In Their Words: How Children are Affected by Gender Issues

By Eve Conant and photographs by Robin Hammond

They’re only 9 years old, but these kids from around the worl offer keen insight into how gender shapes destiny.    They’re smack in the middle of childhood but old enough to have sage views on gender.

Here, kids from all over the world share what they like about being boys and girls—and what they wish could be different.  If you want candid answers about how gender shapes destiny, ask the world’s nine-year-olds.

At nine, a girl in Kenya already knows that her parents will marry her off for a dowry, to a man who may beat her. At nine, a boy in India already knows he’ll be pressured by male pals to sexually harass women in the street.

At nine, youngsters from China to Canada and Kenya to Brazil describe big dreams for future careers—but the boys don’t see their gender as an impediment, while the girls, all too frequently, do.

IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
Girls are nice, they are kind, and they indulge in physical violence. —Pooja Pawara, Masharashtra, India
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
Boys can be employed, catch fish, build houses, work, and saw down trees. —Fuyi Huang, Cuijiaba Town, China
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The boys play in the street all day, but girls can’t do that … I think girls can’t stay out in the streets because of violence and stray bullets. —Luandra Montovani, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The best thing about being a boy is animals—taking care of the livestock. —Ekiru Eyapan, Kaputir, Kenya
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The worst thing about being a girl is … lots of people think that, like, because you are a girl you have to be, like, playing with dolls. —Hilde Lysiak, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
If I was a girl, I would have to play with Barbies. I won’t be able to play boy games. If I was a girl, my favorite color would be purple. Then there’d just be pinkish all over. —Jesse James Williams, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
There isn’t anything I can’t do because I’m a girl. Everyone is equal. There is always the same amount of opportunities for everyone but in the olden days everyone wasn’t equal. —Mikayla McDonald, Ottawa, Canada
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The worst thing about being a boy is that they steal stuff and do Eve-teasing [harassing females]. —Sunny Bhope, Maharashtra, India
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
If I could make some changes, I would change my personality, because my social skills are not very good. I would like to make myself a bit more extroverted, not too timid. —Jiayai Fan, Beijing, China

On the cusp of change, in that last anteroom of childhood before adolescence, nine-year-olds don’t think in terms of demographic statistics or global averages. But when they talk about their lives, it’s clear: Children at this age are unquestionably taking account of their own possibilities—and the limits gender places on them.

To get kids’ perspectives, National Geographic fanned out into 80 homes over four continents. From the slums of Rio de Janeiro to the high-rises of Beijing, we posed the same questions to a diverse cast of nine-year-olds. Being nine, they didn’t mince their words.

Many readily admitted that it can be hard—frustrating, confusing, lonely—to fit into the communities they call home and the roles they’re expected to play. Others are thriving as they break down gender barriers.

What’s the best thing about being a girl?

Avery Jackson swipes a rainbow-streaked wisp of hair from her eyes and considers the question. “Everything about being a girl is good!”

What’s the worst thing about being a girl?

“How boys always say, ‘That stuff isn’t girl stuff—it’s boy stuff.’ Like when I first did parkour,” an obstacle-course sport.

IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The worst thing of being a girl is when you’re not an adult and you’re still a child when you [give] birth. —Ayanah (Diana) Nyawira Kinyua, Nairobi, Kenya
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
Some boys hate girls, but if there were no girls, the house would be a garbage dump. Girls are a gift from God, and they help their mothers, and they clean the house. —Mohamd Abu Shamalah, Rafah, Gaza Strip
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
I think that something girls can’t do is to be a police officer. I want to be a police officer, but most police are men and there are no women, so I can’t. —Yunshu Sang, Beijing, China
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
If I was a girl, my life would be very strange and odd, because like it would be really irritating with the long hair, and it would be really hot. —Kyle D’Souza, Mumbai, India
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
[If I could change the world], I would change the thieves, and I wish they were good, so that they wouldn’t steal from people or kill them. —Clara Fraga, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The worst thing about being a boy is when you go to school, the teachers blame the boys, because the girls are most of the time the teacher’s pets. —Sediq Samim, Ottawa, Canada
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
You are seduced wherever you go. You are chased by men. If you go to fetch water, you are chased; you go to collect firewood, you are chased. —Nawar Kagete, Kaputir, Kenya
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
When I grow up, I want to be in the Navy SEALs to protect my country, because other bad people have killed my people. —Riley Richards, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The best thing about being a girl is, now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy. —Avery Jackson, Kansas City, Missouri

Avery spent the first four years of her life as a boy, and was miserable; she still smarts recalling how she lost her preschool friends because “their moms did not like me.” Living since 2012 as an openly transgender girl, the Kansas City native is now at ground zero in the evolving conversation about gender roles and rights.

