“There are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.”
“Girls cannot do well at math and science.”
“Since girls have to get married, they should not be sent for higher education.”
These are views that hold huge currency in India even today. Look at our sex ratio. It speaks volumes. In 2011, 914 girls were born to every 1,000 boys. We may pride ourselves on electing a woman Prime Minister way before many developed countries and bask in the achievements of our women corporate leaders. But the fact is boys are preferred to girls. Girls don’t carry on the family name, entail huge dowries and are less than equal at the workplace.
Worldwide, there is growing recognition that it is critical to reduce gender inequality for a country’s overall development. The best way to do this is to reach out to the youth. In India, however, there has been a limited attempt in this regard. Schools, where youth spend a large part of their time, more often than not, end up reinforcing gender stereotypes.
An important initiative showing the way forward is the Gender Equity Movement in Schools started in 2008 by the Committee of Resource Organization for Literacy (CORO), Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW). GEMS works in 45 public schools in Mumbai reaching out to 8000 girls and boys between the ages of 12 to 14.
Through campaigns, role-playing games, discussion based lessons, comic strips and interactive activities, students are encouraged to rethink social norms and question gender biases. Led by facilitators, the children talk about puberty and what makes for healthy relationships. Initially girls and boys were placed in separate groups to help them open up. From the second year, they were mixed, in response to requests from the students themselves.
The GEMS approach is recognized worldwide as an effective way means to reach out to the youth. At the recent International Conference on Family Planning at Dakar, Senegal, I had the opportunity to listen to Pranita Acharya, ICRW Gender, Poverty and HIV/AIDS specialist who administers the GEMS program. To an audience packed with adolescent sexuality experts and activists from across Africa and Asia, she explained why a school-based approach could work.
“Classroom discussions help students think about and question social norms”, says Acharya. “Facilitators encouraged them to challenge stereotypical ideas about men and women. Those interactions clearly moved students to look at their world differently.”
A facilitator describes a group session on “Labeling” held with 40 boys. At the beginning, they were noisy and restless. They were told to write a label they used or knew of on the blackboard. There were many responses, based on physical descriptions such as “sukdi” (malnourished), and “takli” (bald) and some with sexual innuendoes like “raand” (girl who has sex with many men), pataka (fire cracker) and bayalya (a feminine boy).
The boys were then asked to close their eyes and imagine that these terms were being used on them. They said they felt “angry “, “hurt”, “like hitting someone” and wanting to ask “what did I do wrong.” The facilitator then asked if these terms were used often against girls. The boys agreed that girls were often on the receiving end. The facilitator then went on to say that if a word could hurt so much, perhaps it was time to think about why we use them. The last question asked was, “Is labeling a form of violence?” The class fell silent and after a while the hands started rising slowly. The class agreed that labeling was indeed violence.
At the start of the program, little over 20% of boys and girls supported gender equality. A year later, this grew to 53% of girls and 39% of the boys. There was greater support for girls pursuing a higher education and marrying later, and of boys helping in the household work.
At her presentation, Acharya recounted the words of a 13-year-old. “I used to think that only boys should do outdoor chores. Now I think they should help women at home.”
The program also teaches the children how to fight back when faced with violence, be it physical or verbal. A 14-year-old girl said, “I could not stop harassment in the past. Because of the sessions we got to know that harassment of girls should be stopped. Boys should understand the feelings of girls. And girls should oppose violence.”
The GEMS experiment, experts say, shows that group activities can be effective in opening up discussions on sensitive issues linked to gender inequality. Encouraged by the results, the program has been started in 1200 civic schools in Mumbai. And over 600 schools in the states of Rajasthan and Goa.