Girls attend class in a village in Nowshera District, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. © UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2742/Marta Ramoneda
What is the difference between gender and sex?
• ‘Sex’ refers to the biological differences between males and females.
• Gender describes roles, rights and responsibilities that communities and societies consider appropriate for women/girls and men/boys.
We often talk about gender as a social construct. That means that gender roles are not a ‘natural’ result of biological differences, but are determined by the systems and cultures in which we live. We are born as males and females, but we learn to become girls and boys, men and women, from our families and societies.
These assumptions are what create gender identities and in turn gender-based discrimination and gender inequality. Gender is a fluid concept and often changes over time, as well as from one culture to another. This means that we can address and contribute to changing these roles by challenging the status quo and seeking social change.
How does gender inequality affect girls?
Gender inequalities can impact many different aspects of girl’s lives. While each country and community is different, we can observe the following global trends:
• Girls are less likely than boys to go to school.
• Girls are more likely than boys to be married before the age of 18.
• Girls are more likely than boys to become infected with HIV.
• Girls are more likely than boys to have experienced sexual violence.
• Women hold fewer leadership positions both in politics and in the workplace.
Often we see that girls from minority populations and rural areas are especially affected. Gender roles intersect with discrimination based on age, ethnicity, poverty, belonging to indigenous groups, caste, disability and other factors to create ‘double discrimination’ towards girls. We have to address these factors together to reduce discrimination against girls.
Discrimination heightens in adolescence
The discrimination girls face heightens during adolescence (10-19 years old). When we look at programs that typically target children under 10 years old, such as primary education and immunization, the differences between girls and boys are often quite small. But when girls reach adolescence they face a set of new challenges, such as child-domestic labour, child marriage, reproductive health, and sexual violence. The differences between girls and boys in these areas are much greater. So it is important to continue to address the specific needs of girls also when they reach adolescence.
How can we achieve gender equality?
Governments have made commitments to gender equality through ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and adopting the Beijing Platform for Action. These international frameworks promote the rights of girls and women and what governments must do towards achieving gender equality.
However, governments also need to make sure that standards and laws that protect the rights of girls and women are enforced. This is not always the case, and we need to continue to advocate with governments to play their part and support girls and women through laws and policies.
It is also important to change existing stereotypes and behaviours among all members of society who do not fully recognize the rights of girls and women. That can be difficult and involves challenging long-standing beliefs and attitudes in a community. But it is only when all girls and women are respected as equals that we can achieve gender equality.
Boys for gender equality
Gender equality can only be achieved by working on both sides of the equation – with girls and women and with boys and men. It is important to make boys aware of the effects of discrimination against girls and include them in developing responses and solutions.