Gender Studies in School Education: Redefining the Policy Approach

The sorting of bodies into binary categories has been used for labor division and for identifying key differences in personality traits over the past centuries most of which has led to adverse consequences for gender identities. Gender studies, therefore, as an academic discipline aims to demystify these categories and introduces fluidity as an important aspect of gender. Most importantly, gender as a lived experience affects an individual’s social location and opportunities, therefore, its consequences demand careful examination. Gender can be defined as “both a term that refers to relationships of power, and a category of analysis and knowledge as an analytical tool”. Gender as a field of study is thus meant to teach us how to use such information for analysis to expand our understanding and execute inclusive policies. 

On a global level, gender studies programs emerged from the women’s studies initiative in the 1970s. In India, there are Gender studies programs in several universities at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. But in school education, policy interventions focusing on gender issues revolve around the access of girls to school education, gender-sensitive education (National Curriculum Framework, 2005), curriculum up-gradation in teacher training (National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education, 2009), and, in the recent times, initial steps towards framing policies for inclusion of transgender students in the schooling system. These are all important steps, but the limitation is the absence of inculcating critical thinking abilities through analyzing gender vis-a-vis the society and its structure. One triumph in this domain is the introduction of the elective subject “Human Rights and Gender Studies” at the higher secondary level by the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) in 2013. It can, however, be argued that the inclusion of Gender Studies at the primary level of schooling can be a vital step towards attaining gender equality. The school is an important site of social reformation and should be used as a tool to attain the constitutional and democratic spirit of equality. Gender biases pervade all spheres of our lives and as the classroom is no exception to this, introducing gender studies early in school education, can be used to break away from gender constraints rather than reinforce them. 

Policy Approach to Gender Sensitization 

In India, the first policy document to extensively address gender equality in education was the National Policy on Education, 1986 (NPE). It envisioned four targets: (i) access of girls to elementary education, (ii) adult education for women, (iii) increasing access to vocational, technical, and professional education, and (iv) reviewing and reorganizing educational activities towards women’s equality. In comparison to this, the National Curriculum Framework for School Education, 2000 (NCFSE) has been denounced for its dilution of history as a subject and propagating cultural nationalism. It has also been criticized for focusing on traditional knowledge to diminish the probable destabilizing effects of education which is natural when any form of social dominance is resisted and challenged. This highlights a break in the State’s approach and an inclination towards traditional knowledge rooted in patriarchal structures of knowledge production which has gender-based implications. It even placed the issue of the education of girls under the section of social cohesion and not social reformation. This implied that the policy expected education to not empower women but to fit women in the existing patriarchal order of the society. 

Presently, the policy with regards to the school curriculum is the National Curriculum Framework, 2005 (NCF). The NCF 2005 was also produced under the aegis of NCERT by a National Steering Committee chaired by Prof. Yash Pal and 21 National Focus Groups. This included the National Focus Group on Gender Issues in Education. The position paper by this committee made 22 recommendations out of which the 3 major recommendations were: (i) spending more on education to improve access of girls to education, (ii) improving teaching in government schools to ensure retention of girls in school and quality of education, and (iii) integrating inputs from Women’s Studies research to ensure that the material used in textbooks and syllabi is informed with a critical approach to gender. NCF 2005 was followed by the framing of the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education, 2009 (NCFTE) by the National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE). With the enactment of the RTE Act and framing of the NCF 2005, NCFTE 2009 acknowledged the developing vision for quality education and the integral role of upgrading teacher training and education for changing demands. Gender studies have also been introduced as a course for B. Ed. and D. Ed. programs by the NCTE. This is largely the policy regime in India to address gender issues at the school level. The current policy regime highlights two limitations: 

(i) not empowering students with critical thinking towards gender as a phenomenon, and 

(ii) not addressing the issue of inclusion of different gender and intersex identities. 

It is only with the National Education Policy, 2020 that assisting transgender children in accessing education has gained some traction in the national policy scenario. Delhi Government’s State Council of Education Research and Training (SCERT) has also introduced certain provisions to this end, but the overall scenario of inclusive education still has a long way to go. 

Need for Gender Studies in School Curriculum 

The formative years have a crucial role in the personality development of a child and gender biases should thus be effectively tackled from an early age. The main source of socialization other than home is the school where children spend the majority of their time interacting with peers and teachers. How gender differences arise is a central question for psychology and it has been proven that both nature and nurture contribute towards this difference. It is hence crucial to inculcate Gender Studies at the primary level of schooling to diminish the implications of gender stereotyping and sexuality at the earliest stage possible. This would lead to a conducive environment for inclusive education and also empower students to challenge patriarchal norms and break away from gender prejudices and biases.

The recommendation for the incorporation of gender education at the school level has also been strongly proposed by Study Hall Educational Foundation (SHEF). This recommendation has been based on fifteen years of work at Prerna Girls School which has assimilated gender education in the school curriculum with successful results. SHEF has introduced this program in 1,000 schools around Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan with inspiring results. The focus on education concerning girls and women is promising but the exclusion of transgender and intersex groups from this discourse is a dismal reality. Due to not addressing the issues arising out of diverse gender roles and identities in the current structure of India’s schooling the data on the living and work conditions of transgender communities also remains bleak. The CBSE results for the 10th and 12th standard in 2020 witnessed an increment in the overall pass percentage but the pass percentage of transgender people decreased by 15.79% for the 10th standard and by 16.66% for the 12th standard.

A more active dialogue around looking beyond the gender binaries and acknowledging the experiences of violence and exclusion based on sex and gender is a vital question to be addressed through policy intervention and affirmative action. For empowering different gender identities, their access to education must be ensured and this policy goal should be formally acknowledged by the government. 

Reflexively understanding gender as a phenomenon and liberating oneself of its constraints and, more importantly, mitigating violence experienced by different gender identities requires larger policy reformation. Language can be a key resource for the construction and communication of diverse gender identities and power relations. Additionally, to make social reformation possible, the inclusive visual representation of gender in curriculum textbooks is critical. Doing so with the end goal of empowering and sensitizing children as early as possible to critically think about, understand, and accept gender through the inclusion of Gender studies in school education can thus prove beneficial in addressing issues of gender-based violence and reinstating the necessity of gender-based equity. 

By Akanksha Bisht, Research Associate, Policy, LQF

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