Rigid Notions of Being Man and Woman Hurt Children
The rigid notions of masculinity and femininity that we have subscribed to are hurting our children. They grow up thinking that there is only one way to be man and one way to be woman. Consequently, this cause many children and youth to feel inadequate, unworthy, hopeless, useless, unwanted, and all the synonyms you can possibly think of to describe low self-worth.
Our understanding of gender and gender expression in a binary construct limits individuality, personhood, ability(ies), and ambition. Consequently, our resignation in these ideas that we subscribed to about how people should express themselves ruin many people.
It is rather frightening that we pay little attention to such a grave issue in the many programmes that we have in our schools and communities. Year after year we focus on a plethora of problems bombarding our children but continue to ignore some socio-cultural issues that are equally important.
The theme for this year's observance of Child Month, 'Children Safety and Security - Our Priority' is actually very appropriate. But it won't be very impactful if we view children's safety and security in a myopic way without considering how harmful gender norms and stereotypes contribute to the growing levels of violence and abuse perpetrated against children by children and by adults.
Bailey and Leo-Rhynie (2004) argue that gendered cultural expectations are pivotal to Caribbean people's understanding of life. According to Plummer et al (2009:4), 'achieving a gendered identity - being able to project oneself as masculine - takes centre stage for most boys as they mature'. The ideas of masculinity are therefore culturally coded and imposed on males the moment we learn what their sex will be. The same is true for females. Blue for boys, pink for girls. And, of course, what's sometimes written or depicted on their garments say it all. For example, 'Masculine behaviours' are therefore frequently policed by one's peers, parents and the wider community to ensure that a boy does not grow up to be a 'sissy' but a 'real man' (Plummer et al, 2009:4-6).
I strongly believe this is one reason why so many women and girls report being sexually harassed on a daily basis. Society requires of us to let boys be boys and men be men while women and girls be docile as boys and men fÍte them with unwanted cheesy pick-up lines, unsolicited sexual advances and grand lies about their endowment and sexual abilities.
Similarly, we teach our girls that their primary role in society is one of domestic servitude, including - and importantly so - having children. We strip their personhood until they learn to be submissive and apologetic if they fall outside of these boundaries.
When our boys and girls are unable to perform their expected gender roles, we render them worthless for being different, for being inept at performing a gendered identity that is virtually impossible.
In Jamaica, the dominant culture dictates what we may refer to as 'normative gender relationships' and behaviour (Harcourt, 2009:2; Plummer et al, 2009). There are, as we know, prescribed roles and expectations of males and females, and most important, how both sexes interact with each other in public and private spaces.
There is therefore urgent need for social and culture reform to facilitate societal appreciation and acceptance for a more flexible idea of masculinity and femininity. It is time we create spaces for the varied manifestations of being male and female, where people can be gender creative and non-conforming - free from exclusion, discrimination and violence.
Given the harmful effects of gender norms and stereotypes, I think it is critical that we support our educators to understand gender issues and how to address the challenges boys and girls face because of the inflexible ideas about their gender that they have been taught by adults and other agents of socialisation, such as the church and media. We also need to ensure that the Health and Family Life Education curriculum includes these issues fully.
Public education campaigns at the community and national levels are needed. These programmes must be done with community-based organisations, non-governmental organisations and faith-based organisations. Equally important is the need to ensure that minority groups are consulted and meaningfully included in all efforts to foster gender equality and a broader understanding and appreciation of gender.