Thanks to the increasing number of feminist movements and activism, globally women’s rights and equality have started gaining momentum over the last three decades. Women’s empowerment, now, is an important developmental agenda in most of the countries. All societies have gradually accepted that women’s equality and empowerment is not only a gender issue, but an intersectional issue which plays a pivotal role in the overall development of any country. Gender discrimination, gender-based violence, harmful gender norms are now recognized as a violation of human rights.
In spite of the significant progress and development in gender equality, no country has yet achieved true gender parity. In fact, there’s still a huge gender gap in the areas of women’s economic and political participation, women’s representation in leadership roles in government or private sectors, rate of gender-based violence and women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
How Children Learn About Gender Roles, Gender Norms and Relations
Gender Norms are ideas about how people of a particular gender in a specific society or community should behave. Gender norms are the building blocks of gender identity and gender stereotyping. Whereas Gender roles are different socially attributed responsibilities, attitudes and behaviors of each gender. Gender relations are relations between men and women, and how power, access to resources are distributed between men and women.
Research shows that the concept of gender in children forms between the ages of three and seven. During the early developmental phase, children form an understanding of gender norms, identities and stereotypes based on their experience within their families, schools, and surroundings.
There are expectations and standards based on one’s gender which are internalized very early in life. Children are exposed to these norms and standards in books, cartoons, movies, TV shows, print, and digital commercials! For instance, women are sexually objectified in TV and digital commercials all over the world. Toxic male masculinity, male dominance, eve-teasing are typically glorified in stories, novels, films in all cultures. The roles and nature of women in films, and books are too stereotypical and a far cry from ‘equality’.
If a child is exposed to certain experiences as a part of his/her normal developmental dynamics, they tend to normalize it and develop plenty of unconscious biases towards that experience. These children grow up to replicate those experiences in their lives as adults. For instance, young Kids exposed to gender-based violence at home or in the community internalized those experiences, and tend to repeat them as adults. The same is true for gender power dynamics, gender roles or behaviors. Boys who grow up in a household where males do not participate in domestic work, usually find it difficult to do any chores as an adult.
Role of Education in dismantling Societal Influences
“Yes, there are basic behavioural differences between the sexes, but we should note that these differences increase with age because our children’s intellectual biases are being exaggerated and intensified by our gendered culture. Children don’t inherit intellectual differences. They learn them. They are a result of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.”
Education plays a very important role in shaping up a child’s mind. Early formative years are the best time to imprint deep, meaningful thoughts and connections about breaking stereotypes, by providing children a gender-neutral education through arts, drama, musical, and other formal and informal curricula. The aim of such education should be to train young minds to question, challenge, and counter what they see in society, at home or on TV.
Traditional education curriculum at the elementary and middle school should be carefully designed with a strong gender lens, so that children are not exposed to any gender stereotypes, and they are able to unlearn some of the gender norms and roles they experience outside the school.
Early educational intervention in shifting the ways one handle powers, breaking the connection between masculinity and violence, encouraging boys to share household responsibilities and girls to take up leadership roles, ensuring equal access to opportunities between boys and girls, breaking the stereotype of gender-specific sports, toys, and education could make a huge impact on the gender equality and women’s empowerment of a country. Thus including gender education in early childhood could be a deciding factor in how a child would grow up and participate in creating a gender-equal community as an adult.
Sometimes informal education in the form of role-playing, art, debate, or drama can effectively tap the subconscious mind of children, without them having to deal with the stress of traditional learning. Yet the lessons often leave a deep and long-lasting impression in their minds.
Educating the Educators First
Teachers and educators play very important roles in helping young children unlearn societal expectations or norms. Educational programs are designed specifically for young kids to reverse gender narratives and gender stereotypes they experience in their day to day lives.
Unfortunately, teachers in different societies have their own cultural and traditional prejudices, implicit and explicit biases about gender roles, and norms. Schools and teachers often inflict their gender prejudices and biases to students, sometimes with conscious objectives of doing so.
“Social transformation” needs a lot of work on removing our subconscious biases. If a teacher doesn’t believe that societal norms, rules and responsibilities should be the same for both the genders, she/he would not be able to teach the students to ignore gender norms, to provide children counternarratives, or help them question the status quo.
Thus it’s very important to train and educate the teachers to identify their own biases about how boys and girls are expected to behave, express themselves or the roles they play. This training might involve unlearning their life-long beliefs and traditions, working through different issues in their personal and professional spaces. Educators of young children should offer their students different perspectives, including those that counter society’s confined constructs, teachers should also be trained to identify how their biases affect their classroom behaviors.
Gender Education in the Present Education System
In spite of the immense potential of early childhood education in dismantling the narratives of gender inequality, very little importance is given to include gender education in the school curriculum. A huge part of a child’s cognitive and affective formation of identity, personality, and interactions with the outer world happens through the school, teachers, and peers. It’s extremely important to include gender education in early childhood education.
Gender inequality and gender discrimination are systemic issues, deeply embedded in every culture as a result of century-old patriarchy. We’ve seen recently how the COVID 19 crisis has disproportionately affected women and girls worldwide. There has been a significant increase in gender-based violence worldwide. Women were also disproportionately impacted by the loss of income, increased burden of domestic work, child and elder care, and loss of their sexual and reproductive rights. Many of these issues are cultural and need a systemic, scientific approach to eliminate them.
Education is one of the strongest interventions of any systemic change. Early education or childhood education is particularly helpful to counter narrate the personal and societal experience, and to tap the subconscious minds of boys and girls. Policymakers, educators and the international development community worldwide should not underestimate the importance of early childhood education in eliminating gender norms, gender-based violence, and discrimination from society.