The symposium on mapping critical material around gender was organized by Ebong Alap on 25th April, 2017 at Jadunath Bhavan Museum and Resource Centre, Kolkata. Teachers from various schools all over West Bengal participated in the symposium, along with organizations that work towards developing and promoting alternative critical material around gender and sexuality. Dr. Chhanda Roy, Director of the SCERT West Bengal was the Chief Guest.
The one-day symposium aimed to serve as a bridge between the community of teachers and organizations in order to generate dialogue on how to build gender-sensitive and inclusive schools and curricula. The vital role of teachers in breaking stereotypes in school spaces and shaping the outlook of young people was acknowledged, and the need for their active participation in the process of gender-awareness and sensitization was asserted.
The programme was inaugurated with a brief overview by Sarmistha Dutta Gupta of Ebong Alap on the survey it had undertaken on resource material available around gender and its suitability for teachers and school spaces. The existing work was divided into twelve sub-themes in order to locate the areas which require further discussion or issues that need immediate addressing, and the areas in which ample research has already been done.
The sub-themes were:
1. School spaces and gender stereotypes
2. School textbooks and gender stereotypes
3. Adolescence and gender norms
4. Domestic labour and the girl child
5. Early marriage and motherhood
6. Child sexual abuse
7. Puberty and menstruation
8. Relationships and sexualities of adolescents
9. Abilities and Disabilities
10. Violence Against Women
11. Mental health
12. Other issues
An exhibition of sample material, arranged according to sub-themes, had been put up in the venue to help the participants familiarise themselves with some of the existing literature in their areas of interest, which may later enable them to contact the relevant organizations and collect some of the materials that might be useful. Some of the fields that required much greater discussion and material development were mental health issues, domestic labour and the girl child, and transgender issues.
Dr Chhanda Roy elaborated on the function of SCERT as a governmental body that works with central administrative bodies like the NCERT and the MHRD, and its role in building gender-sensitive and inclusive schools, as well as developing gender-critical material in the form of textbooks and supplementary material. She emphasised the importance of teachers’ training in institutes and the need for including gender and sexuality issues in the training curricula. She also suggested including creative group activities that are effective supplement to the creative materials that are regularly developed by both governmental and non-governmental organizations.
The official website of Ebong Alap was also launched in this session, which contains important features like pdf versions of the Alap Series publications. The new website also has an open blog to generate continuous discussion on gender issues in everyday life.
Various non-governmental organizations working towards promoting awareness in the field of gender and sexuality discussed their work and experiences as well as the types of material developed by them in the next session. This session was moderated by Prof. Paramita Chakravarti of Jadavpur University, who asked to focus on how to make education gender-just, and successfully incorporate gender components in school curricula, along with developing skill-sets that cannot always be included within it through alternative materials. The participating organizations were Vikramshila Education Resource Centre, Child In Need Institute (CINI), Nirantar Trust, UNICEF, Swayam, Sappho for Equality, Sruti disability Rights Centre, and Talash Society.
Vikramshila works in the area of material development, classroom teaching, and experimental pedagogy. They have had extensive experience of working with District Institutes for Education and Training (DIET). Their representatives Kanupriya and Diti drew attention to the fact that different factors such as caste, religion, economy, and disabilities combine with gender to form complex forms of discrimination, and experiments with pedagogy must be conducted taking all these factors into account. They also pointed out how discrimination is often not through the assigned materials in the curricula, but through the hidden curricula that includes the teacher’s attitudes and behaviours, the gestures towards students, the co-curricular activities, etc. The representatives raised the question whether gender should be assigned as a separate subject of learning or should it be incorporated into the existing curricula, and if so, what should be the method of incorporation.
The main sphere of CINI’s work is sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and young people. The CINI representative Santana Adhikari shared some of the experiences of working on sensitive topics in district schools, especially in a co-educational space. She also elaborated the forms of resistance that the organization has faced, and the ways in which they have handled such situations. Also discussed were some of the methods CINI had used in such circumstances as icebreakers which included group discussions, creative activities such as skits, poster making, etc., and the importance of engaging teachers in the process of training students to enable them to promote awareness and sensitize their peers. The organization was awarded for their effective practice.
The Nirantar Trust works in the field of gender and education. Their director Archana Dwivedi provided an overview of the critical material on gender developed by her organization. Her presentation highlighted a series of booklets developed after 12-13 years of work with school systems called the ‘Yuva Pitara Shrinkhala’, or the Young Reader’s Series for young readers, students, and neo-literate learners. The content of the books are developed in a way that links them with the thematic areas that students study in their own textbooks (history, geography, science, etc.). All books integrate gender, caste, religion, social structure, and other issues that children need to engage with.
UNICEF provided an international perspective on the ongoing work in promoting gender awareness and equity. UNICEF works on child rights in 80 countries; and in 16 states within India. The organization does not assess a child’s position and problems through the singular lens of gender but also other lenses like caste, class, religion, etc. UNICEF focuses on equity in all spheres of life, and hence viewing the child’s position through various lenses is particularly effective. This assessment is done by segregating the collected data, which enables the organization to look at children as a heterogeneous group. The organization has developed some innovative material, notably the Meena animated film series, which has been since used by other organizations. The UNICEF representative Moumita Dastidar pointed out that organizations have often focussed exclusively on women since they are systematically marginalized and often excluded from discussions and welfare schemes. But the vulnerabilities of male children have not always been mapped.
