Commitment 5: Changing the conversation around social gender norms

Gendered social norms – the way that society sees and treats boys according to their gender – can have wide-ranging and influential impacts on their experiences of sexual abuse, disclosure and recovery.

What’s the problem?

Amongst other effects, prevailing gendered social norms can influence the perceptions of boys’ vulnerability. This is a key reason that sexual violence affecting boys remains largely unknown, unacknowledged and not responded to, across a wide range of contexts and cultures; as described in our report Caring for Boys Affected by Sexual Violence.

Many parents and other duty bearers struggle to see their sons as vulnerable to sexual violence in the first place. As a result, they often do not take steps to prevent or protect boys as they may do with girls. And when it does occur, families may blame boys and struggle to recognise them as having been abused, as shown by research in Chile and Guatemala. Boys are often discouraged from reporting because social norms dictate that boys should show self-reliance, stoicism and psychological resilience. 

Our member organisation in the Philippines, CPTCSA, asserts that the mantra ‘boys will be boys’ is a common way of explaining away harmful sexual behaviour in the Philippines. In Ghana, we found that some boys are expected to defend themselves from attack and are blamed if they cannot. In other circumstances we found in some cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa, boys are applauded for their sexual prowess and encouraged to have multiple sexual partners, leading to harmful sexual behaviour. We found examples of boys reporting sexual violence but it not being seen as a serious matter, and instead being downplayed as a learning experience on the journey into manhood. In part, this is because in many contexts boys are not considered to have virginity, honour and future marriage prospects at stake, so sexual abuse is seen as less important.

Gendered social norms affect boys across cultures. In the UK, we heard about a newspaper article of a father describing his 11-year-old son as having a ‘notch on his belt’ after he was sexually abused by a woman; whereas in Guatemala sexual abuse by a woman was described as “something positive for the teenager’s sex life”.

These types of attitudes also mean that gendered social norms and notions of masculinity can result in extremely weak responses by service providers who fail to listen to or believe boys affected by sexual abuse. In order to properly support boys, therefore, change is crucial.


What are we calling for?

We believe that interventions that address gendered social norms should be implemented more broadly, paying special attention to disadvantaged communities and minorities, who can be disproportionately affected. 

More research would also need to be done to understand the socially constructed, fluid and contested nature of masculinity in boys’ lives. However, some research is available, such as that by the MenEngage Alliance and Instituto Promundo which suggests that prevention initiatives that encourage men and boys, alongside women and girls, to critically reflect on questions or change social norms that create and reinforce gender inequality are more effective than those that engage boys and men in narrow discussions about sexual exploitation and legal sanctions.

Examples of interventions that address gender norms can be found. ECPAT International has a programme to promote awareness of the harms and consequences of commercial sexual exploitation of children, men’s roles in perpetrating sexual exploitation, and their potential to be catalysts for change. In South Africa, social workers and other professionals are increasingly stepping in to guide boys on gender roles and relationships, as a result of the increasing absence of male role models within families. It is important that we raise awareness with caregivers, practitioners and service providers to reduce discrimination towards boys affected by sexual violence.


Making it happen

Through the United For Boys Charter, we’re calling for organisations to commit to ensuring their services work for every child who needs them.

Through our package of support and guidance, we support signatory organisations to make it happen around the world.

*Source: Our report, Caring for Boys Affected by Sexual Violence.

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