This analysis is based on data from the Global Early Adolescent Study, which aims to understand the factors that predispose young people aged 10-14 years to positive or negative health trajectories. Specifically, interview transcripts from 202 adolescents and 191 parents across six diverse urban sites (Baltimore, Ghent, Nairobi, Ile Ife, Assuit and Shanghai) were analysed to compare the perceived risks associated with entering adolescence and how these risks differed by gender. Findings reveal that in all sites except Ghent, both young people and their parents perceived that girls face greater risks related to their sexual and reproductive health, and because of their sexual development, were perceived to require more protection. In contrast, when boys grow up, they and their parents recognised that their independence broadened, and parents felt that boys were strong enough to protect themselves. This has negative consequences as well, as boys were perceived to be more prone to risks associated with street violence and peer pressure. These differences in perceptions of vulnerability and related mobility are markers of a gender system that separates young women and men's roles, responsibilities and behaviours in ways that widen gender power imbalance with lifelong social and health consequences for people of both sexes.