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The innovative route to gender equality

Taru Bahl | Updated on January 10, 2018

Girls should know better than to put up with discrimination Taru Bahl

Classroom and teachers

Schools in Jharkhand learn to recognise and respond to violence

“How can we discipline children without punishing them, and how do you expect us to talk about a taboo subject like sexual abuse without diluting the respect students and parents have for us?” These were at first the anxious concerns of teachers, many of them male, in the remote villages of Jharkhand during trainings held as part of the Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) initiative.

Launched in 2014 in Ranchi and Khunti districts by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), with support from the state government and partner voluntary organisations like Child in Need Institute (CINI) and Life Education and Development Support (LEADS), the project initially found that many schools were reluctant to openly talk about gender discrimination, body changes and abuse. A common refrain was, “why do we need to tell boys and girls their rights so early in life? Instead, should they not be taught to be quiet and accepting of such things?”

Luckily, the organisers did not think so. Using the route of education, they are working to equip children and the adults around them with the skills to deal with complex and discriminating situations.

In the ten-odd years of the programme in Maharashtra and, later, Jharkhand, the trainers are used to volatile discussions as teachers question the concept of violence and what constitutes abuse. However, at the end of the training, most teachers acknowledge non-violent methods of disciplining and seamlessly include gender equity in the curriculum.

The GEMS classes have become popular. At the government middle school in Dudri, Murhu block, Khunti district, Jyoti (14) looks forward to it. In just a few sessions she has understood the different dimensions of violence. She now knows that even if a group of boys whistle as she walks past, the sexual act is to be condemned. And if her teacher rubbishes her work, asking her to stay home instead, this is nothing but intimidation.

The programme focuses on empowering girls and including boys in the dialogue. Jyoti is thrilled to note that her brother, in Class IX, now helps around the house despite his mother and aunts telling him not to, and nudges his three sisters to go out and play. He stands up for his mother more confidently on the rare occasion that his father comes home drunk and thrashes her.

The children use the GEMS Diary as a bridge to connect with parents and siblings. Sensitively conceptualised, it has games, stories and quizzes challenging biases and mindsets. At the Bal Sansad or Children’s Parliament, which is mandatory, girls now have equal representation. Discrimination on the playground, too, is minimised. Instead of separate timings and “gender appropriate” sports, boys and girls play common games together.

So has this intermixing led to greater interaction and friendship among boys and girls, as feared by teachers and parents? According to Subodh Munda, incharge of the Khunti school, “On the contrary, there is greater self-restraint... with boys being less abusive. Reports of violence initially increased owing to enhanced awareness, but gradually decreased after students and teachers learned to resolve the issues early on.”

In what is largely a tribal belt with high levels of human trafficking, sexual abuse is a well-kept secret. GEMS has helped reduce the incidence by helping girls and boys speak about issues that were once taboo.

Aarti Kujur, Chairperson State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, agrees that a huge first step has been taken. “We need more trained counsellors. This is a sensitive subject and we are woefully short of people who can talk to affected children and their families,” she says.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Delhi

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Published on September 22, 2017
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