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Kate Jongbloed

Gender Discrimination Starts at Home

Kate Jongbloed

A boy washes plates and pans after a meal in Benin.

Stepping outside of traditional gender roles, a boy washes plates and pans after a meal in Benin.

Home is where we first start to be taught about gender roles, learning from our parents and siblings. Gender discrimination learned at home impacts children in their early formative years and sets the scene for the way a girl is treated throughout her life.

A preference for boys

The idea that boys are somehow better and preferable to girls is deeply embedded in most societies.  The preference for boys is often a financial issue and here’s why:

  • A girl often joins her husband’s family when they marry, and may even cost her family a dowry. In Nepal there’s a proverb: to raise and care for a girl is like taking care of someone else’s garden.
  • In many countries, only men are allowed to own or inherit property, having a son keeps assets in the family and makes sure parents will have somewhere to live when they get old.
  • If a family needs hard physical labour to run a farm or make it’s living in some other way, boys are seen as better and stronger than girls.

Expectant parents might pray for a boy, or even choose to have an abortion if they find out they’re expecting a girl. This practice is known as sex-selective abortion. Did you know that estimates suggest that there are half a million fewer female babies born per year in India because of sex-selective abortion?

This isn’t just an issue in developing countries. Boxing champion Muhammad Ali once famously told a reporter that he had, “one boy and seven mistakes,” referring to his daughters. If everyone is saying that boys are better, it’s not surprising that many boys develop a belief that they are more important than girls – and that girls internalize this too.

Kids are copycats

The saying goes that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but it’s also a key way that children learn. As toddlers, children start to imitate the behaviour of family members of the same gender and can tell the difference between a man and woman.

Around the same time, boys and girls start learning what it means to be a “good” girl or boy – these expectations are often quite different. Gender norms taught at home influence how girls’ perceive their intelligence, their self-worth, and their opportunities for the future.

How a father treats his wife and daughters will affect their potential and life choices, but it will also affect his sons too. Because the family is where we first learn how to be a male and female, a father who does his fair share of domestic work, who values and educates his children equally, who cuddles his sons and daughters and treats his wife as an equal will have a powerful impact on how his son grows up to be a man and treats his own family.

Homework versus housework

The gendered division of household work is accepted almost everywhere – a woman’s most important role is seen as taking care of her home and cooking for her family. Even when boys have household chores, they say something about gender roles: boys’ chores tend to be independent outdoor tasks, while girls’ tasks are often indoors and more closely supervised. These divisions teach children that there’s a difference between men’s and women’s work.

Focus on housework can also prevent girls from working on other things, like homework. Santhi, a girl living in Andhra Pradesh in India, was criticized by her mother for spending time studying and not on housework. Boys, on the other hand, are often encouraged to study and play.

Respect for women begins at home. Fathers, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers must share the burden of household work as an important step in building the self-esteem and worth of girls.

Learn more in the Because I am a Girl So what about boys? report.

Can you think of some examples of how what it means to be a boy or girl starts at home?