Feature Article of Saturday, 31 March 2012

Columnist: Zubeviel, Thomas

Gender Equity In Education: More To It Than Increasing Access

The role of women in national development could not have been aptly captured in any other way than when Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General stated at the World Education Forum in 2000 that;

“No development strategy is better than one that involves women as central players. It has immediate benefits for nutrition, health, savings, and reinvestment at the family, community, and ultimately, country level. In other words, educating girls is a social development policy that works. It is a long-term investment that yields an exceptionally high return…. We need those with power to change things to come together in an alliance for girls’ education: governments, voluntary progressive groups, and above all, local communities, schools, and families”.

In Ghana, this need has been duly recognized and a lot of policy documents give credence to this national recognition. A lot of measures have been instituted by governments to ensure that gender equity, parity and access is achieved in our educational system. The establishment of the Girl’s Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service as well as Gender Desk Offices at the district level and many other constitutional provisions and policies are silent but monumental manifestations of our resolve to ensure gender equity in the educational system. The commitment of various governments and other bodies to gender-equity in education is unalloyed.

However, despite the achievements so far, there is evidence that a lot more needs to be done or we could have achieved better results than we currently have but for a few stumbling blocks. These have to do with the fact that the concept of equity in general and gender equity in particular is hugely misunderstood within the Ghanaian context. Another reason is that institutions like the school, which is intended to be a vehicle to achieving gender equity, in most cases serves as a barrier or reinforces gender inequity. It is therefore not surprising that after several years of hard work, commitment, policies and interventions there is still a huge gulf between boys and girls in terms of academic achievement, attendance, and retention and completion rates.

There are two major ways of looking at the concept of equity in education. The first way is fairness, which has to do with ensuring that personal and social circumstances – for example gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin, school environment – should not hinder the achievement of educational potential. The second concept involves inclusion, which means providing a basic minimum standard of education for all – for example that everyone should be able to read, write and do simple arithmetic. The two dimensions are inextricably intertwined. Schools are therefore supposed to ensure that students who come to school on empty stomachs achieve the same results as those who are over fed; no excuses whatsoever.

Despite the fact that access and equality in education are related to equity the concepts do not mean the same thing. Equality refers to giving everyone the same kind of opportunities to achieve individual potential. But it is known that individuals differ in a lot of dimensions therefore giving them the same kind of opportunity actually leads to inequality because those who have an advantage make the best of the opportunity. Equity, on the other hand, is seen as varying the treatment, the conditions and the environment to suit every individual. It does not also mean that the progress of the advantaged groups should be put on hold until the less privileged are able to catch up.

For example, increasing access for both boys and girls is excellent but when all students are treated the same way in the classroom (same teaching methods, teacher expectations, pace of learning, classroom practices, modes of assessment and tests) students from advantaged backgrounds perform better than those from less privileged backgrounds. This advantage should not be seen in only financial terms but also educational levels of one’s parents, where one lives, gender, parental support or interest in education, household conditions and other physical characteristics of the individual.

In short, it is not enough to ensure that both boys and girls have equal opportunities or access to education but even within the school and the classroom, learning conditions could be engineered to suit both gender. Indeed, some classroom practices and teachers’ attitude towards girls can make a lot of difference in girls’ motivation to attend school, participate in class and complete school. I shall not talk about the bigger issues regarding sexual harassment, humiliation and threats from boys among other things. However, examples of some traditional classroom practices which negatively affect the girl-child will be of help. In Ghana, students are expected to stand up when answering questions. There are surely good reasons behind this practice. One good reason is that the practice ensures that students are alert rather than sleeping in class. Nevertheless, many teachers and students will admit that students hardly sleep in lively and interesting classrooms; not even when they are hungry. The problem with the practice is that most boys do not have any difficulty with it but girls do especially at certain parts of the month and particularly so for rural or poor girls who may not have money to buy sanitary pads. Another such practice is when teachers deliberately ask quiet or shy students to answer questions instead of those who have raised their hands and are yearning to give a response. Sometimes some teachers even ask such students to stand up in class and be embarrassed by the whole class as if it is their fault that they do not have a response. There are certainly some good reasons for this practice too but there is a high potential that some students hardly recover from the humiliation and emotional states this lead to. This is more so for very shy and timid girls and in most cases creates fertile grounds for teasing by colleagues. This coupled with other social pressures, make dropping out of school very attractive.

