Part of child protection is allowing kids to be themselves when it comes to gender
It’s clear there are teenagers grappling with the concept of gender identity and who are uncomfortable talking to their parents and teachers. For many people who are gender-fluid, the discovery of the descriptor has been liberating, helping them understand themselves and the way they live.
South Africa is observing Child Protection Week from 29 May to 5 June to put a spotlight on the rights of children as enshrined in the Constitution and the Children’s Act. The campaign aims to ensure the rights, safety and well-being of children – aiming to foster a safer environment. To foster a safe environment, however, children must not only feel physically safe but also emotionally safe. Yet teenagers often do not have a safe space to speak to trusted people about the confusion they face around their gender.
In April, I was involved, in my SECTION27 capacity, in community outreach and workshops on sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) in Vrededorp, Johannesburg, which were hosted by the Boys and Girls Club of South Africa. In the second workshop, 60 pupils from Grade 7 to 11 (aged 13 to 18) delved into issues such as pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, puberty and gender identity and expression. Through group discussions and plenary sessions, knowledge was shared, questions were answered and voices were heard. We will now return for a third workshop to further explore topics such as gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.
During these workshops with young people it was clear there are teenagers grappling with the concept of gender identity and who are uncomfortable talking to their parents and teachers.
Hard to pin down
For some young people, gender identity and expression are not fixed – rather, it can change daily. Someone’s gender expression on a given day doesn’t necessarily need to mirror how they perceive their own gender identity overall.
A growing number of teenagers identify with a non-traditional gender label, according to a March 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics.
The term “gender fluidity” has come to best describe the way some teenagers feel they fit outside the gender binary. The term acknowledges that gender doesn’t have to be fixed and de-emphasises the need to align oneself with a specific gender – a concept more and more people are moving away from as conversations about alternative ways to express and experience gender proliferate.
The term is hard to pin down precisely since it describes such a vast array of people and experiences. One way to look at it is that it enables people, especially teenagers, to take their identity and expression one day at a time instead of feeling tied to a single, overarching gender label.
Undoing these kinds of assumptions will not be easy, but perhaps parents can all think twice before they tell a little boy how brave he is and a little girl how kind or perfect she is.
The American Psychological Association says on its website: “Many people describe gender identity as a deeply felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or a nonbinary gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, agender, gender-fluid) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth, presumed gender based on sex assignment, or primary or secondary sex characteristics.”
So, for many people who are gender-fluid, the discovery of the descriptor has been liberating, helping them understand themselves and the way they live. It has given them a sense of self.
Stigma, discrimination and public health
But there are still many children, however, who struggle to explain the concept of non-gendered pronoun use. Often their peers also struggle when confronted with their friend’s gender fluidity and sometimes ask invasive questions such as: “What kind of bathroom do you use if you are a trans person?”
The challenges faced by transgender children do not exist in isolation. The same societal stigma that makes life hard for trans kids also makes it hard for trans teens and adults to access healthcare services.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Accessing holistic gender-affirming healthcare is a need and a human right
As has been shown in several reports by community-led clinic monitoring group Ritshidze, so-called key populations are often poorly catered for in our public healthcare system. Key populations include trans persons and men who have sex with men. According to Ritshidze’s most recent report on key populations, many transgender people who were interviewed said they don’t access services at a public health facility because staff are not friendly and their privacy is not respected.
Gender fluidity is not a new phenomenon, nor does it mean there’s a new experience happening in the world. There’s just a new vocabulary available to describe what’s been happening in the world.
Many parents and teachers, and healthcare workers for that matter, find it hard to understand and keep up with the changing language, especially because many grew up in a time when gender fluidity was not even spoken about. But it’s never too late for them to educate themselves.
If parents fail to understand that children are more alike from birth than they are different and treat children accordingly, our world will continue to be gendered. Undoing these kinds of assumptions will not be easy, but perhaps parents can all think twice before they tell a little boy how brave he is and a little girl how kind or perfect she is.
Read more in Daily Maverick:
There is a tendency among older generations to think that these complexities around gender are young people’s issues, but they are not. It affects everyone and has a knock-on effect on the public health system. So, becoming culturally aware can help parents and teachers understand and support the LGBTQI+ community, but also contribute to the betterment of society.
The right of a person to choose their sex or gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom as enshrined in the Bill of Rights and confirmed by the courts, most notably the Constitutional Court. Our Constitution recognises equality and dignity, and prohibits discrimination on the basis of, among other things, gender, sex and sexual orientation.
During Child Protection Week, parents and teachers, along with the rest of society, need to reflect on these rights and make them realisable for children. DM
For more on key sexual and reproductive health rights issues for young people, see SECTION27’s publication Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights.
Mphahlele is a paralegal in the Advice Office at SECTION27.
NOTE: This opinion piece was written by an employee of SECTION27. Spotlight is published by SECTION27, but is editorially independent – an independence that the editors guard jealously. The views expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of Spotlight.
This article was published by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.