The grown-ups talk about it—but kids like Avery want to have their say too. “Nine-year-olds can be impressively articulate and wise,” says Theresa Betancourt, associate professor of child health and human rights at Harvard University. They face increased peer pressure and responsibility, she says, but not the conformity and self-censorship that come with adolescence.

When asked the best-and-worst-things questions, Sunny Bhope—who speaks as his mother cooks rice over a charcoal fire, sending smoke through his small home near Mumbai, India—says the worst thing about being a boy is that he’s expected to join in “Eve-teasing,” his society’s euphemism for sexually harassing women in public.

For Yiqi Wang in Beijing, the best thing about being a girl is “we’re more calm and reliable than boys.” And for Juliana Meirelles Fleury in Rio, it’s that “we can go in the elevator first.”

How might your life be different if you were a girl instead of a boy (or a boy instead of a girl)?

Jerusalem’s Lev Hershberg says that if he were a girl, he “wouldn’t like computers.” Fellow Israeli Shimon Perel says if he were a girl, he could play with a jump rope.

If they were boys, Pooja Pawara from outside Mumbai would ride a scooter, while Yan Zhu from China’s Yaqueshui village would swim in a river that her grandmother insists is too cold for girls. Because she’s not a boy, Luandra Montovani isn’t allowed to play in her Rio favela’s streets, where she says the dangers include “violence and stray bullets.”

Eriah Big Crow, an Oglala Lakota who lives on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, says in a near whisper that there’s nothing that she can’t do, because boys and girls are “exactly the same.”

IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
I like to be a girl because girls take better care of themselves than boys. —Maria Eduarda Cardoso Raimundo, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
Boys play with each other. And girls play with each other. They don’t mix with each other. They play something different from what we play, and we play different from them. —Ibrahim Al Najjar, Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The difference between boys and girls is that girls are gentle and boys are rough, and some of them call people names, and they are not kind of self-controlled. —Nicole Nduta Munyui Osano, Nairobi, Kenya
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
Being a boy, you’re stronger, and you can lift things like refrigerators … As a girl, you have to comb your hair and put on clothes and make sure you’re modest and everything. —Dvir Berman, Givat Zeev (Israeli Settlement), West Bank
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
Sometimes I secretly help my older brother [on the farm]. Mom whacks me when she finds out. She says that girls who do these things will grow calluses on their hands; then they become ugly. —Fang Wang, Yaqueshui, China
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The good thing about being a boy is the penis. —Lopeyok Kagete, Kaputir, Kenya
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
We won’t get education in school, but boys will be educated, and therefore they can travel anywhere, but girls can’t. —Alfia Ansari, Mumbai, India
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
I think that the worst thing about being a boy is bullying girls, because girls are generally weaker and smaller, and they’re also timid … Boys should protect girls, just like my dad protects my mom and takes responsibility for our family. —Yingzhi Wang, Beijing, China
IN THEIR WORDS: HOW CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY GENDER ISSUES
The worst thing about being a girl is that you just can’t do things that boys can do; like, it kind of bothers me how there was not one girl president. —Tomee War Bonnet, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Eriah’s claim might sound too optimistic to Anju Malhotra, UNICEF’s principal adviser on gender and development. With respect to gender inequality, she says, “we’re not seeing an expiration date for it yet”—but there is progress.

For global citizens under age 10, recent decades have seen more gender equity in areas such as primary school education access, says UNICEF’s Claudia Cappa. But statisticians can count only “those who were able to survive,” she notes, and “sex-selective abortions of female fetuses” persist in some countries.

Past the age-10 mark, however, the closing gap is replaced by a wide gulf. “Things change completely in adolescence,” Cappa says, with “striking” gender gaps in access to secondary schools, for example, or exposure to early marriage and violence. “This is when you stop being a child,” she says. “You become a female or a male.”