Sukanya Gupta represented Swayam, an organization that has been working on gender-sensitizing young people on domestic violence for over twenty years. The organization has developed several important material on the fundamental concepts of gender and sexuality, and help young people to be gender-sensitive, and inclusive in their everyday life. Along with booklets, posters, videos, and other material, Swayam has also developed a number of games that are particularly effective in the training sessions.
Sappho for Equality has been working for long on the rights of the LGBTQA community. Although the organization has not worked with schools thus far, it has gathered ample experience of working with colleges and universities. According to the Sappho representative Ranjita Biswas, such sensitive issues often create controversy in the space where they promote awareness and training, and there have often been resistances from the faculty and college administration, although the students have usually been very open and accepting in their discussions. Sappho has also conducted extensive research in school spaces and found that discrimination operates in three levels—infrastructure, curriculum, and attitude of teaching and non-teaching staff in schools. The organization has developed some crucially important material on homosexuality and transgender issues. They also make extensive use of short films (made by Sappho as well as from Youtube), news-clips, and advertisements.
Sampa Sengupta, founder of Sruti disability Rights Centre, problematized the very concept of what school entails. Sruti works for the welfare and rights of children with disabilities. She shared her experience of working in special schools and the challenge of making these spaces gender-just, inclusive, and free of sexual abuse. She emphasised the fact that conversation on the body, puberty, menstruation, and sexuality have always been a part of the latter as life-skills training, while mainstream schools often seem hesitant introducing these subjects to the students. Special schools are also more willing to learn about transgender issues and incorporate these ideas into their training of children. She also made an important note that sometimes locating existing material (which may not originally be designed for that specific purpose) than developing new material can prove to be more effective. It must be acknowledged that disability is a heterogeneous issue, since each kind of disability needs a specific type of material. Hence, gender training material must be diverse and of a wide variety. She also suggested that the Rehabilitation Council of India must include gender and sexuality as an important component within the special education curriculum.
Ayesha Sinha represented Talash Society, which works to enable children to protect themselves from violence and sexual abuse, and develops relevant material in different mediums for effective training of children as well as their parents and guardians. The organization problematizes the notion of children as receivers of instruction from adults, and the power dynamics between them through their training and development and use of material. The organization emphasises on co-creation, co-learning, and co-discovery through their material. Talash also believes in educating children and building their confidence without imparting explicit or disturbing information. All information and knowledge provided to them through material and training aim at empowering them instead of restraining them.
The next session was devoted to questions and answers by teachers and other participants based on the discussions generated in the earlier session. The moderator for the session was Prof. Ruchira Goswami from NUJS, Kolkata. The teachers shared their valuable experiences of working in schools (often in remote and underprivileged areas), and the everyday challenges faced in and outside classrooms, in terms of infrastructure, curriculum, and staff behaviour. Some teachers shared experiences of participating in gender-sensitization programmes organized by NGOs within their schools, and many were interested in inviting the participating NGOs for training programes and workshops in their schools.
Transgender issues were extensively discussed and enquired about by many teachers, including how to identify and treat transgendered students with sensitivity, and how to make the school space more inclusive for them with the existing facilities that are often not even enough to cater to mainstream students in the first place. Many teachers also raised pertinent questions on the mindset and pre-existing gender-notions of teachers in schools, and what the most effective ways were to bring about change in their outlook and mindset. The extra-ordinary contributions of many teachers and headmasters (some of whom were participants) in the field of gender-awareness promotion and creation of gender-just schools and community were duly noted, and applauded. All questions were discussed by the participating organizations at length, and important ideas and suggestions were exchanged. Several knowledge gaps in the existing literature on the relevant issues were also recognized in this session that were brought to notice in the final session of the symposium.
The final session was moderated by Ms Swati Bhattacharya from the Anandabazar Patrika. The discussants were Dolon Ganguly of Azad Foundation, Tamoghna Chattopadhyay from Shiromani Birsa Munda High School, West Midnapore, and Zinat Islam from Raghunathganj High School, Murshidabad. Swati Bhattacharya recapitulated some of the crucial points discussed in the previous sessions, and highlighted some of the issues that were not addressed in the discussions. Dolon Ganguly pointed out the importance of linking livelihood with education, and generating material and discussion on women’s mobility. Tamoghna Chattopadhyay suggested promoting awareness on cyber crime, since many young people, especially girls become victims. He agreed with Ms Ganguly on empowering women by educating them on the possibility of making a living, and generating employment (gender discrimination must be prohibited in providing such employment). There was a collective proposal to bring back the ‘life-skills’ component in school curricula in schools under the government of West Bengal’s education boards.
It was also agreed that gender-segregation of students is not a healthy policy and should be stopped immediately. Zinat Islam asserted the need for schools to take strong actions against male students who verbally harass (‘eve-tease’) female students. She also suggested that sexual harassment, dowry and child marriage, and domestic violence, and the IPC acts on these issues be included as topics in textbooks, so that students can learn about them at the higher-secondary stage, and take action when faced with any of these problems. Dolon Ganguly also suggested that textbooks and alternative material should be designed in a way that promotes the notion of marriage as an option or matter of choice for women, and not as the central objective of their lives. It was collectively agreed on making school spaces more inclusive for children with disabilities. Towards the end of the session, Swati Bhattacharya summed up all the proposals and suggestions that were made during the entire course of the symposium.
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