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The Right To Education With Gender Equality

March 15, 2019

Legal and political advances to ensure gender equality in education find strong obstacles to their implementation in schools in various countries of Latin America and the Caribbean due to cultural barriers, a lack of governmental will and the advance of fundamentalist conservative and religious trends, among other factors of exclusion and inequality that affect girls and women.

As the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE), we have been following the challenges and advances in order to guarantee gender equality and respect for diversity in education, in our region and in the world.

Girls and women are discriminated against during education in terms of access, permanence, completion, treatment, learning outcomes and career choices, resulting in disadvantages that go beyond schooling and the school environment.

The presence of gender stereotypes in curricula, textbooks and teaching processes; the violence they face in and out of school; structural and ideological constraints as well as male dominance in certain academic and professional fields are factors that prevent girls and women from claiming and exercising their human right to education on an equal stands.

General Recommendation No. 36 of the UN CEDAW Committee identifies some of these challenges and urges States to enact and implement appropriate laws, policies and procedures to forbid and discourage violence against girls and women in educational institutions and their environments. It also proposes that mandatory curricula with comprehensive information on sexual and reproductive health and rights be drawn up and applied. We consider this Recommendation a very important human rights instrument, which must be used in the fight against patriarchy, for equality and for the rights of girls and women.

Another instrument that applies to this struggle is the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda (SDG), adopted by the UN member states in 2015, which recognizes that “gender equality is inextricably linked to the right to education” and establishes a commitment to ensure inclusive and quality education for all, and to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and girls by 2030.

In the last decade, advances have been made regarding the inclusion of a gender perspective in education in different countries in the region, achievements that are being targeted by conservative groups that try to prevent the continuity and concretization of these changes, or even want to promote setbacks in relation to which it had already advanced.  The follow-up to these transformations confronts cultural barriers, governments’ lack of will and the advance of conservative and religious fundamentalist tendencies, which invoke the existence of the false concept of “gender ideology” to promote mobilizations, judicial actions and campaigns of disinformation, among other strategies, against the realization of a secular and rights-based education, which includes addressing gender equality, sexual diversity, the right to gender identity and comprehensive sexuality education in schools. It is a regional trend that includes countries like Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay.

In the case of Brazil, the “School without Party” movement has been promoting legislative proposals and other actions to prohibit the approach to political and gender issues and sexual orientation in education. There have also been setbacks to gender equality in the content of the new National Curriculum Base (BNCC, by its name in Portuguese), and the fact that they have excluded the reference to “gender” from the National Education Plan and from other state and municipal education plans approved in the country. Another setback was the decision of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) last September, which determined the constitutionality of religious teaching in schools, contributing to censorship in addressing issues related to gender and sexuality in schools.

In Colombia, the elaboration within the Ministry of Education of a guide that addressed the issue of sexual orientation and non-hegemonic gender identities in school,  directed to teachers and with the objective of adapting the manuals of school coexistence to the sexual diversity and to the non-discrimination, generated strong arguments by  ultraconservative groups and confessional fanatics of the country.

In Costa Rica, a program of studies for the affectivity and integral sexuality by the Ministry of Education, which would be implemented this year, has met a strong rejection by fanatical religious sectors, who believe that this program promotes “gender ideology” at schools. In Ecuador, under the slogan ”Con Mis Hijos No Te Metas” (“Don’t mess with my children”), mobilizations and marches were held against law initiatives linked to gender equality, and a gender approach was not included in educational curricula.

In Peru, there is a strong challenge to the implementation of a new National Basic Education Curriculum, which includes a gender focus, the promotion of equal opportunities for men and women, the construction of gender identity and integral sex education.

In Paraguay, a Resolution of the Ministry of Education prohibited the dissemination of materials that address the issue of gender in educational institutions. In Uruguay, the Justice denied a demand presented by a group of fathers and mothers, against the dissemination of a didactic proposal for the approach of sexual education in the initial and primary stages of education.

Inequalities and discrimination behind educational estimates

Generally speaking, Latin America and the Caribbean countries have made substantive progress on gender parity in educational statistics, both in terms of access and school performance. However, serious obstacles to the full realization of the human right to the education of girls and women go far beyond school access or the treatment they receive in schools.

Among the main barriers are child labor (especially domestic work), early marriage and pregnancy, armed conflicts – which affect girls and women in particular – poverty, the influence of religions on educational policy decisions, violent and dangerous school environments and, especially, discriminatory practices that are repeated in schools, reflecting ideological and cultural constructions, macho, patriarchal, heteronormative and heterosexist dominant in our societies, which violate a set of human rights, especially the right to a dignified life, free from violence and discrimination.

