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Sex and gender issues


What types of marriage are recognized by the society? Must there always be a ceremony? Are mass marriages performed, and when? Attend a wedding and describe the ceremony and other activities associated with it. Notice who the participants are. As you have the opprtunity, attend various weddings and note the difference between traditional weddings of various tribes or clans, the difference between a Christian wedding and that of adherents of another faith, the difference between a civil wedding and a religious one, etc.

Who officiates at the wedding? Is there a reception or dinner afterwards, and who arranges it? When are the bride and groom presented to the invited guests? When do the bride and groom see each other for the first time after the ceremony? How do they leave the site of the wedding, and where do they go? Are there other dinners and receptions at another time? What is the traditional schedule kept by the wedding party for the first month (or later if applicable) after the wedding?

Who are invited as guests and how are they informed? What gifts are given? When and how are they given, and to whom? What would be expected of you as a guest?

Where does the new couple live? What is the relationship between the man and the woman and their in-laws? Is the relationship dependent on whether the couple lives with the man’s family, the woman’s family, or in their own house? What adjustment problems do newly-weds have? When is a marriage considered consummated?

How many wives/husbands may a person have? Are there wedding ceremonies when succeeding spouses are taken? Is polygamy permitted? What are relations like in a polygamous household?

Is divorce socially acceptable? What are the reasons for divorce? What is the frequency? Describe a divorce procedure. What happens to the original bride price or dowry? Is there any provision made in the marriage certificate for compensation in case of divorce? Can divorced people remarry? How would such a ceremony differ from a regular one? Who gets custody of the children in a divorce? May women divorce men?


At what age do boys and girls become ready for marriage? Describe the method by which marriage arrangements are made. Are the arrangements made by the parents? If so, how much say do the boy and girl have in determining who their marriage partner will be?

What characteristics are looked for in a potential husband? in a potential wife? Ask about physical, educational, financial, religious, political aspects that need to be considered.

Is courting allowed? Do the boy and girl get to know each other at all before the wedding? What standards must they follow if this is allowed. How is courting initiated, and by whom? Are there different expectations if the prospective pair are from the same neighborhood or from another town? Is a chaperon needed?

Are there kinship restrictions as to whom a person can marry? Clan or tribal restrictions? Can two persons marry if they have nursed from the same woman even though they may not be related by blood line?

When marriage is considered, which side takes the initiative in making a formal proposal? Is there an engagement ritual? Who takes part in this? How long is the period between engagement and the wedding? What activities take part in each home (the groom and the bride) during this time? What preparations need to be made by the girl? by the boy? How binding is the engagement? What happens if the engagement is broken? Who takes the initiative in breaking the engagement?

Is a dowry expected? or a bride price paid? If so, what are the expectations? Who does the negotiations? Is the immediate family responsible for the payment (or preparation), or does the extended family also contribute?


Many cultures have special traditions or ceremonies to induct their young people into the world of adulthood, but some do not. Inquire about the existence of such traditions. Here are some ideas to get you started.

How and at what age is a boy recognized as an adult, able to take part in adult activities? Is there a special initiation ceremony? Is this a tribal ceremony? One conducted by the family? If a family tradition, would each family have its own tradition, or is this also standardized in the culture? Who conducts it? How is the boy prepared for it? Is he given a new name? Who gives it and how is it determined? What activities are now open to him?

How is a girl recognized as having come of age? At what age are a girl’s ears pierced? By whom? Is special note taken of a girl’s first menstruation? How? How is she prepared for it? Does a girl receive an adult name? What duties, responsibilities, or privileges are now open to her?


When is a child considered to be a real person (from birth? by some physical change? by attaining a certain age? at a naming ceremony?) How does a child get its name? Why is a certain name chosen?

When and how is the child weaned? What happens if the mother’s milk is insufficient? Are there wet- nurses? What relationship does a wet-nurse then hold in the family? to the child? How does the child receive toilet training? By whom? At what age is this begun? At what age do children of either sex habitually wear lower garments?

Are children generally treated well? How is love shown to a child (by the father, by the mother, by siblings, by the grandparents or other relatives)? How are children instructed in the society’s customs and history? Is this done as a situation presents itself, or is a specific program followed? How can a child be protected from illness and injury?

How are children taught proper behavior? Are they told frightening stories to encourage good behavior? or are heroes held up as models to follow? How may they be punished? Are girls punished differently than boys?

Are children of either gender treated preferentially? If so, how and at what age does it begin? At what age are girls treated differently than boys? Are there different expectations for behavior in boys and girls? What qualities of character are considered desirable for each?

With whom does the child have the closest relationship? Does this change as the child gets older? Who seems to love the child most? Who helps care for young children?

At what age are children expected to begin doing chores? What type and are these gender- specific? When are they expected to take part in religious observances and rituals?


Are there local midwives? Are they trained? If not, how do they get their knowledge? Are they contracted beforehand to be on hand for the delivery? How much do they get paid for a successful delivery? for an unsuccessful one? How long after the delivery do they care for the mother? What are their services? What must the mother do after childbirth?

Where and how is the baby delivered? Who may be present? Who is in charge of the event? Who cuts the cord? How? What is done with the afterbirth? What must be done for the child physically and ritually? Who does this?

What is the father’s role before, during, and after the birth? At what point does he see the baby? Who announces the birth to the rest of the family? to the community? How is this done?

What is the meaning attached to events occurring at the birth of a child (guests present, cord around the baby’s neck, etc.)? What is done in the case of twins? What practices and beliefs are associated with death in childbirth?

