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Girls challenging the gender rules

A girl from our Real Choices, Real Lives study in Togo

Girls challenging the gender rules

Real Choices, Real Lives study

Since 2007, our qualitative Real Choices, Real Lives Cohort Study has been tracking the lives of over 120 girls across nine countries, providing insights into the choices, decisions and realities that shape girls’ lives as they grow up in a gendered world.

In 2019, in the first of a three-part series of regionally-focused reports, we draw from in-depth analysis of 37 girls going through early adolescence in the three Sub-Saharan African Cohort countries: Benin, Togo, and Uganda.

Our analysis shows that in these countries, all 37 Cohort girls are noticing, questioning, or rejecting expectations around their behaviour and roles in at least one area of their lives. This ranges from views about household work and division of responsibilities, through to what is considered acceptable female behaviour and future aspirations.

Key findings

Adolescence is a key point

in the girls' lives: gendered expectations are reinforced, alongside increased expressions of resistance

Disrupting gendered expectations

is not a linear process: it varies across time and different aspects of girls' lives

Social level influences

like household dynamics and the wider community are significant in forming or breaking gendered expectations

Persistent concerns

related to the risk of gender-based violence and corporal punishment restrict disruption of gendered social norms
Graphic showing a girl and woman talking


Between 2014 and 2017, Margaret’s attitude towards expectations to be obedient changed. In 2014, she was more ‘acceptant’, saying: “sometimes I cry when I don’t want to do [the household work]… I always do it in the end.”

By 2016 she shows a degree of ‘disruption’, saying, “I don’t do the tasks my mother gives me, I do what I want.” However, in 2017, we see that Margaret is once again more acceptant of the expectation placed on her: “I wouldn’t want my parents to think of me as disobedient.”

Our 2019 report explores the possible influences on Margaret’s deviation in 2016 and what may have led to the shift again in 2017.

Graphic showing a mother and daughter


In Beti’s house, both her mother and father describe how they deviate from community norms, which see girls and women bearing the burden of household chores almost exclusively.

Beti and her mother talk about how boys do less work than girls at home and in the community. They both regard this as unfair and her mother says she has changed this in her own home. In 2017, Beti suggests “telling them to do all kinds of chores, [whether they are] a boy or a girl” is a way to make the division of work equal.

In this report, we explore how Beti’s relationship with her mother, and her mother’s own attitudes, may be influencing the way Beti questions and contests the ‘gender rules’.

Graphic showing a girl and a boy


Essohana lives in a household headed by her mother. She has three older brothers and two older sisters. Her mother and brothers have prohibited her from playing with boys and use corporal punishment to dissuade her. 

Essohana is aware that, as a girl, having male friends challenges what is ‘acceptable’ in her community. However, she continues to have both male and female friends. To avoid the consequences that come with being caught, she hides this behaviour. 

In this report, we explore what may be influencing Essohana to deviate from expectations about her behaviour and how the use of corporal punishment can restrict girls’ ability to challenge norms which cause and maintain gender inequalities.  


Read our latest report from the Real Choices, Real Lives study