Beyond the educational field, there are other strong injustices against women: their reduced political representation and unequal salaries they receive, their almost exclusive responsibility for domestic work and the care of people, the criminalization of abortion and violence, once the rates of feminicide in the region remain alarming.

All these elements reveal that gender equality is still far from being fully accomplished, and the change in this scenario depends on a cultural transformation and the change of ingrained thoughts, what we understand will only become possible from reflection and a critical look on reality, elements that can and should be promoted in education and through it.

How comprehensive sex education can promote gender equality

Experts consider that a comprehensive sex education implies recognizing boys and girls as sexed beings from an early age in an informed, free, responsible way and without linking sexuality and gender dialogue to the reproductive issue only, but rather addressing these issues from a sociocultural perspective.

For these specialists, a comprehensive sex education is not just about reproduction, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and early pregnancy, or the changing bodies of students during puberty. Comprehensive sexual education goes beyond these factors, and is related to knowledge about one’s own body and its care, reflection on the meanings of sexuality, and the relationships and relations between boys and girls.

From this perspective, teachers and students can recognize and value differences and similarities between genders, overcoming stereotypes and prejudices, an important work to be done since childhood education, not only in adolescence, since integral sexual education also has the role of preventing and combating cases of violence against children, starting from the space of dialogue and the relationship of trust that creates between student and teacher.

Education should reflect on gender, not as an anatomical sexual division that justifies differences, but as social constructions on the concepts of femininities and masculinities in our societies.

Study on Discrimination in Early Childhood Education, conducted by CLADE in 2014, after talks with mothers, fathers, children, teachers and professionals from pre-primary schools in Brazil, Colombia and Peru, reveals that discrimination based on gender already manifests itself among the students of initial education. The study also shows that there is a great opening from girls and boys of this age group, guided by an educator, to identify certain behaviors as incorrect (for example, to prevent a colleague from playing soccer because “she is a girl”), and to review their own positions from new experiences.

The first step in overcoming discrimination is to recognize that it exists in all forms and stages of education. We argue that everyone should have equal access to the rights to education for gender equality and comprehensive sex education, since discussing these issues represents not only addressing the rights of girls and women, but also to ponder on gender roles and stereotypes in our societies, which includes questioning and rebuilding our concepts of femininity and masculinity so that they are more responsive,  and seeking to build ever more inclusive, peaceful and democratic societies. Hence, it is fundamental that education promotes, for boys and girls, a learning experience based on the freedom of expression, self-knowledge and recognition of one’s own identities and sexualities.

Unequal distribution of functions and lack of representation

Most of the teachers in our region today are women, especially in early childhood education, because women in general are linked to education and care functions or to areas of knowledge related to sensitivity, subjectivity, intuition and the humanities, and the values of rationality and objectivity are generally attributed to men and boys.

These prejudices and stereotypes affect the right of girls and women to choose the professions, functions and fields of knowledge they want to play and in which they want to develop. The lack of such debate and problematization in schools leads to the persistence and reproduction of macho and discriminatory thoughts, which sadly also accompany boys and men in their education and in society.

There is also a lack of representativeness, recognition and appreciation of girls and women in school plans, content and practices. There are countless women who were and have been instrumental in transforming our societies towards equality, guaranteeing rights for all, and overcoming violence and discrimination, which for the relevance of their struggle should be cited in the classrooms.

The celebrations of this year’s International Women’s Day especially honored activist women, drawing attention to the high levels of violence against human rights defenders around the world, and calling on States to ensure protection and justice to these women.

The International Day to Fight Violence Suffered by Women is celebrated by the UN on November 25, when the three Mirabal sisters – Minerva, María Teresa and Patria -, known as “las Mariposas” (the Butterflies), were murdered in 1960 for having formed a movement of direct opposition against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, cases like this have not gone down in history alone. On the eve of the celebrations of March 8, we also remembered the 3-year anniversary of the murder of the environmental activist and indigenous leader of Honduras, Berta Cáceres. A few days later, we remembered the brutal murder of feminist, black, lesbian and fighter for equal rights and against discrimination and violence, Marielle Franco, in Rio de Janeiro, on March 14th, 2018.

Cases such as these can’t go unpunished, and addressing them in education and in other spheres and spaces of our society is fundamental, so that these forms of violence and injustice have their existence recognized and can be overcome.

Author:  Fabíola Munhoz, Communication and Mobilization coordinator of CLADE

Translation: Samuel Grillo

Review: Natalie Akstein

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