Gender equality issues are confronted around the world through the creation of policies and plans of action that address these deeply rooted issues across educational systems and centers. This article discusses the benefit of these gender equality policies for women and girls in the classroom.
In the global education arena, girls are historically and systematically disadvantaged. In many countries all around the world, girls are simply not allowed to go to school. They may be forced into an arranged child marriage from an early age, or simply kept home to help mom tend to the house. Those girls who do get the chance to go to school face other obstacles. Some confront gender-based violence and discrimination. Walking to school they are harassed by members of the community. At school fellow peers, and even teachers, touch them inappropriately or make comments about their bodies. Those who are lucky enough to get through the day without this sort of verbal or physical abuse face yet another challenge. Their teachers may not say anything, but it is obvious that they do not believe these girls are as intelligent or capable as their male peers. Their teachers make comments about how the boy students will become doctors, scientists, engineers or lawyers. The images in their textbooks show the same: men holding important positions of power, while the women depicted consistently play the role of the mother, housewife, princess, or damsel in distress. If lucky enough to attend school, girls are taught––either explicitly or implicitly––that they have certain gender roles to fulfill and that their place in society is much much different than of their male peers. This is gender inequality. And this is just but a few of the examples of how gender inequality manifests itself in the educational sphere.
It is this type of gender inequality that has motivated ministries of education, educational NGOs and development agencies to fight for girls’ education around the world. Through the creation of “gender equality policies” or “girls’ education strategies,” politicians and practitioners have created plans of action to address these deeply rooted issues across educational systems and centers. Just in January of this year, the Chilean Ministry of Education, for example, launched the plan, “Education with Gender Equity” (Mineduc, 2019).
This new agenda is based on three specific strategies:
- Quality and equity in the classroom: educational quality without gender biases and that guarantee equity in the learning processes of girls and boys.
- More vocations and opportunities: so that girls and adolescent women can freely choose the direction of their lives.
- Tolerance and zero gender-violence at all levels of education (pre-primary, basic education and higher institutions).
But what does this look like in practice? Practitioner toolkits and teacher training facilitator handbooks help paint a better picture. There are a multitude of digital resources from all over the world made publically available on the internet in multiple languages. Examples from different regions of the world include: the Kenyan Forum for African Women Educationalists, “Gender Responsive Pedagogy: A Teacher’s Handbook” (FAWE, 2005); India’s International Centre for Research on Women’s, “Gender Equity Movement in Schools” materials (ICRW, 2011); and Argentina’s General Direction of Gender Policy’s, “Tools to address gender topics in educational environments” (MPF, 2015) See the full list below.
One common trend among these resources is that all begin with an activity––or series of activities––that deconstruct the concepts of gender and sex. The learning objective here is simple: to make sure that teachers and students understand that while sex is a biological trait (i.e. you are either born with female or male anatomy), gender is socially constructed. Gender, in other words, is the idea that each sex can be (and often are) described in distinct ways. Boys are strong and stoic, while girls are delicate and often emotional. Why is this important? Teachers and students begin to question these gender stereotypes and to think more critically about the language we use. Is it really okay to say “boys don’t cry”? What do we mean when we say “act like a lady”? What message is this sending to the young people we teach?
The tools start by building people’s awareness of their unconscious biases. They then move on to discuss how these internal biases impact external opportunities. If we believe that girls are delicate and must be protected, how do we restrict them in where they go or what they do? If we think boys should be the breadwinners of the house, how do we put pressure on them to gain certain positions of wealth and power in the employment sector? In the IRCW (2009) student activity book, for example, one activity includes a maze in which a male student must confront various obstacles before escaping (p. 22). Obstacles include peer pressure, shortage of money at home and the need to leave school to work at an early age, or stress weighing on him from his parents’ hopes for him to one day become a doctor. A fun and didactic exercise helps illustrate gender inequalities for boys. Teachers and students begin to discuss gender roles and how they manifest themselves in our classrooms, schools and communities. Another activity that I enjoy doing is analysing images in textbooks and curricula resources, or in the media and magazines. How are females and males being represented? What messages are being sent implicitly?
