The majority of young people in Belgium experience pressure to conform to gender stereotypes and believe that there are not enough tools around to bring about change and escape traditional gender roles.
Research carried out by NGO Plan International Belgium showed that in Belgium, half of the young people surveyed consider toxic masculinity a problem, while 60% experience pressure to conform to the stereotypical image of the typical woman (expected to dress in feminine ways and be polite, accommodating, and nurturing), or man (big, strong, muscular and athletic).
"It is important that young people know that there is not just one form of masculinity but that everyone should be able to interpret it in their own way," Isabelle Verhaegen, National Director at Plan International Belgium, said.
"This also has positive effects on men's well-being and physical, mental and sexual health such as involvement in raising children, as a partner in a relationship,...," she added.
Reinforcing dangerous behaviour and violence
The study found that these gender stereotypes — a set of unwritten rules in society about how a boy or girl should behave — are often a result of social pressure, a feeling that is strongest among young people aged 16 to 19, with seven in ten young boys in this group experiencing pressure to be dominant, to "conquer" girls and not to show their emotions.
These stereotypes, which they are mostly confronted with it in the school environment and at the sports club, cause men and boys to adopt certain behaviours, such as excessive drinking, dangerous driving and assertive physical behaviour, among other things, which puts not only themselves but also others, at risk, and at which point, masculinity becomes toxic.
They also reinforce other negative aspects of masculinity, such as violence. For more than 73.5% of young people who were surveyed, toxic behaviour leads to more violence, often directed at women.
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"Stereotypes and gender inequality go hand in hand: stereotypes perpetuate gender inequality and those inequalities, in turn, perpetuate stereotypes," a Plan International statement read. A similar survey carried out in Senegal drew the same conclusions.
Two-thirds of young people in Belgium recognise toxic masculinity as a global problem and a threat to gender equality. While many want to escape these classic gender roles — the majority, both boys and girls, think men should pay more attention to the position of women in society and men should talk more about their feelings— most feel they do not have the power or tools to do so.
"The message is clear: young people need to be given tools to better understand different situations and act appropriately," Verhaegen said.