Gender Equity in Children’s Stories?

The plight of women and girls, their disproportionate vulnerability to infections such as HIV/AIDS, and its relation to exacerbated societal inequalities is receiving increased attention. Societies and communities are recognizing the important role of females as vehicles of development, with the capacity to alleviate poverty, ensure the rights of children, and support the development of communities and societies worldwide. A series of articles related to the topic of gender equality in children’s stories, exploring the role  stories and myths can play in child development and how they  impact gender relations and roles. In an article titled, Gender Equity in Children’s Stories, Joanna Brooks discusses how characters and their (fictional) roles might influence real-life gender roles. She states that, “on average, about twice as many male characters in children’s books as female characters. Female characters are usually portrayed as passive, in need of help, and conformist while male characters are portrayed as active and independent. Many books revolve around a large cast of male characters while few females are mentioned.”

Culture and participatory arts can and do play a role in informing and influencing behavior – including gender relations – and are crucial to consider when thinking of poverty alleviation, culturally sensitive approaches to poverty reduction and human rights. Given the increased importance that is being given to community-based development and policy-making,as a more effective way of promoting human development, specifically crafted myths and stories have the potential  to affect behavior change in society. It further highlights the important role of participatory and creative expression for children and youth to promote their wellbeing. Women are seen as cornerstones of their families and communities, with a vital role to play in educating populations and ensuring their wellbeing. Brooks comments that, “female characters that are mentioned often tend to fall into roles such as mother, sweetheart, princess in need of rescue, etc. They either provide the main male character with support or they serve as his motivation, but they often do not have motivations of their own.” In this scenario, gender roles are immediately attributed to one’s sex. Without addressing gender norms within the society, gender equity – and therefore education and health inequities – are promoted.

Brooks contends that gender stereotypes exist in children’s stories because books are not looked at as critically as adult publications, and for reasons of marketability, boys are taught that “books about girls are ‘for girls,’ whereas girls are more likely to consume books about both genders.” So, where are more positive role models for young girls and women? Can children’s stories be adapted to affect such behavior change in communities world wide? By challenging culturally-prevalent norms, including the myths and misconceptions that often fuel stereogtypes, children’s books may be an effective means to target community-level behavior change and promote a more equitable approach towards questioning and reshaping gender norms in society.

Arguements by thinkers like Geeta Rao Gupta suggest that equitable gender relationships require not simply targetting of females, but also targetting males to affect behavior change. By including both males and females in a dialogue that challenges those social constructs, stigma or stereotypes that perpetute vulnerability, there is scope for effective and long term change. Impact, however, particularly for behavior change, is difficult to measure. Given this need to involve both males and females in such dialogues, children’s stories –  language, illustrations, art and cultural dimensions – reveal how the arts and creative expression can not only engage, but also challenge social norms.

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