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What Is Gender and Why Is It So Important?

© Piyawan Wongwanitchareon,Thailand

Gender is not a major feature in many educational systems in the Asia-Pacific region, often because it is not well understood. “Gender” refers to the social roles, responsibilities and behaviours believed to belong to men and women; for example, “men as income earners” and “women as child caregivers.” “Gender” does not refer to the biological differences between males and females; the term “sex” covers this distinction.

Gender roles are created by a society and learned from one generation to the next. Because gender roles are socially learned, they can be changed to achieve equity and equality for women and men. For instance, we can change the gender roles of “women as child caregivers” to “women as income earners,” “men as income earners” to “men as child caregivers,” or, better yet, “men and women as income earners and child caregivers.”

Government officials, teachers, parents, and often girls and boys themselves, may deny that they are biased in terms of gender, and they may be quite truthful that this is what they believe. It is difficult for people to see a “problem” when it has become a normal, ingrained part of their lives. But asking questions such as “Are there alternatives to girls cleaning the classroom?” or “What would happen if boys did the cleaning, while girls moved the desks?” can enable individuals to reflect, reconsider, and look more closely at their own assumptions. This way they can begin to see how traditional gender roles and norms affect what, and how, children learn.

Gender Equality in Education

Promoting gender equality in all areas of education is the means by which we can ensure not only that the basic needs of girls and boys are met, but that they have the opportunity to achieve their full potential and realize their human rights.

Ensuring gender equality in education means girls and boys have equal opportunities to enter school, as well as to participate in and benefit from the range of subjects or other learning experiences offered in schools and classrooms. Through gender-sensitive curricula, learning materials and teaching-learning processes, girls and boys become equally equipped with the life skills and attitudes they will need to achieve their full potential within and outside of the education system, regardless of their sex.

To achieve gender equality in learning we need to move away from seeing children collectively as “students” or “pupils” and to focus more on the specific situation of “girls” and “boys” within the classroom and the school.