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Gender and adolescence: Why understanding adolescent capabilities, change strategies and contexts matters - Second Edition

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Why a focus on gendered adolescence matters

Adolescence has powerful impacts on children’s capabilities. This is in part because of the physical transformations wrought by puberty, which are considered second only to those experienced in infancy and early childhood in terms of their scope and speed, and in part because of how children’s place in the family and broader community shifts as they approach maturity (Viner et al., 2015; Steinberg, 2015; Patton et al., 2012; UNICEF, 2011a). Given these pivotal life changes – and with a global adolescent population of more than 1.2 billion (UNICEF, 2011) – it is increasingly recognised by development community actors that adolescence represents a very important and unique opportunity to reap a triple dividend for adolescents now, for their adult trajectories and those of their children. Indeed, the years between 10 and 19 are increasingly seen as a critical window during which to accelerate progress against the effects of poverty, inequity and discrimination and to foster positive development trajectories (Sheehan et al., 2017; USAID 2016) (see also Box 1).

Adolescent transitions shape both girls’ and boys’ lives, but often in highly gendered ways. Advancing understanding of these gendered dimensions of adolescent experiences is a core aim of The Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) research programme. While our research will involve both girls and boys, we place a particular focus on the experiences and capability outcomes of girls because of the ways adolescent transitions more sharply curtail their capabilities. Over the course of the second decade of life, with timing and speed that not only varies between girls but also can be markedly asynchronous, even within individuals, girls are transformed by the production of sex hormones. In addition to the very obvious maturation their bodies undergo, as they grow taller and heavier, develop breasts and begin menstruating, the unseen cascade of hormones changes the way their brains function – not only moving them towards a greater capacity for analytic rather than concrete thought and making it possible for them to take on the perspectives of others but also making them evaluate risks differently and value their peers’ opinions over those of adults (Crone and Dahl, 2012; Steinberg, 2015; WHO, 2014a; Goddings et al., 2014; Spear, 2013; Blakemore and Robbins, 2012; Romer, 2012; Breinbauer and Maddaleno, 2005). Within the confines of their cultural environments, they also begin to assert their autonomy and independence from their families (Zimmer-Gembeck and Collins, 2008; Fleming, 2005).

As girls enter and progress through adolescence, the gendered norms of their socio-cultural environments also begin to play a heightened role in shaping their trajectories, with the years of early adolescence found to be especially important because of the ways in which social norms start to become both more rigidly enforced – especially by mothers in some contexts (Basu and Acharya, 2016; Basu et al., 2016) – and more personally salient (McCarthy et al., 2016; Kågesten et al., 2016; John et al., 2016; Mmari et al., 2016). Indeed, emerging research suggests that the years between 10 and 14 may be a ‘sensitive period’ for sociocultural processing (Fuhrmann et al., 2015; Blakemore and Mills, 2014; Crone and Dahl, 2012). Critically for girls in the Global South, the years of early adolescence, rather than expanding their worlds – as is common for boys and for girls in the Global North – often see them made smaller as they have to leave comparatively free childhoods and are forced down the gendered adult pathways of their local environments (Marcus and Harper, 2015; Watson, 2015; Watson and Harper, 2013). Girls who have begun to aspire to a world different from those of their mothers and their grandmothers find as their bodies evidence maturity that they are too often required to leave school and marry, abandoning not only their educational and occupational plans but also mobility and friendships (Kyomuhendo Bantebya et al., 2013, 2014; Ghimire and Samuels, 2013, 2014; Tefera et al., 2013; Jones et al. 2013, 2014a, 2014b, 2015a, 2016b). Pressures related to domestic and care work burdens, sexual purity and family honour and heightened risks of sexual and gender-based violence combine to limit girls’ possibilities in ways that often have lifelong consequences (see discussion below).

After decades during which the concept of adolescence was largely seen as a Western luxury with little applicability in the Global South, recent advances in neuroscience (see Box 2) have helped generate new ways of thinking about the transition between childhood and adulthood. Not only do we increasingly understand that puberty has impacts that reach far beyond visible sexual characteristics, but also we have come to appreciate that there is more uniformity of experience than we might previously have expected. That said, it is also increasingly clear there are marked differences between ages, contexts and gendered realities that are poorly understood in terms of how they affect the formation of girls’ unique identities and capabilities. Focusing on these differences enables the development community (including policymakers, practitioners and communities) to not only better support the immediate needs of adolescents, thus improving their quality of life during a critical phase of life, but also to contribute to shaping girls’ capacity to aspire to a better life for the future – which is an investment that global evidence underscores will pay off across generations as girls mature into empowered adult women (e.g. Wodon et al., 2017).

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