Disparities by Sex in Early Childhood and Adolescence

December 1, 2011
Gender discrimination is widely assumed to start before birth, persist during childhood, and progressively worsen in adolescence. A UNICEF report suggests that, although this assumption is largely true, disparities between boys and girls during early childhood are less stark than previously thought. The report Boys and girls in the life cycle presents the latest available sex-disaggregated statistics on indicators used to monitor children’s rights and wellbeing in the developing world, and identifies areas in which differences between boys and girls are small, as well as those in which disparities persist.
In the past decade, availability of data for children and families has increased substantially, offering opportunities to explore the extent to which gender affects wellbeing. UNICEF’s report uses data from household surveys, mainly the UNICEF-supported Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) and the USAID-supported Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), for boys and girls in different domains, including survival, nutrition, education, and exposure to violence and exploitation.
Biological and social factors affect boys and girls differently, and affect their chances of survival and wellbeing. For example, boys are known to have higher mortality rates during infancy than girls. Societal beliefs about gender roles and choices based on such beliefs also have a role in disparities between the sexes. Research suggests that parents demonstrate different attitudes towards boys and girls, and hold different expectations about their future. These attitudes contribute to different experiences as boys and girls grow older, and form a basis for different forms of discrimination.
In human populations, it is normal for more boys to be born than girls. This disparity usually gradually decreases after birth, as a result of higher mortality in males. However, in a few countries the number of boys born is much higher than the number of girls. In some of these countries girls also tend to have higher mortality.
In early childhood (<5 years), gender disparities in surviving children are small with regard to the indicators examined. For example, no significant difference in exclusive breastfeeding rates in the first 6 months of life was recorded between boys and girls in the developing world. Similarly, children of both sexes younger than 5 years are equally likely to be undernourished (stunted, wasted, or underweight). In India (which has the largest number of stunted children), for example, rates of stunting are the same for boys and girls younger than 5 years.
Treatment for the main causes of death in children younger than 5 years—pneumonia, diarrhoea, and malaria—does not vary by sex. For example, girls are as likely as boys to receive oral rehydration therapy for diarrhoea and to be taken to health-care providers for treatment of suspected pneumonia. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls and boys aged 0–4 years are equally likely to benefit from malaria interventions, including sleeping under an insecticide-treated net and antimalarial drug treatment. In terms of preventive interventions, measles immunisation coverage is similar in boys and girls, except in south Asia.
The percentages of boys and girls younger than 5 years whose births are registered do not differ in the developing world. In many countries, a similar proportion of boys and girls aged 3–4 years participate in early childhood education programmes. Similarly, boys and girls aged 2–4 years are equally likely to receive violent psychological or physical discipline at home.
However, disparities become more evident as children approach adolescence. Although gender gaps in primary education have been closed in many developing countries, few have achieved parity in secondary education. For example, in south Asia only 47% of girls attend secondary school compared with 55% of boys, whereas in Latin America and the Caribbean, 74% of girls attend compared with only 68% of boys. Differences between the sexes during the adolescent period can be noted in all available indicators, but are particularly striking in some domains.