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close this bookWhere Women Have No Doctor - A Health Guide for Women (Hesperian Foundation, 1997, 600 p.)
close this folderChapter 12: Sexual Health
close this folderSex and Gender Roles
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentHow gender roles are learned
View the documentWhen gender roles cause harm


Each person is born with either a girl’s body or a boy’s body. These physical differences determine a person’s sex, which does not change overtime.

A person’s gender role refers to the way a community defines what it is to be a woman or a man. Each community expects women and men to think, feel, and act in certain ways, simply because they are women or men. In most communities, for example, women are expected to prepare food, gather water and fuel, and care for their children and partner. Men, however, are often expected to work outside the home to provide for their families and parents in old age, and to defend their families from harm.


Unlike the physical differences between men and women, gender roles and the activities associated with them are created by the community. Some activities, like preparing food and caring for children, are considered ‘women’s activities’ in many communities. But others vary from place to place - depending on a community’s traditions, laws, and religions. Gender roles can even vary within communities, based on how much education a person has, her race, or her age. For example, in some communities women of a certain race are expected to do domestic work, while other women have more choice about the jobs they hold.


How gender roles are learned

Gender roles are passed down from parents to children. From the time children are very young, parents treat girls and boys differently - sometimes without realizing they do so. Children watch their parents closely, noticing how they behave, how they treat each other, and what their roles are in the community.

As children grow up, they accept these roles because they want to please their parents and. because parents have more authority. These roles also help children know who they are and what is expected of them. So in the same way that children learn their own names, they also learn about their gender - that is, what it means to be a woman or a man.

As the world changes, gender roles also change. Many young people want to live differently from their parents. But they sometimes find it difficult to change, because the family and community expect them to continue following old ‘rules’. As women struggle to gain the freedom to redefine their gender roles, they can also gain more control over the things that determine sexual health.

When gender roles cause harm

Fulfilling the roles expected by the community can be satisfying and can give a woman a sense of belonging. But these roles can also limit a woman’s activities and choices, and make her feel less valued than a man. When this happens, everyone - the woman herself, her family, and her community - suffers.

In most communities, women are expected to be wives and mothers. Many women like this role because it can be very satisfying and it gives them status in the community. Other women would prefer to follow their own interests - , or they want to have only a few children - but their families and communities do not give them this choice. If she is expected to have many children, a woman may have less chance to learn new skills or go to school. Most of her time and energy will be spent taking care of others’ needs. Or, if a woman is unable to have children, her community may value her less than other women.


Most communities value men’s work more than women’s work. For example, this woman has worked all day - and then cooks, cleans, and cares for her children at night. But because her husband’s work is considered more important, _ she is concerned about his rest - not her own. Her children will grow up thinking men’s work is more important, and value women less.


Women are often considered more emotional than men, and they are free to express these emotions with others. Men, however, are often taught that showing emotions like sadness or tenderness is ‘unmanly’, so they hide their feelings. Or they express their feelings in angry or violent ways that are more acceptable for men. When men are unable to show their feelings, children may feel more distant from their fathers, and men are less able to get support from others for their problems.


Women are often discouraged from speaking - or forbidden to attend or speak - at community meetings. This means the community only hears about what men think - for example, how they view a problem and their solutions for it. Since women have much knowledge and experience, the whole community suffers when they cannot discuss problems and offer suggestions for change.


Women and men who have sexual relations with people of the same sex (homosexuals) are sometimes made to feel like outcasts in their own communities. Even if they are community leaders in other ways, they may be forced to live and love in secrecy and shame. In some communities, fear or lack of understanding of people in same sex relationships may even lead to physical violence against them. Any time a person is made to feel afraid or ashamed about who he or she is, it harms the person’s mental and sexual health.