Reviews of the new Judy Blume book are everywhere, with many writers fondly recalling memories of how one or another of Blume’s previous books helped them to come to terms with the confusion and overall weirdness of the body changes, sensations, and awkward social interactions of puberty. For almost 40 years now, Blume books have filled a gap for girls and boys coming of age in the United States—young people in need of honest and open information about what they’re feeling, and how to grow into their sexually aware new selves.
While young people in the U.S. may still lack adequate information about their bodies and sexuality, they’re not alone. There is increasing evidence to suggest that girls and boys growing up today in low-income regions around the world also lack adequate information and support during early puberty, which has serious implications for future health and well-being.
Many girls in low-income countries today lack adequate information about their changing bodies and menstruation, with some terrified and ashamed by the sight of blood on their underwear.
Ten years ago, when I began research focused on adolescent girls in Tanzania for my doctoral dissertation in public health, the global health and education literature was filled with articles about the vulnerability of adolescent girls, unwanted pregnancy, and infection with HIV/AIDS. Concerned about these issues, and with fond memories of Blume in my head, I became interested in exploring a less well-documented subject. I sought to understand if young girls on the cusp of adolescence in such contexts had enough information to manage the frequently overwhelming and confusing new sensations and experiences of menstrual onset and puberty in school.
My early research in Tanzania—and subsequent research conducted in other countries—revealed that many girls in low-income countries today lack adequate information about their changing bodies and menstruation, with some terrified and ashamed by the sight of blood on their underwear, and wondering if they are deathly ill. In an effort to address this gap in knowledge, I have been developing puberty books for girls in such contexts, a la Blume (although with less emphasis on sexuality for the purposes of gaining approval for distribution of the books in schools). Through my own small non-profit, Grow and Know, with the support of UNICEF, UNFPA, and other donors, we have distributed over 730,000 books in Tanzania, Ghana, Cambodia, and Ethiopia.
Along the way, however, a realization struck: What about the boys? In every country where we did research, adults lamented the problems for girls caused by boys and men. In every school where we distributed the girls’ books, boys sought to borrow (or perhaps grab is a better word) the girls’ books themselves, curious to understand girls’ body changes and menstrual experiences. It seemed that everywhere—and the U.S. is perhaps no different—the pubertal experiences of boys are either seen as problems (for girls or others), or as invisible.
As a first step to respond to this insight, we began to do our own research with adolescent boys in Tanzania, exploring how the masculinity norms influencing their pubertal transitions might be leading them to engage in risky behaviors. We learned that boys were confused and embarrassed about the wet dreams, erections, and other new body changes they were experiencing. We learned about the intense peer pressure to drink, smoke, and have unsafe sex with girls many boys experience. We learned about the modeling of violence for boys. And we learned about the invisibility of boys’ needs, with many boys and adults in Tanzania explaining that no one talks to boys about such issues, because they are expected to figure them out on their own—just as boys in the U.S. frequently are, or, as the writer John Green expressed in a memory of the importance of Blume’s books to him: “There weren’t a lot of other voices in the culture that said it was OK to be sexual and that it was also OK to be really emotional. Particularly with young men, we’re told we’re allowed to be these sex maniacs, but we’re not told we’re allowed to be emotional.”
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it will be possible to ever reverse the depressing statistics about girls’ unwanted pregnancies, sexual coercion, or violence against girls and women (and boys and men) in low-income regions if we do not urge everyone to begin paying attention to boys too. We have started developing puberty books for boys to be distributed with the others we’ve already created.
Judy Blume understood pubescent girls’ unique needs in the U.S. over 40 years ago. It’s time the global health and education community does the same for boys in low-income countries around the world.