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How Do Children’s’ Storybooks Fare On The Gender Report Card?

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Most of the time, children’s books contain characters that are either fictional or dreamy, which on a surface spells magic with respect to anyone’s imagination of an alternative world. From a prince riding a horse to a Barbie dream house, it covers it all.

While it all seems to be fair for its fictional purpose, the gender roles displayed by the characters highly influence one’s perspective of gender identity and the roles assigned to each. As ciswomen grow up, a Barbie’s dream house or a charming prince kissing the princess in a charmingly convenient scenario leaves anybody awestruck. Little to no thought goes into how this affects the way we perceive everyone in terms of binaries.

Representational Image.

In a country like India, the mere representation of female or womxn is questioned in fictional stories. There is no doubt that the presentation of the remaining gender(s) even reaches such discussions. It becomes important to discuss such nuances in children’s books.

According to research, around 73% of characters that were non-humans were assigned with the gender and pronouns of male (he/his) instead of gender-neutral pronouns. The article thereafter tries to understand and highlight some quantitative research and literature conducted around the different stereotypes in children’s books and books that are inclusive and are published in the present time.

Let’s talk statistics and research on children’s books and gender stereotypes

An article by The Guardian stated that research found parents/guardians reading storybooks to their children referred to gender-neutral characters with the pronoun that of a male — he/his. Statistics also found that characters that were non-humans, those of birds, vegetables, cars, etc., which are supposed to be considered gender-neutral, were 73% of the time referred to as the male characters.

Several authors also said in The Guardian“The messages conveyed through representation of males and females in books contribute to children’s ideas of what it means to be a boy, girl, man, or woman. The disparities we find points to the symbolic annihilation of women and girls, and particularly female animals, in 20th-century children’s literature, suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts. 

“The disproportionate numbers of males in central roles may encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and girls and to believe they are less important than men and boys, thereby reinforcing the gender system.”

Research also observed how children tend to play with toys that are typically associated with the sex they are assigned at birth. Similar behaviour was also observed with fictional characters that were represented popularly in the books. There has been much evidence regarding behaviour and the books or toys that children play with or associate their gender identity with.

Snow White
Representative Image.

Gender atypical storybooks are stories of the individuals playing or doing something that the opposite sex is not stereotypically associated with. These stories can be from a girl playing with trucks to a boy with dolls. A study conducted on children aged 2 to 5 years resulted in increased behaviour with children playing with toys that are stereotypically associated with the opposite sex.

To support the above research, it’s important to understand the necessity of the discussion through two theories, the gender schema theory (Bem, 1983; Martin & Halverson, 1981) and social cognitive theory (Bussy & Bandura, 1992).

Research stated that the gender schema theory is when the child starts understanding gender as a concept at an early age. These sensitive concepts are misguided and misunderstood with the sex assigned, and hence, it’s important for the right guidance through influential factors like poems, books and television.

The social cognitive theory delves into when these gender classifications are assigned or understood in relationship with the social beings or the society the child lives in.

Here are a few must-read children’s books that are inclusive of all Genders

Book #1: Gender Now Coloring Book by Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez. It is a book inclusive of all genders aiming to provide awareness and representation for the underrepresented gender by using different gender expressions.

Book #2: Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl? By Sarah Savage and Fox Fisher. This book primarily helps children understand gender diversity with the gender-neutral protagonist as the main character. This well-illustrated book also helps in creatively explaining gender expressions.

Book #3: Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is another beautifully written book, coloured on sensitive topics, showing one’s freedom of gender expression, breaking stereotypes, and showcasing gender fluid expressions.

Book #4: Mommy, Mama, and Me by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson, as the title suggests, is a one of its kind beautifully illustrated storybook with the portrayal of gay parents (Lesbian partners) and their child.

However, children’s books in India aren’t very inclusive within the stories. There have been some attempts at bringing in queer characters and talking about sexuality in storybooks that, for now, are more accessible to teenagers.

Picture Credits:

Payal Dhar’s book Slightly Burnt is set in an Indian context that sheds light on individuals exploring their sexual orientation at the age of “the messy” teenage phase. Another author who identifies themselves from the LGBTQ+ community published a storybook titled “let me out”.

They also said in an article“My journey was a process that was many years in the making. Raised in a middle eastern household, I spent countless hours imagining how my family would react to me coming out.”

Educational materials to children storybooks, breaking away from gender stereotypes, become essential for inclusivity. In this matter, the most powerful tool one shapes their mind with is knowledge — in any form of texts.

Written by Nikita Ghodke

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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