Young people and adolescents gathered at the seminar. Photo: WCC

Young people and adolescents gathered at the seminar. Photo: WCC

A recent seminar for adolescents and young people from the Nairobi city slum Schools of Hope Clubs invited participants to address their perceptions of what it means to be a man or a woman.

The seminar was facilitated by the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy and organized by ChallengeAid and Carlile College Center for Urban Mission at Church Army Africa Nairobi, Kenya.

“Gender stereotypes, it seems, continue to prevail among young people as they are taught that a good man should be confident, a problem solver, hardworking, respectful, provider, head of the family – while a good woman on the other hand, should be humble, have good morals, be obedient, nurture the family, be dignified and be a responsible mother,” reflected Rev. Pauline Wanjiru Njiru, WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy regional coordinator for Eastern Africa.

“As the same time, the young people have said that the gender stereotypes do not relate to their lived world,” Njiru added, observing that a good number of the adolescents and young people growing up in the urban slums of Nairobi either have fathers who are absent, or do not know who their biological fathers are and are being raised by their mother, aunties or grandmothers.

Prof. Esther Mombo – a well-known advocate for gender justice – spoke at the seminar, introducing the concepts of ‘toxic masculinities’ vis-à-vis ‘transformative masculinities’ to the participants. The former, she said, “projects the man as socially dominant, and this helps in promotion of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, justification of rape, seeing women as lesser beings and use of force in relationships”. The latter, she continued, “seeks to encourage boys and men to embrace more harmonious and tolerant ways of being men, and has been introduced to motivate boys and men to be open-minded in relation to their interpretation of who they are and how they relate to women, children and other men.”

The issues are pertinent, as sexual and gender-based violence resulting from such toxic gender norms is one well-known factor fueling the spread of HIV.

Poem reflects need for new norms

At the seminar, two of the young participants read aloud a poem entitled “a lament of a boy child”, and the group engaged together with the aspects of the poem that related to gender stereotypes.

In a nutshell, participants reflected, the poem suggests that boys should not be emotional, need not be protected and are less maintenance compared to girls, as they don’t need as many high-quality items as girls, and don’t need to be as smart-looking as the girls.

Seeing the young people analyze stereotypes and dismantle myths around the challenges faced by the boy child, Mombo noted that “this apparent discrimination is based on stereotypes. From the poem, discrimination is unfair and all children should be treated equally regardless of their gender.”

“The energy among these young people, their engagement in our discussions make it evident that investing in these young minds and bodies is worthwhile” writes Prof. Ezra Chitando, theology consultant for the WCC, as the group affirmed the transformative example of Jesus in a contextual Bible study of John 8:1-9.

“It is easier to build a boy than to mend a man," Chitando advocates.

Sophia Kamweru, convener of the seminar, called for more collaboration so as to reach more adolescents and young people, to help build their knowledge base and thereby help prevent new HIV infections and sexual and gender-based violence.

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