Boys and Girls Becoming Equals

Article Date

03 August 2011

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Youth who participated in a two-year Mumbai schools program that promotes gender equality transformed their attitudes towards women’s and men’s roles in society and became less tolerant of gender discrimination, according to new findings from the Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) program, implemented by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Committee of Resource Organizations for Literacy (CORO) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

Boys and Girls Becoming EqualsThe research study took place in 45 schools, 15 of which served as the control group. Results show that over the course of the program, participating 12- to 14-year-old students grew more supportive of girls pursuing higher education and marrying later in life, and of boys and men contributing to household work. However, students’ behaviors and attitudes around reducing violence – a key component of GEMS – showed mixed results.

Overall, the findings demonstrate that the program’s approach – which uses role playing, games, debates and candid discussions on serious topics – can be successful in India’s traditionally hierarchical school setting. And the evidence comes at a critical time, as girls continue to be devalued in Indian society and their presence dwindles: The 2011 census revealed 914 girls born to every 1,000 boys – a significant decline from 927 girls in the 2001 census and the lowest since India celebrated its independence in 1947.

“Schools are unquestionably one of the most critical settings to foster support for gender equality and increase the value of the girl child,” said Ravi Verma, director of ICRW’s Asia Regional Office in New Delhi. “We need to intentionally work against these gender stereotypes that are formally and informally reinforced within the Indian school settings. GEMS is an attempt in that direction.” 

Verma will be among several speakers at an Aug. 5 and 6 meeting in Mumbai, where educators, nongovernmental organizations and government officials – including Honorable Member of Parliament Smt. Supriya Sule – will discuss how to formally incorporate the GEMS methodology into the standard curriculum and teacher trainings in Maharashtra schools. ICRW experts also will share evidence emerging from its research on the program and students who participated in GEMS will talk about their experiences. 

How GEMS works

GEMS adopts an innovative approach in an unconventional setting to tackle some of India’s deeply-ingrained social norms. 

Essentially, the program champions equal relationships between girls and boys, dissects norms that define men’s and women’s roles in society, and addresses different forms of violence and how to intervene. GEMS students also learn how and why their bodies change during puberty as well as talk about what makes for healthy relationships. 

They are serious topics that are addressed with sixth- and seventh-graders, led by facilitators from CORO and TISS, ICRW’s partners on the program. The education activities were held during the school day for about 45 minutes. GEMS also included a school campaign – a week-long series of events that addressed the program’s major themes. All told, GEMS reached about 8,000 students in Mumbai.

What the evidence shows

To help determine whether GEMS was making a difference, ICRW researchers developed a scale to measure students’ attitudes about gender equality as part of a questionnaire completed by students before and after the program. The scale included statements about gender roles, attributes and violence. For instance, youth were asked whether they agreed, disagreed or weren’t sure about statements such as: “Only men should work outside the home,” “Girls cannot do well in math and science” and “There are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.” 

After six months in the program, the proportion of boys and girls who had the highest gender equality scores more than doubled – a significantly greater increase than in the control group. 

Generally, boys and girls showed the greatest change in their attitude about the roles expected of and restrictions placed on women and men in society. For instance, a higher percentage of students disagreed with traditional notions that say only mothers can bathe or feed children, and that men need more care because they work harder than women. Meanwhile, over the course of the GEMS program, a significant number of students who participated in group activities and the school campaigns consistently supported the idea that girls should wait to get married. At first, most students said that girls should be at least 18 years old; over time, that increased to 21. 

“In several sessions, facilitators discussed the issue of gender discrimination, girls’ value in society and how both affect girls’ growth and development,” said Pranita Achyut, ICRW poverty, gender and HIV/AIDS specialist who oversees the GEMS program. “The findings reveal that classroom discussions helped students think about and question social norms. Facilitators also encouraged them to challenge stereotypical ideas about men and women. Those interactions clearly moved students to look at their world differently.” 

GEMS activities around violence, however, yielded mixed results. 

Experts found that physical and emotional violence at school was an integral part of young people’s lives, especially boys. For instance, 61 percent of boys and 38 percent of girls experienced physical violence in the last three months. Almost as many students admitted to carrying out violence at school, as well. 

After the first six months of the program, researchers found an increase in a proportion of boys and girls who reported physically abusing school peers in recent months. However, among those students who participated in another round of the program, the rate declined. 

“After talking to facilitators, we think that a possible explanation for the decline is that GEMS sensitized students to behaviors that they thought were normal and perhaps even playful, like hitting or pushing,” Verma said. “So in the first year of GEMS, the students became aware of their own behaviors, and in the second year, they began to develop skills to avoid resorting to violence.” 

He added that schools still need to recognize how prevalent violence is in students’ lives and develop appropriate policies to distinguish between what is playful versus what is potentially violent. 

Reaching more youth

Overall, experts say evidence from GEMS demonstrates that group activities are effective in spurring discussions in the school setting on sensitive topics related to gender equality. And, such an approach can help change young people’s attitudes and behaviors. 

Achyut said the issues covered in GEMS resonated with students because they had experienced or were experiencing them in their own lives. “The group education activities were successful because facilitators engaged and interacted with the children,” she said. “Traditionally, this does not happen in schools; students are usually expected to sit and listen to instructors, not open up and debate topics with them.” 

Now, for the lessons of GEMS to make a lasting difference as youth transition to adulthood, experts say that the program needs to be integrated throughout the Maharashtra school system.

To that end, representatives from CORO and TISS are gradually training teachers to incorporate the program into their school days. And with new funding from the MacArthur Foundation, ICRW and its partners will start introducing GEMS to 250 additional Mumbai schools, reaching upwards of 80,000 boys and girls by 2014.

“Eventually, GEMS aims to mainstream its core ideas of gender equality within the school system in a manner that would enhance respect and dignity for girls and women, and promote zero tolerance for violence,” Verma said. “We think this will ultimately result in a healthier, more economically prosperous society.” 

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer and editor.