Adolescent sexual and reproductive health Early adolescence Gender norms International research Romantic relationships
Purpose The purpose of the study is to explore how gender norms emerge in romantic relationships among early adolescents (EAs) living in five poor urban areas. Methods Data were collected as part of the Global Early Adolescent Study. The current research analyzed data from interviews with 30 EAs (aged 11–13 years) living in five poor urban sites: Baltimore, Cuenca, Edinburgh, Ghent, and Nairobi. All interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed in English using Atlas.ti, focusing on how EAs experience and perceive gender norms in romantic relationships. Results Across the five sites, only a few respondents described having been in love, the majority of whom were boys. Findings indicate that stereotypical gender norms about romantic relationships prevail across these cultural settings, depicting boys as romantically/sexually active and dominant, and girls as innocent with less (romantic) agency. In spite of the similarities, Nairobi was unique in that respondents referred to how sexual behavior and violence can occur within EA relationships. In all countries, heterosexuality was perceived to be the norm. Nevertheless, there were examples of EAs accepting homosexuality and expressing supportive attitudes toward equality between the sexes. Conclusions While EAs across five different cultural settings seem to endorse stereotypical gender norms in romantic relationships, a few stories also illustrate more gender-equal attitudes. As stereotypical gender norms have a demonstrated negative effect on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and well-being, additional research is needed to understand which factors—at the interpersonal and structural level—contribute to the construction of these norms among EAs.