"Boys Should Have the Courage to Ask a Girl Out": Gender Norms in Early Adolescent Romantic Relationships


Purpose: The purpose of the study is to explore how gender norms emerge in romantic relationships among early adolescents (EAs) living in five poor urban areas.

Methods: Data were collected as part of the Global Early Adolescent Study. The current research analyzed data from interviews with 30 EAs (aged 11-13 years) living in five poor urban sites: Baltimore, Cuenca, Edinburgh, Ghent, and Nairobi. All interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed in English using Atlas.ti, focusing on how EAs experience and perceive gender norms in romantic relationships.

Results: Across the five sites, only a few respondents described having been in love, the majority of whom were boys. Findings indicate that stereotypical gender norms about romantic relationships prevail across these cultural settings, depicting boys as romantically/sexually active and dominant, and girls as innocent with less (romantic) agency. In spite of the similarities, Nairobi was unique in that respondents referred to how sexual behavior and violence can occur within EA relationships. In all countries, heterosexuality was perceived to be the norm. Nevertheless, there were examples of EAs accepting homosexuality and expressing supportive attitudes toward equality between the sexes.

Conclusions: While EAs across five different cultural settings seem to endorse stereotypical gender norms in romantic relationships, a few stories also illustrate more gender-equal attitudes. As stereotypical gender norms have a demonstrated negative effect on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and well-being, additional research is needed to understand which factors-at the interpersonal and structural level-contribute to the construction of these norms among EAs.

Authors & affiliation: 
Sara De Meyer, M.A. a , * , Anna Kågesten, M.P.H. b , Kristin Mmari, Dr.P.H., M.A. b , Juliet McEachran, Ph.D. c , Elisa Chilet-Rosell, Ph.D. d , e , f , Caroline W. Kabiru, Ph.D. g , h , Beatrice Maina, M.A. g , Elena M. Jerves, M.Sc. i , Candace Currie, Ph.D. c , and Kristien Michielsen, Ph.D. a a International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH), Department of Uro-Gynecology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ghent University, Gh ent, Belgium b Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland c Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit, School of Medicine, University of St. Andrews, University of St Andrews Medical and Biological Sciences B uilding North Haugh St Andrews, Edinburgh, Scotland d School of Medical Sciences, University of Cuenca, Loja Campus Universitario, Cuenca, Ecuador e Department of Public Health, Miguel Hernández University, Alicante, Spain f Centro de Investigación Biomédica en Red de Epidemiología y Salud Pública, Madrid, Spain g Population Dynamics and Reproductive Health Program, African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), Nairobi, Kenya h John C Caldwell Population, Health and Development Visiting Fellow, the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health (NCEPH) and School of D emography, Australian National University, The Australian National University Acton, Canberra, Australia i Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cuenca, Loja Campus Universitario, Cuenca, Ecuador
Published In: 
Adolescent Health 61 (2017) pp. 42-47. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.03.007
Publication date: 
Sunday, October 1, 2017