By Anna Rego and Shagun Sabarwal
“Mummy ki roti gol gol, papa ka paisa gol gol.” Mummy’s roti is round round, as is papa’s money. While this popular Hindi nursery rhyme explaining the concept of a circle seems harmless, it subtly reinforces deep-rooted gender stereotypes and exemplifies the gendering that occurs throughout India’s classrooms. Instead of challenging the typical tropes of masculinity and femininity, Indian curricula and textbooks chronically under-represent women, show mostly men at workplaces, and introduce gendered standards of intelligence, beauty, strength and skill to impressionable students.
Existing research has largely focussed on the effectiveness of running interventions through the school system to improve learning or health outcomes. However, much less focus has been given to leveraging the school system to inculcate more egalitarian norms, behaviours and attitudes, such as those around gender. With strategic changes to teaching materials and curricula, the classroom can be a venue to directly address gender-biased perceptions and instill gender-equal attitudes and behaviours.
There is an opportunity to make a dent in gender discrimination, given universal primary school enrolment, and steep increases in secondary school enrolment for both boys and girls, from approximately 52% in 2004-05 to 80% in 2015-16 at the national level. This can be done by identifying and scaling school-based interventions that have a proven impact on gender attitudes and behaviours. Alongside improving students’ cognitive skills and learning outcomes, schools must do more to promote positive gender roles through their classrooms, and become an alternative platform that reinforces values of inclusion, equality and egalitarianism.
An interactive classroom programme designed to promote gender equitable attitudes and behaviours among adolescents was developed by the NGO Breakthrough, and tested using a randomised evaluation in Haryana between 2014-16. Students aged 11-14 in 150 schools in Sonepat, Jhajjar, Rohtak, and Panipat participated in a series of interactive discussions on gender identity and stereotypes, where they were encouraged to reflect on gender inequities and their consequences, understand human rights and constitutional rights, and then communicate and act on what they had learnt. The gender sensitisation curriculum was tailored for early adolescents, as previous research suggests that they are particularly amenable to attitude change.
The change in gender attitudes and behaviours was measured in these students, as well as in students from 164 schools in the same districts which did not receive the programme. Researchers found that a few months immediately after the programme ended, adolescents who had participated in the programme held more progressive views towards employment, gender roles, and female education, compared to students who did not receive the programme.
These results persisted even two years after the programme, and students who went through the programme exhibited more gender-equitable behaviours. This behaviour change was greater for boys than girls. For example, boys reported doing more household chores, while girls did not reduce their number of chores. These results suggest that although both boys and girls changed their behaviour, girls may have faced greater external constraints to enacting change due to the prevailing gender norms in their home environments.
Given the promise of this open and reflective classroom curriculum when tested in Haryana, the government of Punjab will introduce a new gender sensitisation programme across all government schools in the state in the coming academic year, incorporating these learnings to transform their current textbooks and teaching aids in three subjects. Based on estimates from early April 2021 by the government of Punjab’s Department of School Education, the programme is expected to reach 6 lakh students from grades 6-8.
To normalise progressive gender attitudes and behaviours among adolescents, schools can serve as potential platforms for change. While calls to integrate gender-sensitive content at all school levels is an important first step, empowering adolescents and improving teacher training can potentially be a gateway to lasting gender equitable behaviours. Policy makers across India must take similar action to utilise the classroom as a site for promoting gender inclusion and equality, and building a world that is free from gender discrimination.
Anna Rego is Policy Manager and Shagun Sabarwal is Director of policy, training, and communications at J-PAL South Asia
Disclaimer: J-PAL South Asia is working with the Government of Punjab and Breakthrough India for the expansion of the gender sensitisation programme in the state.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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