EDUCATION: EnGendering Awareness in Trainee Teachers

  • by Dalia Acosta (havana)
  • Sunday, June 27, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Another teacher may perhaps not openly mock pupils who, from their earliest days, identify with the gender opposite to their biological sex, or show attraction for companions of their own sex, but by tolerating mockery in the classroom she encourages stigma and discrimination.

Breaking this cycle that introduces inequality early in childhood, although boys and girls enjoy equal access to all levels of education, is the focus of a project in the Department of Gender, Sexology and Sex Education at the 'Enrique José Varona' University of Paedagogical Sciences, in the Cuban capital.

'Cuba has very good social indicators, but 'machismo' is still very widespread,' Alicia González, head of the department, which works with academics and teacher trainees, told IPS. 'And teachers are not trained sufficiently in gender and sex education issues.'

Professor González recognises that among young people and teenagers, the concepts of equality between men and women and of equal rights are understood. However, 'this knowledge is not always reflected in their day-to-day behaviour. That is the duality we have to combat,' she says.

Education is compulsory up to ninth grade, and over 99 percent of Cuban children finish primary school (to sixth grade), according to the National Statistics Office.

Studies indicate that although women make up 66 percent of the country's technical and professional workforce, and by law women and men must receive equal pay for equal work, women occupy the lowest-paid posts and have barely 38 percent of management positions.

After several years' work, the Department of Gender, Sexology and Sex Education is assessing a project, supported by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), which is aimed at promoting change among teacher trainers and future teachers.

The Strategy for Comprehensive Education with a Gender Focus, implemented in 2004, has reached more than 500 student teachers and 300 teacher trainers in the Cuban capital and the eastern province of Holguín, by means of group reflection and debates that take as their starting point the identification of problems from a gender perspective.

'The gender focus deals with the relationship between men and women, not just women, as is sometimes mistakenly thought. Women have been discriminated against most, and therefore receive special treatment, but nothing is gained by changing half the population if the other half does not change. That only heightens the conflict,' said González.

Unlike an individual's sex, which depends on biological differences between men and women, gender is a category that refers to socially assigned attributes that become stereotypes of what it is to 'be a man' or 'be a woman,' and are the cultural underpinnings of patriarchal power, female subordination and gender violence.

The workshops with student teachers aim, first and foremost, to promote changes in their lives. Among the topics are sexuality and gender construction, self-knowledge of the body and sexuality, myths and stereotypes of feminine and masculine sexuality, sexual orientation, homophobia and gender violence.

Meanwhile, those responsible for training future teachers are educated more theoretically about sexual and reproductive health, sexual rights and integrated sex education from a gender perspective, within school, family and social contexts, and gender focus methodology within the educational process.

'The initial assessment appalled us,' Anabel Naranjo, a professor at the 'José de la Luz y Caballero' University of Paedagogical Sciences in Holguín, told IPS. 'We asked if the sex of a pupil would affect the teachers' communication with the pupil, and 90 percent of the teachers said 'Yes'.'

Women and men alike said that their communication, treatment and educational methods would not be the same in dealing with a boy as with a girl, added Naranjo, one of the academics in charge of the project in Holguín province, 740 kilometres from Havana.

'Girls are given more encouragement to study and to learn independently, so the learning process is marked by sexism,' she said.

Teachers' tendency to pay more attention to girls in the classroom because they presume they have a better attitude toward studying could be one of the reasons why the proportion of women in the teaching profession is rising in Cuba. At universities, women studying to be teachers make up over 60 percent of the enrolment in teacher training courses.

The reflection groups, created in response to the expressed needs of the trainee teachers themselves, have yielded important results by working through the stereotypes linked to masculinity, raising awareness and tolerance of sexual diversity, and combating homophobia among future teachers.

In the view of Gemma García, an expert with the AECID Technical Cooperation Office in Cuba, the 'multiplier effect' of the project supported by Spanish aid is incalculable. 'These professional teachers will go into the classroom with a comprehensive knowledge of gender issues,' she told IPS.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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