"We see gender inequality starting at birth."

Childhood is changing.

If anyone needs reminding, this month’s global climate strikes led by a Swedish teen activist and attended by millions brings into sharp relief what children today are up against, as well as how they’re stepping up.

Yet some aspects of childhood stay stubbornly the same. In many societies, gender stereotypes persist, and continue to shape the paths taken by girls and boys.

Gerda Binder, UNICEF’s Regional Gender Advisor for East Asia and Pacific, works with the UN agency’s partners in government, civil society and the private sector to advance gender equality, particularly girls’ empowerment.

Below, Binder talks about projects around topics such as body image, child marriage and menstrual taboos, including partnering with advertisers and reaching out on mobile apps and social media, and about how rigid gender norms limits opportunities for both boys and girls, and, ultimately, limits progress for entire societies.

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Siblings in Bangladesh. Images courtesy of UNICEF.

What do you think are the biggest issues when it comes to gender around Asia?

In UNICEF, we see gender inequality starting at birth. Particularly in Asia, there is a strong preference for boys. This can lead to sex selection; girls don’t even get born. Today, more than 117 million women and girls are missing in Asia.

As children grow up, we expect very different behaviours from girls and boys. We give boys and girls different toys. In media, they see male heroes and women who need rescuing. We compliment girls so much more on appearances versus the abilities that we highlight in boys like how smart they are, or strong. Between 6- 10 years of age, gender stereotypes really manifest in girls and boys; it impacts their confidence and aspirations and makes them follow different pathways.

For example, we see girls drop out of school due to marriage or pregnancy, or to help at home. Girls do not choose science and technology as subjects in schools or as career paths. Many girls don’t enter the workforce at all. And if they do they are expected to do double duty – the caregiving to children and family members, and housework, in addition to their employment or entrepreneurial work.

Tell us about UNICEF’s recent work on child marriage and the issues around that.

In South Asia we see forced and arranged child marriages. In other parts of the region it is more about young people in romantic relationships. Girls and boys engage in relationships with their peers, and often pregnancy comes first, which gets ‘resolved’ in early marriage, before age 18. There are different patterns of child marriage and teenage pregnancy—each needs to be addressed in specific ways.

In this region, we work in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia where the numbers of child marriages are highest. We see girls’ agency and girls’ education as most important. Girls—and boys—need to learn about relationships and their bodies, to make informed and safe choices.

We promote comprehensive sexuality education through schools, through parents and develop guidance and tools to support them. But girls and boys are also online and look for health information, including on sex and sexuality.

We have mapped out what kind of digital media offerings are out there—websites, chatbots, apps, vlogs, and much more. We are looking at how we can work with these digital groups and online sex educators and support them. It’s early days but, for the first time, children can engage directly on content that is important to them.

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UNICEF session on menstrual health and hygiene management for adolescent girls in India. Image courtesy of UNICEF

Any other projects you’d like to highlight?

We are looking at the taboo and stigma around menstruation, this silence that has been built around it. It inhibits girls’ confidence and their participation across all sectors.

In Laos, for example, we found that 97% of girls said they had no idea what was happening when they got their first period. They thought they were sick or had cancer and would die.

We are co-creating with girls a mobile phone period-tracking app. It can also work offline, can be used on shared phones and is gamified. This is for girls who want to learn about their periods and their bodies.

In our first phase, we got input from more than 400 girls in remote as well as urban areas, in schools and youth clubs. They also selected the name, Oky. The app was developed in two markets, Indonesia and Mongolia. We will scale across the region and globally. The app will be launched later this year.

In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of “purpose brands,” where brands tap on environmental sustainability or on keeping jobs at home, and so on. Are there brands you’ve worked with around Asia that have a gender lens?

We have a partnership with Dove as they have a very good curriculum on girls’ body image and self-esteem, celebrating diversity and the fact that women and girls come in all shapes and sizes. We are working with them in three countries on how to get these messages at scale, including using digital. We launched this year in India, Indonesia and Brazil. This is about diversity, about embracing your body and having confidence.

We also work with UN Women on the Unstereotype Alliance, aimed at getting rid of stereotypes in advertising and content.

Overall, in our region there’s a lot more that needs to be done.

What do you hope will change in the next five years?

This year is the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s the 25th year of the Beijing Declaration on the equality of men and women.

The rights of girls and boys worldwide is at a crossroads. So much has changed in childhood in the last 30 years. Urbanization, climate change, migration. Girls and boys and families are on the move.

We now have the digital space to use for good. I think there are a lot of positive trends and I hope they continue and that girls can claim their space and make their mark on the world.