Teaching gender equality in India

A creative education is challenging gender stereotypes in India, from picking apart pop songs to girls walking down the street. Could starting at a younger age break down some of the ingrained attitudes in society?

“I became so frustrated with the normalisation of gender injustice,” says Gulika Reddy, a 27-year-old human rights lawyer. Pacing the floors of courtrooms, Reddy had witnessed in sharp focus some of India’s most abhorrent instances of gender unfairness: courts asking victims of domestic abuse to ‘adjust’ to their circumstances; rape survivors urged to marry their rapists.

“Growing up in India I have faced biases as a woman,” Reddy says. “I studied law because I thought it was a powerful tool for change. But I found law cannot address problematic norms unless attitudes change too.”

With this in mind, she set about organising programmes for police officers, lawyers and judges in which she urged them to reconsider sexist preconceptions. But these well-educated professionals seemed incapable of shifting deeply entrenched beliefs. “It is very difficult to change the attitudes beyond a certain age because gender-socialisation starts early,” Reddy explains. “I realised that intervention needs to be embedded into the education system, starting right from grade one.”

This revolutionary, yet simple idea started the Schools for Equality an activity-based programme that engages students, artists and people working for social justice to examine equality and effect change in society. This non-profit organisation aims change attitudes toward gender based violence and injustice. Beginning in 2014 in the city of Chennai with 165 students, it has now reached more than 2,700 young people in 11 educational institutions across three states in the south of India: Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Art, theatre, film and group discussion are used to teach children about gender parity, human rights and equality, all accompanied by a healthy dose of fun and a sense of play. The students are aged between six and 17 and attend schools in the existing, conservative academic system.

“We create a safe space for the students to reflect and introspect,” explains Reddy. She is both founder and part of the core six-strong team. Some 15 ‘creative facilitators’ are also involved. Over three years, hour-long weekly sessions take place alongside the mainstream curriculum of the schools in which they work. The team is in this for the long haul. “Transforming attitudes does not happen overnight,” notes Reddy.

Such change is a necessity in a society where the where gender inequality is present in every part of life, even the old laws of the land state that a woman is not allowed to assert herself, perhaps indicating as to why these beliefs are so ingrained in this society. Although it is not as bad as it once was, with top positions of power being held by women and women winning medals for India in the Rio Olympics last year, there is still obvious room for development and the legal and social norms, whether relating to inheritance, social status or financial security, are weighted heavily against women. There are approximately 944 women for every 1,000 men in the country, partly due to an enduring belief in male supremacy. The female literacy rate is 65.4 per cent as opposed to 82.1 per cent for men. As for gender-related violence, 79 per cent of women in India have experienced harassment or violence in public. As well as this, the government refuses to criminalise marital rape.

The syllabus at the Schools of Equality focuses on diversity and bias, and how stereotypes prevail in the media. Once children have an understanding of this, they go on to ask them to critically analyse books and media for evidence of these stereotypes and then create activities around these fundamental ideas. This helps nurture emotional sensitivity, build confidence and help be more respectful to the equality in gender.

Children are also taught to stand up to bullying, and challenge the thinking of these people. Reddy devised theatre skits in which children are encouraged to challenge bullying. “I didn’t want them to just be aware of the injustice without being able to do something about it”, she says.

“What we think children are capable of, how we think they should dress, how we expect them to behave, in an education system and in society in general, have long-term impacts,” says Sanaya Bharucha, senior manager of training and support, at Teach For India, a non-profit that helps create leaders to address educational inequity in India. Teachers who encourage girls to take up humanities subjects but boys to opt for science could be damaging. And those who sternly reprimand boys when they cry during sports, for example, may be heaping troublesome social norms on impressionable young minds. “Boys tell us they wish they could express themselves better,” says Reddy.

The most important thing to remember is that India’s children are our present, not our future. They deserve to grow up in a society where they are free from gender stereotypes.

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