Is the birth of a child, whether boy or girl, a time of rejoicing? Are gifts given in either case? To whom?

What religious or folk customs are observed at birth, as baptisms, charms, circumcision, etc.?


Note: For all Life Cycle assignments, be sure to ask a number of people for their stories, opinions, and experiences. Each individual will perceive these in a different way depending on what their ethnic background is, what their own experience has been, and what the local belief is.

According to local people, how does a woman become pregnant? How soon is a woman expected to become pregnant after marriage? What are the attitudes toward barrenness? What are some of the reasons given for barrenness? What recourse does the family, the couple, or the woman have for treatment? Is barrenness a reason for divorce?

Do the spirits play any role in conception? What rituals are practiced to ensure pregnancy? Are these done by a religious practitioner? by a designated woman? someone in the family?

What taboos must a pregnant woman observe? What will happen if the taboos are broken? What kinds of pressure is given by whom to ensure the taboos will be observed? How does the younger generation feel about the taboos? Ask a variety of women about these. Different families also can have different myths, tales, and experiences along these lines.

Are there dietary restrictions for the woman? What type of traditional prenatal care is given? Is there any remedy for morning sickness? Are steps taken to determine the sex of the baby before it is born? Which sex is preferred? Why?

What preparations are made for the arrival of the new-born (clothing, cradle, nursery, etc.)? If none are made, try to find out the reason why. If preparations are made, who does them (friends, certain members of the family, relatives near and far, baby showers, etc.)? What things are considered necessary for the first weeks of the child’s life (a supply of diapers, a pacifier, charms or other objects under the pillow, certain herbs around the bed, etc.)

Is contraception practiced? What types of contraceptives, traditional or modern, are there? Are they readily available? How is the practice viewed by the older generation? by the younger generation?

Is abortion practiced? Under what circumstances? What is the society’s attitude toward it?

What is the cause and frequency of miscarriages? What cures are sought to prevent miscarriages? What is done with the fetus? Is it given a proper burial or disposed of in some other way? When does the fetus receive its soul? Where does the soul come from?


Note:  While investigating this subject, plus the Life Cycle topics which follow, be sensitive. In some cultures, some of these topics would not be appropriate for men to discuss with women and vice versa. When possible and appropriate, ask a wide variety of people for their opinions. Different age groups, different ethnic groups, and different religions may hold very different perspectives on these issues.

What is the adult attitude to children’s curiosity about their own bodies? regarding procreation and birth? Is such knowledge given, withheld, or fictionalized (e.g., the stork brought you)?

What system of modesty does the society follow regarding which body parts may be seen, excretory functions, bathing, privacy of marital relations. etc.?

Is virginity expected before marriage? From both sexes? If not, when do young people begin having sexual relations? With whom? What relationships would be considered incestuous? Is premarital sex expected. condoned, punished? How? What is the attitude of the parents toward such relations?

Is pregnancy before marriage shameful, accepted, or welcomed? Is the couple punished (e.g., by being fined or expelled from the village)? What effect does such a pregnancy have on a future marriage and bride price?

Are extramarital sex relations accepted or tolerated? For both sexes? Are the spirits offended by such affairs? Is the couple fined or punished? What happens to a child born of an adulterous affair?

What are the attitudes toward homosexuality, prostitution, or abortion? Are such actions tolerated or punished? How?

How are venereal diseases treated? Is contracting such a disease a thing of shame? Is there any connection between sex and morality?

What acts are considered immoral: profaning sacred places or objects, immodest behavior, violations of kinship relationships, incest, violation of an ethical code of behavior, or something else? What is the punishment for infraction of these codes? Is there a list of such behaviors (as, the Ten Commandments, the 7 deadly sins, etc.)? How are these taught and learned?


Make copies of a chart with times of the day (morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night) with space for writing in activities done during those times. Fill in your own activities for each time frame and give one to some of your friends. Have your friends fill in their own chart with their activities. Compare charts as a conversation exercise. What adjustments would be allowed in the daily routine? Do these tasks get done each day, or is there variety during the week?

Which activities are personal, and which ones involve the whole family? How are bathroom schedules organized and monitored? Are there washstands outside of the toilet area, or is everything enclosed in one room? How often is bathing done, and where?

Have each of the members of one family you know well fill out the charts. Compare the schedules for each and note how they differ, how they augment each other, and how adjustments are made. Note how much of their time is taken in doing their various tasks. What problems do they face during the day and how do they deal with them? Which tasks are done on a daily basis? Does the work vary from day to day (some tasks done one day, some on another)?

Arrange with a family you know well to stay overnight in their home and participate in their life for a whole day. Perhaps you could suggest that you would like to tell your relatives in your home country what a day in the life of a local family is like. Participate in their work as much as possible and try to get a picture of both individual differences and interpersonal relationships. If you have a fellow-worker, split up to follow family members to different tasks. Compare notes later to get a composite picture.

Examples of questions to note:

  •  Who gets up first?
  • What is the first task each member of the family performs?
  • Who wakes up the rest of the family? in what order?
  • Is face-washing enough, or is a complete bath in order in the morning?
  • Who gets the clothes ready for wearing?
  • Who cooks the breakfast?
  • Do the children get walked to school?
  • When does the father leave for work, and when does he return?
  • Does the mother also work? If so, what are the arrangements for child care?
  • What arrangements are made for cleaning the house, washing the dishes, gardening, marketing, etc.?
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