April 11, 2008
Becky from Leeds is fifteen years old. Like most teenagers in the UK, she wears a uniform to school, and she isn’t happy about that. “No-one likes the school uniform. We haven’t got the chance to express ourselves in the way we dress. But we do try to rebel a little.”
To rebel a little’, defines the way many young people deal with puberty. In Holland for example, puberty is seen as a somewhat rebellious period in life, in which a child’s personality is shaped. Becky’s upbringing is a clear example of this Western way of thinking, in which the development of the identity is the central aspect. “I try to be an individual; that’s how I would describe myself,” she tells us from behind her drum kit.
Influenced by pedagogues and psychologists, parents from Western countries have come to accept a certain level of rebellion from their teenage daughters (and sons). And the development of friendships in this phase is also seen as important to girls in their puberty, as well as the right to privacy.
No time for puberty
For girls who don’t live in Western countries, puberty is often about very different things than rebellion. Whether it’s the increase of teen pregnancies in Brazil, the strict Islamist life of teenagers in Indonesia or young girls that are traded for a few cows to get married with a much older man in parts of Africa: these children don’t seem to have the time to really live trough their puberty.
Some psychologists from non-Western countries say that the image of puberty as a period of inner struggle and rebellion is far too Western. Take young Philippine girls for example: they leave their homes to work overseas and to make money for their families. And most teenagers in India happily accept the marriage that their parents have arranged for them. And in the Middle East, youngsters live a life that is strongly regulated by their parents.
Although very different, the situation in Brazil is also one in which puberty as a period of rebellion is not very common: of the Brazilian girls aged between fifteen and nineteen, one in ten already carries responsibility for two or more of her own children. Something that would send shivers down the spines of most twenty-somethings in the West.
Such teen pregnancies are a huge problem in a lot of poorer countries, especially in Brazil. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of very young teenage mothers has increased with 93,7 percent. Surveys under young girls in the favela’s of the Brazilian city Recife show that teenage mothers expected not to make much of their lives when compared to their childless peers. These studies also showed that they had less expectations from their own fathers and of the fathers of their children.
Luciana, a sixteen year old mother from Rio de Janeiro, also has little expectations from the father of her child. He’s an eightteen year old boy that already has two children with two different girls. In her small house in the favela, most of the support Luciana gets is from other young mothers: her neighbour, her sister in law and her nephew’s wife. Luciana’s mother is also helping her, so Luciana can attend evening school. She’s lucky that she can, because for 40 percent of the Brazilian teenage mothers the birth of their child means the end of their school career. Compared to the untroubled school life and the innocent naivety of the fifteen year old German Freya, Luciana has been forced to grow up fast.
Puberty: a shared experience
But there also huge similarities between teenagers worldwide. Research in Soweto, South Africa shows that teenagers from South Africa deal with depressions and emotional problems as much as teenagers from the West. Depression, once seen as a prosperity disease, is not only common among spoiled Western teenagers, but also among their peers in the townships of Soweto.
And there are more trends that are going global: because nutrition has become more varied, children all over the globe are hitting puberty earlier and more often around the same age. More children continue to go to school during puberty and the level of edcuation between boys and girls is becoming more equal. More teenagers live in cities or move to the city during their puberty, so that they meet peers from different social and cultural backgrounds. It’s remarkable that most teenagers do not condemn sex before marriage, despite the enormous global differences in sexual morality.
Despite the fact that teenage rebellion isn’t approved of in a lot of countries, the lives and experiences of fifteen year old girls are becoming more alike. You can see it if you study the individual stories of our teenage girls: the Britsh Becky behind her drum kit, Ardini from Indonesi who plays Green Day songs at her Islamic school and the Brazilian rumba queen Menina, who dances on a carnaval float.