Gender discrimination is based on gender norms, which are ideas about how women and men should be and act. It governs the behaviors of individuals while accessing health related services and information. Internalized early in life, gender norms can establish a life-cycle of gender socialization and stereotyping. Gender norms thus influence the health and well-being of women and girls across three domains:

  1. How women and girls themselves and their families view their health needs
  2. How much agency and decision-making women exercise over their bodies and the choices they make
  3. What challenges they face in accessing health-related information and services

An example of gender norms is seen in the importance given to the notion of virginity for girls; virginity is directly related to the perceptions of purity, family honor, and marriageability of a girl. Fears over sexual violence, abuse or harassment exist and are seen as risks to this purity. Therefore, to preserve this purity, adolescent girls are married off before the age of 18 years or just as soon as they turn 18. A UNICEF report shows that while child marriage rates halved in 2018, this still meant that nearly 1.5 million girls got married before the age of 18. And for these adolescent girls who are married off early, there is a huge taboo in accessing information on sexual and reproductive health services. The taboos extend to adolescent girls and women attempting to express desire and negotiating with their partners, including for sexual and/or reproductive choices. The norms and taboos make adolescent girls and women more vulnerable to risky sexual behaviors, unprotected sex and unwanted/unplanned pregnancy, and/or unsafe abortions. This, in turn, influences their health-seeking behavior and also has a long-term impact on their health.

In terms of family planning, despite the above taboo, statistics show that there is almost an overall dependence on women. According to the National Family Health Survey – 4, the male versus female ratio for sterilization stood at 1:52, with “female sterilisation being the most popular contraceptive method”. This directly impacts the health and agency of many women.

Similar situations come up time and again in a woman’s life, which impact her health. These situations limit her choices, access to contraception, when and if she would want to have children, how many children she would want and even her ability to say yes or no to sex with her partner.

Read the full article about gender norms for marriage by Urvashi Gandhi at Global WA.