Tackling gender equality starts in the classroom

STOP. THINK. and RESIST gender inequalities in Africa

On this Day 1 of the 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women and girls, we would like to take time to STOP. THINK. AND RESIST gender inequalities in Africa by transforming deep cultural beliefs and practices on gender roles, starting with highly needed change in education, both at home and in the classroom.

Education, whether at home or at school, is one of the most powerful vehicles of socialization. When we tackle violence against adult women, in effect we rather deal with the consequences of an early-rooted negative attitude towards gender roles and images. Boys and girls learn from their parents, families, caretakers, role models... and their personality and interrelation with the opposite sex are shaped by what they experience and what they are taught at home and in school. School must therefore be a specific target in any strategy to fight against inequalities based on gender. Ending violence against women and girls will not happen unless we fundamentally transform the way boys and girls are brought up and the education they receive, be it at home, in school or even when watching TV or listening to the radio. Of course we do need to respond to the issues of violence against women but should equally focus on changing the sociological root causes of inequalities and violence.
Even at school, girls continue to face discrimination and abuse which threatens to undermine the transformative power of the education they receive. Schools should operate in the best interest of boys and girls equally. Teachers and parents together educate future responsible citizens...or not. Changing attitudes and beliefs in adults is a far much complex task than rooting equality and peaceful coexistence in children.
There should be a strong partnership between governments (schools and their teachers) and their citizens (parents and families) to work hand-in-hand towards achieving equality between boys and girls at home and in the classrooms.

ACORD believes that efficient prevention in tackling violence against women must address the root causes of the problem, focusing on beliefs, convictions and vision, which come from our socialization. Working with women and men in 18 African countries on gender issues, the Agency has drawn from its researches and practical work the pressing need to review educational curricula for making girls' as well as boys' concerns, needs and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the teaching, so that girls and boys benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated from the very beginning.

In addition to admission to school, young learners are exposed to curriculum and textbooks that show stereotypical gender roles, creating a base of sexism in their young minds. Moreover, whatever the curriculum (literature, mathematics or science), girls are usually in an environment that encourages them towards a career-oriented choice different to boys; such as in Burundi where girls are increasingly abandoning maths and sciences despite sporadic sensitisation of teachers. But changing a national curriculum is a long enterprise that will meet resistance, but that shouldn't prevent us from bringing about change through gradually introducing modules aiming at addressing the most pressing issues.
The current challenge is thus to mobilise governments, National Associations of Teachers, curriculum designers, civil society, researchers and role models for children and young people, to:

  1. Acknowledge the need to change school curriculum in most countries;
  2. Accompany parents and caretakers in changing education methods and values in the home;
  3. Sensitize the public and children themselves in understanding children's and girls' rights; and
  4. Coordinate the work of civil society organisations implementing women's rights, children's rights and education programmes, towards a united position to advocate for gender-sensitive curricula.

With this objective in mind, ACORD - who actively works on building knowledge on positive gender relations and effective ways of addressing gender inequalities with a view to improving women's status, development and influence in Africa - in collaboration with local and Pan African partners, started a multi-country programme to ensure gender mainstreaming in the curriculum for primary education.

The project focuses on changing the teaching practices and a gender equality-focused learning environment in five African countries (Chad, Mali, Burundi, Southern Sudan, Uganda), aiming to:

  • Provide staff of education and gender ministries, editors and curriculum developers a framework for exchange, reflection and analysis on gender mainstreaming in the curriculum;
  • Design and disseminate a training tool for gender mainstreaming, as a practical manual for the training of teachers, and adaptable to country-specific contexts; and

In some countries, positive change is also happening but at a small scale and needs to be given special attention. Chad for instance, the establishment of a technical unit for education (including girls' special education) and clear training modules, which include gender as a specific topic, are seen as positive achievements. Chad's first lady is also committed to girls' education and positively advocates for an education that equally support boys and girls. However the country has a poor retention rate as girls drop out before completion of their education, and we observe strong views culturally against girls' education. Girls are also facing sexual abuse and are not protected by their own community and cultural environment. In Mali, where gender mainstreaming in school began in 2001 with notable progress leading to more women in decision-making instances, the situation has been significantly worsened by the current conflict affecting many public services including education, and it becomes urgent to ensure that in addition to rebuilding schools and securing peace, gender equality in school curriculum is also given a priority.
The case of South Sudan is also interesting and talks to conflict and post-conflict situations where girls and women are faced with worsening violence or inequalities.
Having gained independence recently (9 October 2011), it is sometimes difficult to talk about gender mainstreaming in school because the main focus is on building and reconstructing schools. However, the curriculum has included a language that addresses both men and women and boys and girls in the education materials with a tendency for neutrality instead of using he/she. The education policy has provided for an alternative education system that provides opportunities for the education of girls who drop out of school. A framework for mainstreaming gender in the education curriculum is in place. The involvement of the civil society organizations in the education processes is also strong and they do emphasize the inclusion of social norms and practices. There is in existence a law for the creation of a department of gender and social change in the ministry of education and there is a requirement for a minimum of 30% of female staff in all ministries.

In Uganda, effective mainstreaming in schools is gradually taking place following the adoption of an action plan (2007-2017). The Department of Gender and gender clubs in schools have been established. Publications and a web site are used for sensitisation. Scholarships for girls are being provided to encourage more girls to attend school. There are opportunities for girls to be readmitted at school after giving birth. The use of "he/she" and "men/women" is taking place in schools and in the recruitment process for teachers. In spite of such positive progress, girls are still dropping out of school as noted in Karamoja with insufficient efforts for retaining girls in school.

In all the above countries, we clearly note an insufficient percentage of the national budgets allocated to quality education and equal opportunities for boys and girls.

ACORD organised a workshop in July 2013 in Bujumbura, Burundi to discuss how to mainstream gender in primary school curriculum as part of programme that is being implemented which focuses on "Harmful cultural practices deterring women's land ownership, access to economic assets and resulting in sexual violence practices." The report is available here.