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Positive gender messages through education in early childhood development.

Prof Nitasha Ramparsad


‘She is quite good at Maths for a girl!’, ‘He is so uninterested in sports- unlike regular boys’, or reinforcement of gender norms such as ‘girls don’t laugh so hard’ or ‘boys don’t cry’, or in some cases segregating seating arrangements in classrooms according to students’ gender- the ways in which gender inequality is perpetuated in schools are many. The gendered messages that are imparted to children are extremely important in the development of their identity and self-worth in the world. This article explores the importance of ensuring positive messages for both boys and girls towards a more inclusive and progressive society. In schools, both girls and boys are under continuous surveillance by their teachers and school staff, but girls are particularly grilled and their behavior and appearance are frequently judged – girls should not be loud, should have fine manners, should have clipped fingernails and so on. Consequently, girls tend to contribute less to discussions and ask fewer questions in order to lessen the risk of attracting attention. Furthermore, this negatively affects their zest for learning. As a result of this attitude towards girls at schools, they tend to behave and act more in accordance with the prevailing gender norms and roles and grow up to internalise them.

Who does chores?

According to Save the Children (2020), two-thirds (63%) of the girls reported an increase in household chores, compared to less than half (43%) the boys. Girls were twice as likely as boys to say they had too many chores to be able to learn. Learning was affected due to school closures for both girls and boys, but with poorer learning outcomes among girls in certain countries. Girls were twice as likely to need lunch that they previously received from school, compared to boys. Female caregivers were less likely than male caregivers to report needing information on COVID-19 and more likely than men to use positive parenting practices. This report is indicative of the gendered messages that boys and girls receive in early childhood. These messages manifest during their development and remain fixed in the psyche of people as they find their way in the world.

Policing behavior?

Feminist work has drawn our attention to the fact that primary schools are important places where gender and sexuality are enacted, and a significant site contributing to unequal gender relations (Thorne, 1993; MacNaughton, 2000; Renold, 2005). Thorne’s (1993) classic US study of primary school boys and girls shows how gender is actively policed in producing dominant versions of masculinity and femininity. From the time boys and girls are born, gendered messages are imparted and forced upon them. According to Walthover (2012) there was a 1927 chart in Time Magazine where department stores in various cities were contacted and asked what colors they used for boys and girls. And it was all over the map. It wasn't until after the Second World War that the modern convention (pink for girls, blue for boys) started to dominate, and even so, it didn't "gel" until the 1980s, she said.

Differentiated impact on girls

The Global Childhood Report (2020) indicates that 2020 was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for women and girls. The year when governments, businesses, organisations and individuals who believe in equal treatment for all people were going to develop a five-year plan for how to work together to accelerate progress for gender equality, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Then COVID-19 struck. Research shows that primary schools are important sites where femininities and masculinities are produced (Skelton, 2001; Bhana, 2005). MacNaughton (2000) argues that even very young children are clearly aware of gender roles, whether they are playing among themselves, listening to stories or interacting with adults. Being a young child is often perceived as a space where children are untroubled and untouched by the cares of the (adult) gendered world.

This is clearly not the case and must be recognized as such. Even though messages about masculinity and femininity are equally damaging statistics by Save the Children reveal a differentiated impact on young girls. progress in girls’ health and nutrition has been uneven. Hundreds of thousands of girls die each year because they do not receive the same healthcare as boys. Signs of malnutrition in adolescent girls are actually increasing. And for the world to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target on stunting by 2030, progress in tackling it for children in the poorest households will need to increase ten-fold. These realities reflect a differentiated impact on young girls given the gendered messages embedded during early childhood and a subscription to a skewed power given to men and boys.

Global best cases

Policies forbidding gender discrimination in textbooks – Thailand In response to findings worldwide regarding the importance of educational units being influential in shaping the behaviors of students, various countries have taken measures. On a policy level, Thailand is among those few countries which have instituted practices forbidding discrimination based on gender in textbooks and curriculum – particular directives are provided to eliminate the gender stereotypes and textbooks are taken under revisions all over the country. The aim is to go beyond equal access to schools, towards achieving equality within schools. In classes organised in Nairobi by an organisation called No Means No Worldwide since 2009, girls are taught to say “No” and are given training in self-defense. With an aim to bring about a generational change, young boys are trained to change their perspectives on gender and are given lessons on ‘positive masculinity’. For instance, they are taught to intervene when they find a girl in trouble.

There has been reported success of this initiative in the form of reduction of incidences of sexual harassment by 50%. Moreover, participants challenged socially embedded stereotypes and myths about gender and sexual assault. Most boys, who had come to believe socially embedded myths that it was okay to rape women who were taken on expensive dates, wore revealing clothes or were out alone at night, were reported to have changed their minds after attending these classes. They were also able to identify sexually inappropriate behaviour rather quickly and intervened in such incidents. To sustain these positive changes, trainings were followed-up with subsequent sessions and refresher trainings.

Efforts in your sphere of Influence

Principal Andy Swanepoel, the Head of Little Ashford based in Johannesburg, believes that these messages must be challenged. “ At Little Ashford we encourage children to think differently about gendered roles through the use of storytelling.” These interventions seek to undo gender stereotyping and encourages an evolution of thinking. These efforts are supported by other progressive schools such as Curro Rivonia, based in Johannesburg. Lizelle Botha, Head of Curro Castle, who leads their Early Childhood Education division, says that “we encourage equality through the use of games and play”. As Corsaro (2005) notes, children should be treated as autonomous beings and as active agents rather than as blank slates. Instead of being constructed as blank-slated, children in primary school are active agents giving meaning to who they are as boys and girls.

Where to from here?

Girls and women are bearing the brunt of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has intensified pre-existing gender inequalities based on discriminatory gender stereotypes. Widespread economic insecurity, as well as service disruptions related to maternal health, sexual and reproductive health, nutrition and education, are jeopardizing the lives of millions of women and girls. Efforts to change this gender narrative must begin early and must be sustained to ensure the continuation of the theme of gender equality through the many facets of society.

  1. Jah, A and Shah M (2019) Promoting gender equality in/through schools – examples to learn from. Available at: Accessed 23 January 2022

  2. Save the Children International, Gender quality & COVID-19, available at: Accessed 20 December 2021

  3. Thorne, B., 1993. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. Open University Press, Buckingham. MacNaughton, G., 2000. Re-thinking Gender in Early Childhood Education. Allen & Urwin, Sydney. Renold, C., 2005. Girls, Boys and Junior Sexualities. Exploring Children’s Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School. Routledge, New York.

  4. Walthover, N (2012) Why Is Pink for Girls and Blue for Boys? Available at: Accessed 23 January 2022

  5. Save the Children (2020) Global Childhood Report, Available at: Accessed 23 January 2022

  6. Skelton, C., 2001. Schooling the Boys: Masculinities and Primary Education. Open University Press, Buckingham. Bhana, D., 2005. What matters to girls and boys in a black primary school in South Africa. Early Child Development and Care 175 (2), 99–111.

  7. Save the Children (2018) Still Left Behind: Tracking children’s progress against the pledge to Leave No One Behind.

  8. Jah A and Shah M (2019) Promoting gender equality in/through schools – examples to learn from. Available at: Accessed 23 January 2022

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