How can we use the school education system to implant feminist values in kids?

How can we use the school education system to implant feminist values in kids?

Recently, I facilitated an online workshop on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) from my living room. Once the session concluded, my mother, who had obviously been listening, asked with genuine curiosity; “from where did you learn all that?”. At that moment I honestly did not have a comprehensive answer. 

However, I found myself asking this same question for the first time. From where did I actually learn the things I know about gender equality, SRHR, feminism and the like? The internet came at the top of the list, closely followed by my university education, all the training programs I have participated in, and the conversations I have had with like-minded friends. My family environment also helped; while my parents did not proactively try to instill feminist values in me, they never impeded my curiosity as a child. I was able to cultivate this curiosity into an open mind, with the help of my two elder brothers who themselves were very open minded. My secondary school also contributed indirectly, as that is where I got into the habit of reading in English which opened up access to a lot of information. Once I looked at this combination of factors, I realized how privileged and lucky I have been. The vast majority of Sri Lankan children do not get exposed to at least a few such factors. In such a scenario, what hope do we have in raising our kids to be people who believe in equal rights and opportunity for all irrespective of their sex and gender, who also are known as feminists?

The school system, for one, remains an untapped wealth of opportunity. 

Sri Lanka boasts a literacy rate above 90%, and even the most underprivileged parents strive to send their children to school until they at least sit for the Ordinary Level examination, which happens after 11 years of schooling. Harnessing all the years kids spend in school is the best shot we have at raising our next generation to be feminists. I am not talking about introducing “feminist values” as a subject, but rather that the messages and practices that promote feminist values should be integrated throughout the whole school education system.

Rethinking our teacher composition in primary grades

One of the crucial reforms would be to have both male and female teachers in primary grades, in at least somewhat equal percentages. I had not realized that there is a huge imbalance until a friend pointed that out. The percentage of female primary school teachers was reported at 86.68% in 2016. How would having more male teachers in their primary grades help kids become feminists? It is important for children to see men in care roles, and primary teachers often perform a dual role of a teacher and a caregiver. Children who do not get to see the men in their family performing care duties will be able to fill that gap by looking up to their male primary school teachers.

However, this would not be an easily attainable reform. Teaching is one of the most gendered professions in Sri Lanka, whereby girls and women are actively encouraged to become teachers, saying that it is a career that least hampers their domestic role as a wife and a mother. Drastic changes across multiple areas, from what we tell small boys about careers to how spouses divide domestic work to remuneration of teachers are needed for us to achieve this. But that does not mean we should not try. That means that we should think long term, and plan for incremental change. 

Gender sensitive teacher education and training

Creating a mere gender balance in teacher composition alone is not going to result in much positive change, unless we make sure that all the teachers, especially primary school teachers are gender sensitized. As per the Gender Assessment in Teacher Education in Sri Lanka (2017), there is no special budget allocation for gender support services in teacher education and the concept of gender has not been included in the teacher education curriculum. Studies have shown that children start to form their understanding of gender roles very early on, relying heavily on the behaviors of adults around them. Early primary school is said to be the time where boys begin to distance themselves from behaviors stereotypically perceived as “feminine”, and as early as late primary school, they start misogynistic objectification and sexualized forms of harassment towards girls and women, which can be a well-established part of their identities by ages 10-11. In such a context, it is of paramount importance that we make sure our teacher education is gender sensitive. Introducing basic concepts related to gender, sexuality, sexual identity etc. in teacher education curricula would be the starting point, coupled with on-the-job training and evaluation and perhaps the introduction of “gender champions” among teachers, who act as peer trainers. Teachers who are sensitized that way can call out sexist behaviors and start having early conversations with kids on topics like consent and bodily autonomy (e.g., “it’s okay to say no if you don’t want to hug other people”).

Comprehensive sexuality education

Another essential ingredient of raising feminist kids is including comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in the school curriculum. CSE is a process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children with knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being, and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives. This rights-based approach is extremely important as it promotes gender equality and helps kids stand against gender-based violence.

Is CSE needed in Sri Lanka? Those who are against the introduction of CSE often claim it is not needed, stating that age appropriate information about sex is already being provided to the kids through the family unit, and going beyond that would “corrupt our young”, as was claimed during the controversy around the “Hathe Ape Potha”, a recent attempt at introducing SRHR to the school curriculum. However, statistics tell a different story. As per the National Survey on Emerging Issues among Adolescents in Sri Lanka (2004), the age of sexual initiation is 14.4 years for females and 15.3 years for males. It further revealed that adolescents had low knowledge of contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, and risk of sexual abuse. In fact, the number of HIV infected male patients is on the rise in Sri Lanka. These damning statistics should be read along with the findings of the Youth Health Survey (2012) conducted by the Ministry of Health, UNFPA and UNICEF, where only 59% of respondents said they received reproductive health education in school. I personally know how unaware young people who attend the workshops I facilitate have been, about basic information related to their bodies. 

