Observing a group of Nepali secondary school children debate about single sex education a couple of weeks ago was a calming breath of fresh air (instead of sparking the usual rage). Unlike their UK counterparts, whom I've observed arguing this debate countless times (due to the nature of my job teaching debating at the charity Debate Mate), they easily identify and relay arguments in favour of gender equality and against gender discrimination.
In the UK your typical secondary school teenager will very much buy into gender roles and stereotypes when making arguments on either side of this debate. These are the stereotypes and roles which have little grounding in truth as I have argued in some of my other blog posts (so I won't go through it all again here). Arguments in favour of single sex education typically include; boys and girls are very different academically, boys prefer practical lessons with girls preferring written work, boys would like more sports and girls are shyer around boys. More worryingly perhaps are the arguments heard, or indeed not heard, opposing single sex education. Never have I heard that there should not be discrimination and that we should ensure boys and girls get the same standard of education. Never have I heard them argue that it's not fair if a girls' school is better and boys aren't allowed to go there. Never have I heard that boys and girls are equal and there is no need to separate them in the classroom. Yet to shy, sporadically educated poor Nepali children with little time to come up with arguments these seem to be on the tip of their tongues. Why have we become complacent and let gender stereotyping and sexism continue in our schools?
There is indeed sexism in Nepal - much more so than in the UK. I've heard awful stories of rural women being condemned to sleeping in animal sheds during menstruation. Yet despite or perhaps because of this existing sexism school children have gender equality drilled into them; at least at the inspiring Samata schools for Nepal's poorest children this is the case.
Let me be clear here that the Nepali children are by no means getting off scot free. They still buy into certain stereotypes and identify a lot with their own gender, such as boys and girls choosing to sit separately and mostly only make friends with their own gender. And of course this is from my observations of only two Nepali secondary schools, all be it over 300 individual children. But it is still comforting and heart-warming to my feminist ears how they repeat proverbs such as 'men and women are two sides of the same coin' or 'two wheels of the same cart.'
And it is also worth noting here that I'm not simply accusing children of gender stereotyping because they speak out in favour of single sex schools and perhaps as you may guess I'm not their biggest fan. There are some reasonable arguments to be had on both sides of that debate and I would willingly give someone the chance to argue those stereotypes back to me that I so strongly dispute. It is just the ease with which UK children can make all the arguments stereotyping genders, yet hardly any of those which argue against said stereotypes. If even a minority of the class spoke out and tried to challenge these stereotypes I would be much happier.
You may argue that sometimes due to the nature of a debate children make sexist arguments because they think these are the arguments for their side. This could be the fault of the nature of debate itself; however that is not what I would argue. Because even if a child makes a sexist argument that they don't believe, it still shows that they think this is an acceptable argument to make. For example in a debate about quotas for women in business, in opposition I have heard many children argue that women should be at home raising the children instead of going to work. This is worrying and actually clouds the debate as there are many non sexist arguments opposing quotas.
For a developing nation (often making it into the poorest 10 nations) Nepal is making good progress typically ahead of its stage in development. I've come across some fantastic feminist literature and magazines, praising some brilliant women in business and politics, as well as observing the many female shop owners on the street along with all the girls attending school and college. The total lack of female sex icons being thrust in your face is also a comfort. This progress is far more than can be said for its bigger and more economically developed neighbours India and China where 'gendercide' is an example of the open acknowledgement of women being less important than men in society. However much of this progress in Nepal is still recent and problems continue, particularly in the rural areas as I mentioned earlier. As a nation on the rise in terms of fighting discrimination, they are able to do a good job of teaching the next generation that men and women are equal, perhaps because it is a necessity.
Have we become too complacent? Why don't our children chime in succession that men and women are equal and want to sing it from the rooftops? Perhaps we assume this equality exists so that we don't feel the need to reinforce it. Yet I've shown from observation that even when presented with a prime opportunity to do so they still fail to state the seemingly obvious. Some of you will argue that reinforcing gender equality and challenging stereotypes is to admit there is a problem. Surely you shouldn't have to constantly remind children that men and women are equal. And I agree that this is quite sad that without constantly reaffirmation our children's minds become void of these simple statements . Yet all this demonstrates is that we must to do more to teach children about gender equality and invite them to challenge gender roles and stereotypes. If we do not do so then those who speak out and say they are experiencing sexism or inequality can be dismissed.
Not only do we need to teach history so that it does not repeat itself, we need to teach children to constantly reaffirm their beliefs and constantly challenge their surroundings, otherwise sexism and stereotyping sadly continue to exist and new forms can emerge.
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