When I was just a little girl…
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty
Will I be rich
Here’s what search said to us:
Growing up, girls have many questions. Both out of curiosity and concern. And they often correspond to big physical and emotional changes in life.
What will I be when I grow up?
What will it be like when I get my period?
How do I use a sanitary pad?
What is it like to go on a date?
Where can I be safe?
Will I get into the right college?
Should I get an abortion?
How do I lose weight?
Will I get the job that I want?
Earn the same as my male counterparts?
Will my work change after I get married?
Will I have children?
But do all girls around the world worry about the same issues? Do girls in India have the same questions and concerns as girls in Nigeria? What about the United States? And do these questions directly correspond to the barriers they face in their home country, or the differential privileges that surround them?
We analyzed search behavior of adolescent girls across 7 countries (covering an urban city and rural town in each) to understand what girls are most curious and concerned about today. And the results are fascinating, encouraging and worrisome all at the same time. Girls are overcoming some barriers, but continuing to struggle with others.
We found that in all countries, girls are searching for information on contraception at high volumes. These searches are much higher in urban areas, except for the United States. Control over women’s bodies has a long political history in the US, split between the Christian far right supporters and secularists, republicans and democrats. Roe v Wade not only legalized abortion, but also made contraception more accessible. However, present political developments threaten to overturn this landmark legal decision. Rural areas in the US may be politically and religiously more conservative, safe abortion clinics and diverse contraception options may be less accessible — leading to more girls wanting to know about “abortion,” “menstrual cup,” “abortion methods,” and “teenage pregnancy.”
Self-image is a greater concern for girls living in urban areas and this divide is greatest in Nigeria, India, South Africa and Australia. Girls in rural areas are less likely to search for “self-esteem,” “how to lose weight,” “increase breast size,” and “how to be self-confident.” The search volumes in more economically developed countries, such as the UK, the US and Australia are far higher, emphasizing that girls in these countries, when they reach adolescence, are strongly affected by social media and experience a loss of self-confidence.
Another split between economically developed versus less developed countries is the obsession with relationships, including search terms such as “when will I get married.” This obsession is most visible in Indian, rural areas. Girls are told at an early age in India that they are supposed to get married, what the right marriageable age is and who the “acceptable partner” to the family is. The obsession with marriage, its patriarchal undertones and code for societal acceptance is also reflected in India’s huge marriage industry, the rise in matchmaking services and matrimonial websites and etiquette schools, especially in rural areas on how to get married. Being married in order to fit into society is a bigger uphill battle for girls in India than it is in other countries. In South Africa, Nigeria, the US and the UK, girls in rural areas are also more likely to search about relationships, but at a much lower search volume than India.
The Philippines and Australia have higher search volumes for relationship topics in urban areas, however, wanting to know more about “how to get a boyfriend,” “when will I get married,” and “first time sex” than girls in rural areas.
Another gap between urban and rural areas in country contexts, is cultural bias (curiosity around gender equality) and education. Search volumes for “gender equality” and “are boys smarter than girls” are highest in Nigeria, but at a much higher rate in rural areas. Similarly, education, including search terms like “how do I go to school” and “girls education” is higher in rural areas across all countries, and a greater barrier for girls in India, South Africa, Nigeria and the Philippines. What is encouraging in the cultural bias category are the high search volumes for “engineering girls” and “women in stem” in India, the UK, the US and the Philippines, showing a rising interest among girls to pursue scientific subjects.
Safety, which encompasses terms on domestic violence and consent during intimate relationships, is of more concern in urban areas for the US and UK. However, in the Philippines, South Africa, Nigeria, Australia and India, girls in rural areas are more often searching on “how to say no to a guy,” “domestic abuse women,” and “safety for girls.” This is linked to less accessibility to services and support systems, making girls feel less safe in rural areas.
The interest in adventure, such as “female solo traveler” and “female rock climbing” is low across all countries and non-existent in Nigeria, however, more girls in rural areas want to know more about adventure than in urban areas. This curiosity may be sparked by having less chances to travel alone as a girl living in a rural town and wanting to know more about it.
Girls across India, the US, the UK, Nigeria, South Africa, the Philippines and Australia ask the same questions to varying degrees, based on their opportunities, privilege and barriers. However, the urban — rural divide within countries is greater for some categories, such as education, self-image, cultural bias and safety than is the variation between countries.
We started this article with a twist on Que Sera Sera because my 9 year old daughter butchered Que Sera Sera with the following horribly out of tune:
“When I was just a little girl,
I told my father what I would be
I will be clever, I will be rich
(maybe more than my brother did)”
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