Gender Agenda: Opening Minds to Classroom Equality at TYO
The eight Millennium Development Goals, set by the United Nations following its Millennium Declaration in the year 2000, seek to address multiple dimensions of extreme poverty. The third of these goals calls for the promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment. TYO's commitment to this goal is explicitly encapsulated in its Women's Empowerment Program, but is woven into the fabric of every area of its work, including the after-school English (ESL) classes conducted by teams of international interns and local volunteers.
Gender-related development issues are pertinent worldwide. The World Bank's World Development Report 2012 demonstrates by using data from around the world, including the West Bank and Gaza, that socioeconomic gender inequalities affecting females are visible and measurable, but are also implicitly sustained through individuals' perceptions of gender roles. Its report covering the Middle East and North Africa region asserts that women remain an enormous source of economic potential that has yet to be realized. In the field of education, The Brookings Institution's Arab World Learning Barometer highlights regional disparities affecting both genders, with differential performance statistics adversely affecting boys. Girls experience higher drop-out rates at primary school level, however, and face critical barriers to accessing employment later in life. A low overall standard of education compounds these worrying statistics.
In Gaza, mixed gender schools for students over the age of nine years have this month been outlawed. Schools in Nablus are not legally bound in this way, but gender dynamics can still influence classroom behavior. Social, cultural and religious norms and expectations, as well as individuals' life experiences, may conceivably influence the progress of mixed gender environments. The World Bank provides an example of a Yemeni woman, Rahma, who asserts that education is perceived locally as incompatible with the social role of women. The onset of puberty intensifies awareness of one’s own gender, which can affect a young person's actions and decisions. Interns face varying degrees of difficulty in integrating mixed gender activities into the ESL classes taking place at TYO this session. When asked to describe the perfect classroom, a male 6th grade student replied, “A classroom filled only with boys". Males in the 4th grade have asked to compete together against the females in team games. Girls in the 7th grade frequently resist working with boys, and some object to merely sitting with them.
Interns and volunteers in all of TYO's ESL classes, from 4th grade to 9th grade, aim to convey and consistently reinforce messages of gender equality. Students are reminded at every opportunity of the positive outcomes we experience when we work together, irrespective of our differences, gender or otherwise. Activities are designed with this in mind, featuring random selection methods to mix students for classroom seating, small teams and pair work. Lively and stimulating tasks make all the difference - tensions rapidly dissipate when the kids have fun! This indirect approach is quickly proving effective, with the 6th grade student who was initially in favour of a single-sex classroom now happily participating in mixed gender pair work. As students attend their third week of classes, every grade group has, to one degree or another, begun to exhibit shifts in mutual perceptions and increased interaction and cooperation between male and female students. In 7th grade, for example, sessions in the IT lab have produced superb examples of mixed gender pairs calmly taking turns when playing online alphabet games, without any prompting to do so. We sincerely hope that mixed gender collaboration continues to flourish in the coming weeks.
This program - as part of Student Training and Employment Program (STEP!) - is sponsored in part by the Abdul Hamid Shoman Foundation.
-TYO Interns, Laura and Mariella