Using these tools and implementing these exercises in structured teacher training sessions allow teachers to reflect collaboratively. Time can be set aside to prepare gender-relevant lessons before entering the classroom. In countries where females are in a position of inferiority to their male counterparts, it is often the case that they are given less chance to participate in classroom discussion. Therefore, in order to be gender-responsive, teachers must consider offering a variety of participative strategies that motivate girls to get involved in the teaching and learning processes. In gender-sensitive pedagogy and planning, teachers learn to explicitly create opportunities for girls in any teaching and learning activity (see FAWE 2005, pg. 11 for an example). Girls are assigned to be the group leader in team activities. They are verbally encouraged to participate, or are given more time to think before raising their hand, as they may feel embarrassed or out of place speaking out in front of their male peers. Examples used in explanations of mathematical concepts are relevant to the lived experiences of both girl and boy students. Teachers are taught to consider these aspects in the classroom, and address them as they are observed. These simple acts allow for a more inclusive learning environment.
Finally, gender equality policies establish rules and protocols for the mistreatment of girls and boys. Toolkits offer structured opportunities for teachers and students to discuss issues of gender-based violence, and how it occurs in their schools, homes, and communities. Teachers and school leaders are trained in how to resolve conflicts of gender-based violence; and those perpetrators of violence are held accountable for their actions. At an individual level people begin to develop not only a consciousness but a criticality towards issues of gender in their everyday lives––how simple comments and gestures have deeper implications for girls’ and boys’ basic human rights and liberties. And at an institutional level, structures are put in place to protect these young people.
I am inspired to write this blog now, because just a few weeks ago here in the Dominican Republic, the new Minister of Education, Antonio Peña Mirabal, signed an ordinance for Dominican public schools to also begin to consider and create a “Gender Equality Policy.” The Dominican Republic, however, is a Christian country, and for this reason, the new ordinance was immediately met with backlash and rejection from the Christian community (Morel, 2019). Religious NGOs saw this new “Gender Equality Policy” as a way for the government to impose beliefs about not only gender-neutrality, but sexuality. Parents gathered in protest, arguing that teachers and schools should not get involved in these sorts of issues. It is for parents to decide what to teach their children about gender identity and sexual orientation. As one parent put it, “What we want is our children to be taught what biology shows –– that there are only two sexes: male and female, masculine and feminine, XX and XY” (see video here). Christian organizations throughout the country asked the Minister to revoke the ordinance so that no gender equality policy could be established.
Though I understand and appreciate the concerns of parents and religious leaders, I hope that this article proves that gender policies within schools can address issues of gender bias and inequality without trying to impose a gender ideology on children. Gender equality and gender ideology are very different, and the tools I discuss in my examples do not necessarily teach about matters of sexual orientation. Moreover, in terms of gender in the Dominican Republic, the country is facing a very unique challenge. First of all, the Dominican Republic has some of the highest rates of femicides and acts of gender-based violence (CEPAL, 2017). We see this type of violence permeate classroom and school walls, when little boys chase after little girls to lift their skirts up or grab their private parts. In addition, machista culture impacts the way teachers view female and male students, the expectations they have for them, and their participation in the classroom (Piña, 2011). Finally, within the field of education, another pattern depicts a very different story than that of international trends: in terms of enrollment boys often lag behind their female counterparts. The Dominican Ministry of Education found that 77.8% of girls are enrolled in primary school, compared to 69.7% of boys; and that at the secondary level these rates drop significantly, in that 57.9% of girls and 41.4% of boys are enrolled (MINERD 2016). In the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment exams, girls also outperformed boys significantly in literacy scores (OECD, 2015). We begin to see that in the country, both girls and boys are being disadvantaged in distinct ways. These issues need to be discussed in classrooms and schools and teachers and students need to be equipped with the tools and knowledge to combat these inequalities in their daily lives.
So yes, the Gender Equality Policy may be put in place to combat bullying against little Joey, someone’s son who is made fun of by his peers for “not being manly enough.” But it would also be put in place to take care of Sally, someone’s daughter, whose teacher invited her to his house for private tutoring and often tells her how much he is falling in love with her. Or Jhonny, the fourteen year old boy who is still in fifth grade because he was taken out of school for three years to work in his dad’s mechanics and whose teachers still refuse to give him the attention he deserves, because in their eyes, he is just stupid.