During this Tuesday’s sessions at the Women Deliver Conference I attended a plenary called “Be #Bold4Her on gender norms: What are we so afraid of?” where a panel of distinguished speakers were discussing the issue of gender norms. This was an interesting session in many ways, highlighting the different difficulties gender norms pose on especially women and girls – but also demonstrating how difficult it can be just to discuss about this issue.
That the issue of gender norms is a challenging, much debated and problematic topic is nothing new. This was also something that was evident during the panel, as speaker Dorothy Muroki (FHI 360 Chief of Party and CB-HIPP, Kenya) noted that the global north is already complete according to gender norms if you compare to the global south and the African countries as a response to a comment from Lenita Toivakka (Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, Finland), who had said that Finland is one of the best countries in the world to be a mother. In response to Muroki, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda (General Secretary, World YWCA) reminded the panel and audience of the fact that we actually need to learn from each other and not depend on just the developed countries.
— Kirsti Pohjankukka (@KPohjankukka) May 17, 2016
So how come we so often discuss these topics in only the developing countries and not in the western world? As a young woman growing up in Sweden, I have faced daily struggles because of rigid and constraining gender norms. I am supposed to look in a certain way, wear certain clothes and act in certain forms – all in order to fulfill the norms about how a girl is expected to be.
Gumbonzvanda also said that a woman growing up and living in poverty is the most innovating woman that exists – because they have to be. I think this is an incredibly important thought. We often hear about projects in developing countries where women are able to flourish and broaden their skills and knowledge, and I think we all need to remind ourselves of the fact that all women and men around the world need to build bridges between each other and work together on eliminating gender norms. Of course we have different problems in different parts of the world and some problems are worse than others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t inspire each other and learn from each other.
It is also important to encourage societies, individuals such as parents and educators, and also state actors to stand up against harmful gender norms – which can be a very challenging goal to achieve. Giving parents advice on how to raise their children is a difficult task, but we have to find ways to build dialogue and be able to discuss these challenging issues in a constructive manner – and help more people understand that breaking rigid and conservative gender norms is in the best interest of all of us.
I remember when a friend of my mother told me that she and her husband we’re always very cautious to not push traditional gender norms on their daughter. They let her wear whatever she felt comfortable with and wanted to prioritize that she could play and have fun rather than look nice. She came home from kindergarten one day when she was three years old and told her mom that the girls had started questioning why she wore pants and not dresses and why she was looking boyish. She told her mother that she didn’t felt pretty in her regular clothes anymore and that she instead felt like wearing a pink dress. While her mother felt that as long as the wish to wear a pink dress was coming from her daughter and not imposed by society on her, this is also an example of a situation where the society around her – namely her peers in kindergarten – were influenced by existing gender norms and had a preconceived notion of what girls and boys should or should not wear, only because of their gender. It might seem trivial – but it is not. It’s a symptom of a larger problem where we assign roles and expectations on girls and boys from a very young age that limit their opportunities not only in terms of what to wear and how to look, but in terms of what they want to study, what field of work they want to pursue, what skills they believe they possess or don’t have.
This is a typical example of how Sweden and all western countries also still have a long way to go to break rigid and harmful gender norms, both big and small. Society has a huge impact on how children perceive themselves, and it is our joint responsibility to strive to build societies where all children can strive and reach their full potential. As Gumbonzvanda said:
We need to empower each other and build bridges so that we together can eliminate gender norms.
We should not replace the existing gender norms with new ones, we should make sure to eliminate them and never look back. Every human being should be able to be, act and look however they want and feel comfortable with – despite what gender they identify with.
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