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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 folderWorking for Change
View the documentChanging harmful gender roles
View the documentImproving sexual health in your community

Changing harmful gender roles

Changing harmful gender roles takes time, because ideas about gender are some of the most deeply-held beliefs a community has. But overtime, women and men can learn to take on new roles, especially if they understand how these roles will help girls and women live healthier, more productive lives.

To begin changing these gender roles, you will need to find ways to help your community. Here are some suggestions:

· Develop an awareness of what gender roles are, and how they are passed on by parents, community traditions, and the media (the radio, television and newspapers).

· Examine different gender roles to see which are harmful and need changing.

· Make plans for change.

Here are some suggestions for fun activities that have been used in some communities to help women and men think about gender roles and how they affect sexual health:

Using sexual language

Understanding that men and women see each others’ sexuality differently can help people think about how gender roles affect their beliefs about sexuality. This activity can help women and men learn how to talk openly about sex without shame, and to begin to think about the different ways that men and women view sexuality.

1. Write down (or draw) several sexual terms, each at the top of a separate piece of paper: for example ‘male genital organ’, ‘female genital organ’, ‘sex’, ‘condoms’, etc.

2. Divide into groups of 2 or 3 people. Give each small group one of the pieces of paper. Let each group have a few minutes to think of every polite, rude, medical, and common way to say the words on their paper, and call them out. Then pass the papers to a different group until each group has had a chance to add to each list.

3. Discuss the words with the whole group.

What does each word make people feel? Do they make the women in the group feel differently from the men? What words are used more by men? Which are used more by women? If a woman uses these words, what do people think of her? What do they think of a man who uses the same words? Why? What words are the best to use in different situations? Why?


Gender messages in the media

If people understand how harmful ideas about women’s sexuality and gender roles are learned, they can begin to think about how to change those ideas. This activity will help people think about how radio, movies, popular songs, and advertising communicate ideas about gender roles.

1. Listen to some popular songs on the radio (record them ahead of time if you have a tape recorder) or have members of the group sing (or act out) the songs. Listen carefully to what the words of the songs are saying about women and men. How are the women and men being described? Are these songs passing on ideas about women’s roles and sexuality? Note each ‘gender’ message the group identifies in the songs, and decide whether it is harmful or helpful to women.

2. Divide into small groups. Give each group an advertisement cut out of a magazine or newspaper, or copied from a billboard (pick advertisements that have women in them). Ask each group to identify what the advertisements say about women’s roles and sexuality. Then, bring everyone together again to say what messages are being passed on in each advertisement. Then decide as a group whether the messages are harmful or helpful to women.

3. Discuss how messages about women are passed on by radio, songs, and advertisements. How do these ideas influence us, our husbands, our children? Do these ideas lead to practices and beliefs which are harmful to women?

4. Identify ideas about women’s roles and sexuality that are important and helpful to pass on. How can these ideas be communicated in advertisements, songs, and movies? Ask small groups to draw an advertisement, or prepare a song or a skit that teaches helpful and healthy ideas about women. Have each group present their work to the others.