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Lokamu Lopulmoe, a Turkana girl living in rural Kenya, says that when she grows up, her parents will “be given my dowry, and even if the man goes and beats me up eventually, my parents will have the dowry to console them.” Some 300 miles away, in a gated community in Nairobi, Chanelle Wangari Mwangi sits in her trophy-filled room and imagines a much different future: She wants to be a pro golfer and “help the needy.”

In Ottawa, Canada, William Kay confidently plans a future as “a banker or a computer, like, genius guy.” Beijing’s Yunshu Sang wants to be a police officer, “but most police are men,” she says, “so I can’t.” In Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, budding journalist Hilde Lysiak rides her neighborhood on a silver and pink bike, hunting for news—all the while suspecting that a boy reporter might “get more information from the police.”

What is something that makes you sad?

For Tomee War Bonnet, an Oglala Lakota, it’s “seeing people kill themselves.” What plants such thoughts in a nine-year-old’s head? Her reservation’s history of suicides, by kids as young as 12.

Mumbai’s Rania Singla feels sad when her little brother hits her. Lamia al Najjar, who lives in a makeshift home in the Gaza Strip, says, “I feel sadness when I see [how] our home is destroyed”—a result of fighting in the area in 2014.

What makes you most happy?

High on this list: family, God, food, and soccer. And friends. Other answers give a flavor of kids’ individual lives. One youngster loves powwows, another Easter eggs. For Amber Dubue in Ottawa, happiness is “room to run.” For Maria Eduarda Cardoso Raimundo in Rio, whose parents are separated, happiness is “Mom and Dad by my side, hugging me and giving me advice.”

Around age nine, Bede Sheppard says, children are “developing important feelings of empathy, fairness, and right from wrong.” As deputy director in the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, Sheppard has worked with child laborers, refugees, and other youngsters in dire circumstances. He says the most oppressed and disadvantaged can also be the most empathetic and selfless. Turkana herder Lopeyok Kagete dreams of giving away money and “slaughtering [livestock] for people to eat.” Though Sunny Bhope and his family live in a single concrete room, the Indian boy aspires to “provide rooms to the homeless.”

When nine-year-old girls and boys discuss themselves and each other, points of consensus emerge. Boys get in trouble more often than girls, both sides agree, and girls have to spend a lot of time on their hair. Such things are part of their reality—but much weightier matters are too.

If you could change something in your life or in the world, what would it be?

Rio’s Clara Fraga would make thieves “good, so that they wouldn’t steal.” Abby Haas would free her South Dakota reservation of the “bad guys.” Kieran Manuel Rosselli, of Ottawa, says he would “destroy terrorists.” The grim content of some answers, and the grave tones in which they’re delivered, give the impression of a miniature adult speaking, not a child. If she could, says China’s Fang Wang, the thing she would change is “what it’s like when I’m lonely.”

The aspiration mentioned most often, across lines of geography and gender, was summed up by Avery Jackson. If the world were hers to change, she said, there would be “no bullying. Because that’s just bad.”

Between them, Geographic staff writer Eve Conant and photographer Robin Hammond worked with scores of kids on four continents to create this cover story.

This story appears in the January 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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11 thoughts on “In Their Words: How Children are Affected by Gender Issues

  1. Wow bro. This generation is ruined. I can’t believe that transgender surgeries are being done on little boys and girls. As if an 8 year even knows what they’re doing. What do you know at 8? Frankly, I’m 23 and I’m still feeling brand new about life. Imagine 8. We need to move forward instead of backwards. This is on a whole other level.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes pretty shocking, but true. I wonder how many kids are confused by their gender to really undergo transgender treatment? I wonder how the environment (the nature vs nurture enigma) has to do with this ‘confusion ‘?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting article. Similar aspirations shared by children down through the ages; to right the wrongs of their parents or elders. Then, from somewhere, the rock of life blunts the vast majority of those desires and what we call reality takes control. A sad indictment of not only what we as adults have achieved but we, when ourselves were children, allowed to happened.The question I’d like to pose is: will it ever be possible to stop the pendulum of life swinging towards its acceptance of the inevitable and make it move in the opposite direction?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s obvious that in less economically stable countries, women are still seen as unequal. I do think things have improved in ‘richer’ areas of the world. In an upcoming post I’ll share my thoughts on the economic gender gap. Even in the richest country in the world, there is still a gender gap that our present administration has done little about.

      Like

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