The heinous gang rape and murder in Delhi last year, the infamous Nirbhaya case, brought additional focus on dangers faced by women and girls. Besides stepping up safety measures, there was an outcry for changing mindsets towards women.
Five members of the Avehi-Abacus Project, an educational non-governmental organization in Mumbai, have developed a gender sensitization kit for schools. This kit, containing a manual for teachers, session plans, worksheets and stories, is to be introduced in STD VII and VIII in 132 aided and non-aided schools across Mumbai.
“We plan to hold teachers’ orientation and workshops in Mumbai from July 25, and this kit will be officially introduced in schools in August. Once the initial introduction of the kit is done, we plan to introduce it in more schools across the city,” says Noella D’Souza (59), an Avehi-Abacus member.
This kit aims to focus at the construction of gender identities, issues related to discrimination, stereotyping and growing up, with an idea to lay stress on the more important need for long-term measures and bring about an enduring degree of change in society.
In the wake of the recent rise in the number of rape cases reported on a daily basis, Avehi-Abacus member Sumantini Dhuru (48) says that it shows how such aberrations have been happening, but were not reported as they were not ‘news-worthy’. Gender sensitization is a matter of crucial importance in the changing milieu of our society.
Attitudes, habits and the mindset of a person are set from an early age. Major factors that greatly influence the thought process of a child are home and school. While homes can be difficult to observe, a qualitative change can be brought in schools. Here, what the kids learn in their easily-influenced childhood years will stay with them forever.
The Avehi-Abacus project started in 1990 and, through its Sangati (for children’s development) curriculum, has already reached over 900 schools and 10,000 teachers, in the last 13 years. Popular theatre actor and Avehi-Abacus member Ratna Pathak Shah (56) says, “We are particularly intolerant today in our society. We don’t want to hear what other people are saying, whether it is to do with religion, gender, or politics. Our positions have become increasingly rigid, so how does one tell children that it is ok to voice your opinion?”
Nandini Purandare (53) of Avehi-Abacus says, “In our Sangati programme, we touched on gender sensitization but after the Nirbhaya incident, the need for this has increased. Children today need to be gender-sensitive.” To which Dhuru adds, “What we do should not be relegated only to a few schools and institutes. We feel it should be taken up at a national level and as part of the education policy, and we have been moderately able to go ahead in that direction.”
Dhuru adds, “We are not only talking about sexual harm done. We are talking about how we grow up in our society as girls and boys. We feel that only talking about molestation and rape, is simply the tip of the iceberg. One needs to understand why girls and boys are discriminated against in different spheres of life. We need to change mindsets in society and that is what we are trying to do through this kit.”
Though the kit was developed by the team of Avehi-Abacus, the idea for it originated from the women’s commission of the Archdiocese of Bombay. Mumbai-based feminist, mother and member of the women’s commission Dr Astrid Lobo Gajiwala says, “After the Delhi gangrape there was an outcry and people wanted to do something. We all get conditioned into ways of looking at ourselves. Unless we question these, we take things for granted. You see a lot of things in films, TV and the internet, and children are accessing all this without any supervision. There is no critical and adult supervision. So we thought that if we have this (the kit) in schools, we could have children look at things with a proper perspective.”
She continues, “Simple things like inclusive language, the way you treat men and women, comparisons made between men and women, how men are seen as superior and women considered inferior in society. All these things are to be questioned and new paradigms have to be put in place. Take education, or anything else. Even in books for children, boys are usually portrayed in a stronger way than girls. Then, of course there is our language where we always refer to a person as a ‘he’. Once children become conscious of this, when they grow up they will be able to see women as equal and there is a better sense of respect for men, women and human beings in general.”
When asked whether this kit could be one of the many answers to the call for change, Dr Gajiwala says, “I can’t say if this kit will succeed in demolishing inequalities between the genders, because this is an experiment. But I can say that it definitely has a good chance of changing mindsets so that we can move towards being a more equal society. It is a beginning, and I would love to see women in our country live their life without fear.”
Father George Athaide, Principal of St Michael High School in Mahim, one of the 132 schools where the sensitization kit is going to be introduced, says, “Given the recent unfortunate incidents involving women and minors in our country, we were concerned about the views that boys in our school develop towards women. We want them to look at women with respect and look at them as people, not differentiate based on gender. Therefore we think it is a must to introduce such a programme in schools today. Something like gender sensitivity has to begin in school. Students develop a bond with their teachers and understand concepts better. There is an element of trust, and children would better accept and understand the concept of gender sensitivity coming from their teachers.”
Swati Popat Vats, President at Podar Education Network in Santacruz (W), says that there is a need for gender sensitization, but feels that it is better to start it at a younger age. “Instead of starting at STD VII and VIII, which I think is too late; gender sensitization should start from a very early age. I feel it should be dealt with in different ways, considering the age group. It all depends on the content and how is it presented to the kids. With adolescents, we need to present gender sensitization through more stories, plays and drama. If the kit has question and answer sheets, worksheets and mere lessons, it is going to be very boring for the older kids.”
She adds, “It all starts with parents and teachers. Sometimes I have seen a teacher tell a boy, ladki ki tarah kyon ro raha hai? (Why are you crying like a girl?). This should change and we should have more collective activities for boys and girls. Schools are the biggest change agents and parents follow them blindly. So, it has to be started in schools and that in turn will affect teachers and parents alike.”
Dr Manjeer Mukherjee, Research and Development Manager at Arpan, an NGO working towards eradication of child sexual abuse says, “Gender sensitization is necessary in schools as it is good to work with children as they are receptive and it is the best time to live-imprint in children. A child who is nurtured in a gender-sensitive environment would be empathetic to the other sex rather than being aggressive or passive. Gender sensitization helps children to understand and move beyond stereotypical gender roles -- that boys need to be aggressive, masculine and girls need to be passive and victim-like.”
Pointing out that the process of gender sensitization is indeed a slow one, Shah says, “Gender cannot become a thing to address by itself. It is a part of our lives. We cannot have an equitable society if we look at ourselves separately. We start with young children, but our audience includes teachers too. If we want to shed these gender stereotypes, we need to, accept that there is a gender stereotype. We should understand the problem and find solutions to the problem and implement them. People are not very patient but we will learn to be so. We cannot just have a protest on the street and say: tomorrow I want a law that can solve everything.”
Dhuru explains, “Our problem is that we always blame ‘them’, but we have to start looking at ourselves now. We agree that the process is slow but the fact that we are here, talking, choosing to have a career, is the result of a change. It is a process and one must contribute to the project.”