Apart from some of these classroom practices that tend to frustrate some girls, the school tends to reinforce certain societal perceptions about gender and gender roles despite the fact that schools are intended to neutralise these perceptions. It is very difficult to drum home the message that girls can do everything boys do if we do not practice that in our schools. In fact, apart from procreation itself, there is nothing that we do in our everyday lives that require a sex organ to do. For example, schools are supposed to facilitate the development of potentials related to the affective, cognitive and psychomotor domains of the human person which has nothing to do with manhood or womanhood. There is no research evidence whatsoever that a pupil needs a manhood or womanhood in order to be able to solve a mathematical equation, cut wood, prepare spaghetti bolognaise or rear animals.

This notwithstanding, it is common to observe that what happens in our schools are direct replications of practices in our homes and villages. For instance, in most rural schools, girls usually do the sowing while the males do the tilling of the soil on school farms/gardens. We more often have Office Girls than office boys because we expect girls to be cleaner and less likely to steal textbooks and other materials from the office or it just “appropriate” to have beautiful and nicely dressed girls serve visitors rather than dirty and unkempt boys. When we have parties in schools or during sports, the girls are expected to serve the meals and drinks or refreshment and boys prepare the meat while girls cook the food. Also, despite the fact that we have a Senior Prefect for both gender, the Boys’ Prefect (senior prefect) tends to be seen as superior to the Girls’ Prefect (senior prefect) in most mixed schools.

In effect, we give both boys and girls access to education with the idea of instilling in them the understanding that boys and girls are the same but end up teaching the same kinds of values and thinking in society regarding gender and gender roles to the students. Indeed, girls are expected to do certain kinds of courses and are expected to perform better in certain courses and not others and some teachers believe and endorse this. The attendance register has the names of boys separated from those of girls and in some cases the boys’ roll is called before the girls’. Girls are expected to be Treasurers in student clubs while the boys are Presidents. Even the sorts of punishment meted out to students differ according to gender. There are even expectations of misbehaviour associated with either gender and girls receive severer punishment for crimes associated with the male gender; such offences are viewed seriously but when the contrary happens the offending boy is scorned for committing a feminine offence. Punishment usually takes the form of humiliation or absolute disregard in such cases

It has also been argued that the lack of female role models in the form teachers in most schools serves as a hindrance to the retention and completion rates of girls. It has been indicated that female teachers serve as role models whom the female pupils look up to and serves a source of motivation for girls to persevere in times of hardship. Indeed, some problems girls face in school are easily identified by female teachers than by male teachers and most girls feel more comfortable discussing such problems with female teachers than with male teachers. Moreover, some cultural beliefs regarding some girls’ problems prevent them from informing male teachers of such problems even if they wish to. In most cases the best option opened to these girls is to absent themselves from school which inevitably affect them later.

Finally, how can we ensure equity in our schools when there are vast differences between and within schools? How can we ensure that the girls who attend schools in Akaatiso-Sukusuku have access to good facilities, qualified teachers and state of the art teaching and learning facilities just as their colleagues in schools in the urban centres? The fact that there is usually a mad rush for placement in the few so-called well-endowed senior high schools in the country with some well to do parents circumventing the computer selection system is an attestation to the fact that some schools are better than others which should not be the case. To enhance equity we should ensure minimum levels of difference exist between schools.

In sum, I have indicated that there is more to the concept of equity in general and gender equity in education in particular. That it is not enough to increase access for both girls and boys but there is also the need to re-engineer classroom practices to make knowledge construction less hostile to girls. There is also the need to stop reinforcing or entrenching some of the gender roles and perceptions in the school environment while assuming that people will suddenly come to understand, in later life, that one does not need to have a manhood or womanhood in order to perform most tasks or excel in most (indeed all) professions.

Thomas Zubeviel

Manchester, UK