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It's the Norm: How Culture Shapes Young Girls

Have you ever considered how the cultural norms in your life have shaped your dreams? Dale Hanson Bourke shines a light on our everyday context.


It’s The Norm: How Cultures Shape Young Girls

By Dale Hanson Bourke

Dulce Maria is a bright ten-year-old with a shy smile. She lives with her grandmother and younger brother on a hillside in rural Guatemala, a two-hour walk to the nearest town. Her home has a tin roof and walls made of mud bricks that do little to keep out the cold or dampness. The home has no electricity, no heat, and no indoor plumbing. But Dulce Maria has big dreams.

Every day she walks to the one-room school where about a dozen children of different ages gather to learn from teacher Edna Galicia. Her teacher can’t praise Dulce Maria enough. “She is a smart, hardworking student,” she tells me through a translator. “She comes to school every day and is excited to learn. She wants more for her life.”

When I ask the children at the school what they want to be when they grow up, Dulce Maria’s hand goes up first. “I want to be mayor,” she says with confidence. It is an unusual goal in Guatemala, where men dominate government and only seven cities in the entire country have women mayors.

But in San Cristóbal Acasaguastlán, the town nearest Dulce Maria’s home, Mayor Jeaneth Ordoñez presides. The mother of three often travels to the rural regions surrounding her city, working to improve the education and health of the citizens. So when she visited the one-room school where Dulce Maria studies, Ordoñez became the girl’s role model.

Mayor Jeaneth’s story is one of courage, faith, and family support, especially from her husband, Samuel. Samuel grew up in a family where both parents were teachers, and he regularly heard messages about strong, determined women. When Jeaneth had the opportunity to run for mayor, Samuel was the first to encourage her. He ran her campaign and today works for his wife. Without Samuel, she wouldn’t be mayor, Jeaneth is quick to say. And without Jeaneth, Dulce Maria wouldn’t have a role model or a reason to dream.

Perhaps nothing holds girls back more than cultural norms. Cultural norms can be defined in various ways but they mostly encompass how people in a society live and what they consider “normal.” These factors include values and traditions, the language used, the stories told, and the songs sung. Cultural norms determine what is acceptable and what is not, what we can aspire to do and be, and what will bring us the positive attention of our community. The culture in which we live has a profound effect on health standards, education norms, and role expectations. In some parts of the world, women who are overweight are considered beautiful and desirable. In other places, being thin is considered attractive. In many parts of the world, girls are taught from an early age to be subservient, passive, and modest.

While it’s easy to assume that cultural norms are more dominant in countries where the population is illiterate, or news is not easily accessible, cultural norms often dominate in developed countries as well. I grew up in a church where women were never allowed to preach or even teach Sunday school if men were in the class. Although I loved reading the Bible and playing Sunday school with my younger sister, it never occurred to me that being a pastor was a possible career because my family’s religious culture (formed by their theology) told me that only men became pastors. In my small Midwestern town, women weren’t involved in business or government. My role models, like those of many girls of my generation, were teachers, nurses, and homemakers. Television shows often portrayed women who were either scatter-brained, helpless, or overtly sexy. Even in college, when I took an aptitude test to determine what I was best suited for, I was pointed toward a career as a flight attendant.

Cultural messages start early. As a child I remember hearing men tease my father about having two daughters. “Are you going to try again for a son?” was a common question. But to his credit, my father never missed a chance to push back, telling anyone who asked that he couldn’t be prouder of his girls. In a time when women mostly worked as secretaries, my father became my role model. He was a businessman who enjoyed talking to me about his work and praised my interest. He brought me along to his office on Saturday mornings, when he’d catch up on the week’s work in the relative quiet. I’d do homework; he’d do paperwork. In his own way, he was helping me see that being in business was something I could do. Despite all the messages in my world telling me that business was not an appropriate dream for a girl, my father’s encouragement told me that I could do it. When I decided to pursue an MBA after college, my dad was thrilled. Once I started my own business, he loved when I would call him from my office with a question about managing employees or negotiating a contract. Long before Kobe Bryant, my father was a proud “girl dad.”

Because of her role model, perhaps one day Dulce Maria will become mayor. Or perhaps she’ll teach other girls who want to dream big. Whatever the case, it’s easy to imagine Dulce Maria becoming a strong and influential woman because her community supports her dreams.

Adapted from Strong Girls, Strong World: A Practical Guide to Helping Them Soar—and Creating a Better Future for Us All by Dale Hanson Bourke. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.

Dale Hanson Bourke is an award-winning writer, editor, business owner, and foundation president who has served on the boards of several international development organizations, including World Vision (US and International), Opportunity International, International Justice Mission, and MAP International. Having traveled to 62 countries, she has written about the people she met and the issues they face for a variety of national and international publications. Her latest book is Strong Girls, Strong World. While running a foundation focused on the health needs in Africa, she has witnessed the challenges women and girls face. She and her husband live in Annapolis, Maryland.


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