Photo taken from Xinhua News
Educational environments influence children’s learning in many ways; from social interaction, cognition of space and environment, to socialization within gender roles. As reported in Gender Socialization in Education, schools in the Meru county played a significant role in the development of students’ gender identity through enforcing society’s traditional values. Respondents in the study agreed that majority of boys exhibit competitiveness, aggression, and violence; noting that boys are encouraged to suppress emotions other than anger to appear strong. The boy child is told “don’t cry like a girl” as it is seen as weakness and subjects them to ridicule. Ergo, the boy child specifically, feels confined to conform to the socially-constructed ideas of masculinity presented to them.
It was intriguing to observe, when looking at schools for the EAI’s Child Enabling Environments Initiative, that playgrounds were an indicator of the gendered roles within Kenyan schools. Activities in the playground are “gendered”; as the boys play rough, violent games without the girls. Girls and boys report they cannot play with each other. If a boy plays with a girl, he fears ridicule or abuse. If a girl plays with the boys, she fears being harmed or ostracized by her peers.
The phrase toxic masculinity is described as traditional, cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men and women; and if accessed in childhood, teaches boys ineffective communication strategies or unsafe ways to show their emotions. As a result, often, violent behaviour is learned as an alternative to communication and used to affirm their masculinity. This can leave boys at a disproportionate risk for deviant behaviour and damages their emotional well-being. In the absence of emotional wellness, educational outcomes are negatively impacted.
The impact of diminishing emotions in boys, means that the boy child faces additional challenges beyond emotional expectations. They can endure child labour; drug and substance abuse; forced marriages; peer pressure to drop out of school or engage in illegal activity; and the expectation to provide for their family. Boys have been excluded from fundamental rights and privileges, but are not given tools to cope nor the opportunity to express their emotions about these hardships.
While girls are empowered, men are expected to “man up”, as explained by Juma Hemedi, founder of Ajibika Afrika. He goes on to say that societal demands continue to place a disadvantage on men. In Kenya, there is a feeling that with affirmative action policies addressing the girl child, the boy child has been left behind. Kenyans are quoted as saying, “we know that the girl child has been so empowered that they are even taking away everything from the boy child.” Another expressed that “the girl child in this area has been elevated to royalty status… the boy child has been badly neglected”.
According to a study by the National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC), the public perceived boys as lagging because of the over-focus on the girl child by the Government and NGOs. The NGEC study believes this may cause boys to lose confidence and develop low self-esteem. The Kenya Institute of Public Research questions if boys have been excluded in the gender equality agenda. They found that although gender parity in education has narrowed; the boy child is still achieving more academically. However, they acknowledged if key issues in boys’ lives are not addressed, their vulnerability may increase.
Conflict Theory suggests that tensions arise when resources and power are believed to be unevenly distributed between groups, thus, triggering a competition for resources. But empowering girls does not mean disempowering boys; and vice versa. Incorporating principles of equity in gendered initiatives ensures that everyone has what they need to be successful. For instance, boys require initiatives to support their emotional well-being using different strategies than girls do.
While organisations like Kenya MenEngage Alliance, MenKen, and The Counselling Research Institute of Kenya are engaging in boys’ emotional wellness, more can be done. Educational environments often enforce these stereotypical gender attitudes, but alternatively, they provide a platform to address these behaviours.
Introducing effective gendered counselling programmes in schools would encourage boys to express their emotions and avoid the harmful effects of bottled-up stress. Raising awareness of vulnerabilities faced by boys can normalize their experiences, encourage conversation, and challenge harmful societal expectations. Additionally, introducing teacher training to enhance understanding of the evolving gender roles or affirmative action policies would address the reality of boys’ experiences in school. Overall, demystifying the concepts of masculinity in society can facilitate boys’ expression of emotions in a healthy way.
Kristin Swardh is an EAI Research Assistant, conducting research on child enabling environments in Kenya.