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The gender divide begins young and we must be prepared to challenge it, says Sarah Cope
Enter a toy shop and the world will divide into two. One half will be populated with baby dolls, miniature kitchens, cleaning equipment and fairy wings. The predominant colour will be pink. The other half of the shop will be dominated by threatening war paraphernalia: plastic guns, rockets and machetes. There will be skulls and crossbones all over the place.

The message to children, and indeed parents and carers, is clear: girls and boys are expected to behave in very different ways, and they should not be encouraged to play together. And it isn’t just toys that send out these messages; from the clothes that are made for children to the books that are written for them, the message is reinforced in just about every imaginable way.

Whilst this might at first seem like a trivial matter, look closer and you will see that limiting our children in this way can cause harm, both on an individual and societal level.

The campaign group Pink Stinks aims to highlight the way girls are told, predominantly by marketing forces, that unless they are into pretty ‘pinkifaction’, they are in some way failures as girls. A girl who has the temerity to like football, for example, may face bullying and ridicule and feel pressure to conform. As one such girl who contacted Pink Stinks commented, “I am nine years old and I think that the Pink Stinks campaign is my voice.”

But what of boys? As the mother of both a five-year-old daughter and a son aged seven months, I have seen first-hand how differently boys and girls are treated from birth (if not from before birth if one decides to find out what sex the baby is during an ultrasound scan). From the moment my son was born I noticed he just had to move a fraction of an inch for people to crow that he would one day play for England. And although, when it comes to the sexualisation of childhood (one of the media’s pet topics), the focus is so often firmly on young girls, I have been surprised by the frankly bizarre comments made about boys. “Look at him, drooling over all the women in their low-cut tops!” said one woman in the supermarket during some recent hot weather, whilst pointing at my son. The assumed heterosexuality is worth noting!

Indeed, is it not blatant homophobia that is at the root of how society expects ‘real’ boys and men to behave? Laura Davenport from Enfield Green Party, herself a mother of two sons, recalls the following telling incident: “When my son was 2 years old he chose for himself a dressing up outfit, which was one of the prettiest pink tutus I had ever seen. As soon as we got home he put it on. He was so proud of his new look.

“We went to collect his older brother from nursery. One of the parents commented to me, 'You'll turn him gay'. This was a shock, because until that point I thought we were all born with our sexuality, and I didn't realise that shopping at Woolworths came into it.”

Once you become aware of these pernicious beliefs about what is ‘right’ for girls and what is ‘right’ for boys, you see examples of it everywhere. Just today, at the school sports’ day, I heard one dad shout at his five-year-old son to “soldier it!” when he fell and hurt himself. One mother commented, “I have to say, the girls are slower…”

Indeed, in schools, where you might expect gender segregation to be challenged, it is often all too reinforced. Boys and girls are lined up separately, and paired off with members of the same sex for school trips, so that from the beginning of their education they enter separate spheres. If we want equality, should we not be encouraging integration and cooperation between the sexes?

Seeking out gender-neutral clothing and toys, and gently challenging the beliefs of others, can be exhausting, but if we want our children to reach their full potential rather than being forced into roles that are so often narrow and ill-fitting, that’s exactly what we need to do.

Pink Stinks spoke at the Green Party’s Women by Name Day in February in London.

For more on the campaign, see pinkstinks.org.uk
Sarah Cope is secretary of Green Party Women. The group aims to make links between the party and women's groups and organisations nationally and internationally to promote the women-friendly policies and approach of the party, and to work generally to promote women's rights.

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