We should also be mindful that CSE is not limited to reproductive health. It covers seven key components: Relationships and Intimacy; Values, Rights, Culture; Understanding Gender; Violence and Staying Safe; Skills for Health and Well-being; The Human Body and Development; and Sexuality and Sexual Behavior which are all essential in raising feminist kids. Not having CSE would not stop children from exploring their sexuality; it will only pave the way for them to do that in unsafe conditions. As such, it is best that we equip them with the skills and knowledge necessary to make intelligent, informed choices that prioritize their safety and pleasure. 

Beyond CSE – inclusive curricula

It is important that we understand CSE is not a panacea. CSE would not help if the rest of the curricula are actively trying to reinforce stereotypes. CSE should go hand in hand with major reforms in school curricula. Studies have found that the current school curricula in Sri Lanka perpetuate outdated gender norms and stereotypes rather than dismantle them. The Gender Assessment in Teacher Education in Sri Lanka (2017) states that textbooks often use gender stereotyped pictures (e.g., always the mother is preparing meals and the father is going to work), that they have no content related to the concept of gender, gender equality, or harassment. For example, the citizenship textbooks from grades 6–9, the mandatory years for civic education in Sri Lanka, have no mention of current inequities experienced by women/girls or minorities.

In addition to this lack of gender sensitivity in curricula, there is an emphasis on the protection of traditions, cultures, and customs. For example, the grade 9 civics textbook states, “Social security is ensured by virtue of the individual upholding the customs and manners, social values, rules and regulations as well as traditions that prevail in society” while the grade 7 civics textbook states, “You should be well aware of the traditions followed by members of the family. You should vehemently follow and practice these traditions”. This combination of lack of gender sensitivity and the heavy emphasis on the protection of traditions has a devastating impact on children, as it leaves little room for both teachers and students to question the status quo. In 2017, the Gender Assessment in Teacher Education in Sri Lanka made three key recommendations to create a more gender inclusive school environment and system: establishment of a gender sensitive monitoring and evaluation process in the education sector; a cross-curricular approach in gender conceptualization, parity, and sensitivity; a gender awareness program in teacher education. All curricula should focus on challenging all forms of gender-based discrimination and violence and should include components of human rights education.

Doing away with sex segregated schools

As per the Annual School Census of Sri Lanka (2019), 144 schools in Sri Lanka are boys’ schools, 241 are girls’ schools, while 9,780 schools are mixed schools. While the ratio of sex segregated schools is relatively low, it should be noted that most of the national schools are sex segregated (there are 373 national schools in Sri Lanka). The pros and cons of sex segregated schools is an ongoing debate. 

However, there is no denying that sex segregated schools are an artificial construct which limits children’s opportunities to practice mutual respect, interact cooperatively and co-exist successfully with members of the “opposite sex”. Sex segregated schools is a very Victorian system, which was an integral part of the 19th century British colonialism, which aimed to create loyal colonial subjects. In the latter half of the 20th century, many countries moved away from sex segregated schools, particularly in the public sector. They are an institutionalized form of exclusion which promote the cis-centric, binary classifications of sex and gender, which negatively affect trans and non-binary children, and force parents of intersex babies to perform medically unnecessary and irreversible surgeries on their babies, to make them “fit in”. Moreover, with their overfocus on physical education and other stereotypically “male activities”, all-boys schools can often be a breeding ground for toxic masculinity, something we should try to avoid at all costs. A more holistic approach would be to make all schools mixed, with infrastructure that make them truly inclusive, such as adequate menstruation hygiene facilities, and disability access. Educating girls, boys, and gender non-conforming kids from different cultural backgrounds together in the same classroom allows them to contextualize important conversations like consent and boundaries by listening to and witnessing others’ experiences, thereby cultivating greater empathy and understanding.

The five reforms aforementioned are not a cure-all, but rather some steps in the right direction which we should seriously consider if we want our school education to be truly transformative and offer the kids the freedom from gender stereotypes that are entrenched in the society. Attitudes and behaviors of children that are misogynistic and sexist (which were originally forced upon them by the society) are not going to go away on their own. Children do not grow out of them; they grow into them. Therefore, it is essential that we strategically intervene in this regard, as the realization of equal rights and opportunities for all really depends on what we teach our kids today. It is all about democracy, the very foundation of our Republic, and the stakes are too high to leave it for the children to figure it out on their own through informal means, like I had to.

Article by Nishadi Gunatilake
(The author can be reached via [email protected])

The views expressed on this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Hashtag Generation. 

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