselves when someone tries to abuse them, and they are ready and able to give support to girls who feel hopeless or helpless.

An important activity of the Girl Child Network is to respond to individual cases of abuse, providing girls a way out of harmful situations, working together with police and social service organizations, and raising awareness in families and communities about the rights of girls.

a group of young women having a discussion.

The key to helping girls become leaders rather than victims is through Girls’ Empowerment Clubs, generally based in schools. Girls work together, with the support of sensitive adult mentors, on activities to build their skills and confidence. They discuss their hopes and dreams as well as their experiences of abuse and disempowerment. They study and debate aspects of gender equality and human rights, and learn about everything from reproductive health to career opportunities. They organize self-help projects, engage in community mobilization using art, songs, dance and drama, and learn to name and shame rapists rather than feeling shame themselves.

Activity Reaching your dreams

This activity can help a group of adolescent girls reflect on their personal goals and on life skills they will need. Reflecting on dreams and personal goals motivates girls and gives them direction. When families, teachers, and communities encourage girls to set personal goals and give them the support they need, change becomes possible. If a girl attends school, for example, her chances of getting a job or pursuing a career are much greater. She will also be better prepared to make decisions that protect her health as a woman.

  1. Ask everyone to take a few minutes to reflect on their goals for themselves. You can give each girl a piece of paper and a pen or pencil to write down her personal goals or draw pictures that show them.
  2. On a large piece of paper or board, write questions that will help the girls explore their goals. Here are some sample questions you might use:
    • What do you know about yourself? Consider your values, skills, interests, responsibilities, strengths, and weaknesses.
    • What are your goals right now? What are your long-term life goals? For example: education and training, career and work, travel, personal and family goals.
    • Who can help you reach your goals? What steps do you need to take? What might get in your way? How can you overcome setbacks and doubts?
  3. Form small groups and make sure everyone can see the questions. Ask the groups to take about 10 minutes to discuss each question, making sure everyone in each small group has a chance to speak.
  4. When the groups have finished, gather everyone together. Ask each group to share one or two points that they discussed with each question. Then encourage each girl to identify one of her goals and some skills she will need to achieve it.

2 girls talking together.
I like science. I want to study hydrology or geology — the sciences about water and the earth — so I can help save our resources.
I don’t like to study, but I get along very well with people. I would like to be part of a cooperative business that makes and sells clothes.

Gender in the media

TV shows, movies, music videos, and advertisements all use gender roles in their stories and to sell things. By looking at the hidden — or not so hidden — messages in advertisements, we can see how they promote ideas about gender, many of which are not healthy for men or women.

Activity The world of ads ― sexy women and manly men

This activity lets people have fun and be artistic. To prepare, you will need several magazines or newspapers with images of women and men. These may be glamor or fashion magazines, men’s magazines, or any type of magazine with advertising pages. You will also need scissors, glue or tape, and pencils or markers.

  1. Give people time to look through the magazines. Ask them to pay attention to ads that have women in them. Give people a chance to share their reactions.
  2. Discuss the messages the ads use to sell their products. Make a list of the ideas. To help people consider the messages in an advertisement, ask what the ad wants people to think about women or men. Which ideas about how women and men should behave or think does the ad exploit or make attractive? Which ideas does it make seem unattractive or less worthy? How might the ad make women or men feel bad about themselves?

    You might also discuss other messages that influence ideas about people’s worth or status. For example, what do ads tell us about poor people, rich people, and people of different social groups and body types?

    Ask people if they think any of the ads lie. Which ones? Why?

    Finally, ask people to think about how the ads influence ideas about health. Do they try to make people buy or do things that are not healthy?

    a girl thinking while she looks at a large advertising poster.
    Why do all the models in ads have white skin and smooth hair? Nobody in my community looks like them.

    If your goal is to help women or young people see how messages about sexuality, beauty standards, or idealized women might be unhealthy for them, you may want to focus on body image and look at what the ads suggest about health and the "ideal body" ― looking at weight, height, age, skin color, and other features.

  3. Now it’s time to get creative. There are many different projects a group can do with these ads. For example, transform ads by making their "hidden message" visible. Or copy an ad with an obvious negative message about women and change it in a way that makes fun of the advertisement itself. This is called "adbusting." You can also have a contest to make a positive poster or advertisement that "sells" women’s strengths and possibilities, or shows new ways men and women can behave.

Adbusting uses art or writing to change what an ad says. It may either expose an ugly truth about the message or product, or replace the message with a new idea. Too often, the art that most people see is the advertisements on posters, billboards and magazines. Messages to sell things often spread false or harmful ideas, while we struggle to make our voices heard. One popular way to fight these harmful images is to change them. This can attract a lot of attention and make people think.

an ad shows a man drinking beer next to a sports car and a beautiful woman; a thought bubble taped to the ad shows what the woman is thinking.
If he didn't drink so much, we could afford that car.
Be the best!
Drink Smith Beer!

Adbusting may make fun of the product or disturb the way viewers see an ad by making a more serious point. When an ad tries to make the viewer feel a certain way, an adbuster may change it so that the viewer feels the opposite way. It can be as simple as taping a "thought bubble" on a magazine ad, and then taking a photo of it to post online or to share with others.

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024