Women’s College Corrects Gender Miseducation

Manila – Flip open a typical textbook used in many Philippine schools and you will likely find images of women illustrating verbs such as ‘cook’ or ‘clean’, but hardly appearing anywhere much in economics and history textbooks.
These are examples of the gender miseducation that textbooks in this South-east Asian country often convey in a subtle manner, a problem that professors at the Miriam College say they are trying to fix by teaching their all-female student body about gender stereotypes at a young age.

The curriculum at the college, which is an all-female Catholic institution, thus consciously deviates from the categorisation of male and female roles that many young Filipinos, like many youngsters elsewhere, grow up with in their homes.

When talking to young students, teachers avoid describing mothers as a “good cook” or father as a “good driver” and show them that both men and women can share skills in different chores. Likewise, they introduce themes of shared parenting and shared home management as early as the first grade.

“Reactions range from students sharing proudly that in their house it’s their dads who do the cooking to being sad that their moms are always in the house, unlike other classmates whose moms go to an office,” Marita Castillo Pimentel, coordinator of the gender-fair education programme at Miriam College, said in an interview.

“Our teachers are trained to spot sexist messages and make gender-fair instructional materials to fill in the gap,” said Pimentel, adding that no textbook is yet free from gender bias.

Secondary students take courses on gender, education and language, women and mass media, and gender and migration studies, especially given the fact that the Philippines is the world’s number one exporter of labour migrants, the majority of them women.

New staff and faculty at Miriam College are also trained in discussing issues such as sexual harassment, among others.

Golda Minoza, 24, says that her education at Miriam College shaped her decision on what university course to pursue and her extra-curricular activities in school.

While taking up law at the University of the Philippines and working as an account manager in an information-technology firm, Minoza is also representative of her law student government class and is incoming captain of the basketball team at the university’s college of law.

“Gender-fair education has shaped how I study the law. I think I’m more critical of what I learn,” Minoza pointed out, citing that some professors point out the discrimination and inequalites in the law that they see.

“Student leadership in our law school was traditionally male-dominated, much like the law profession in the country,” Minoza added in an interview, adding that she wants to challenge stereotypes about sports by example.

A fellow Miriam College graduate, 25-year-old Erika Sales, is a spokeswoman for Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Youth here, which uses creative platforms like poetry, concerts, photographs and blogs to reach out to young people.

“I make sure that my views and perspectives are recognised by asserting myself wherever I work. I make people appreciate gender issues in their own lives,” said Sales.

At a March symposium on gender-fair education, Aurora de Dios, executive director of the Women and Gender Institute (WAGI), said that women’s and gender studies came about because of the disparity between the vibrant women’s movement in the Philippines and what was being taught in its schools.

“When (former President) Corazon Aquino led the popular People Power Revolution and became the first female president of the country in 1986, there was no way to explain this in textbooks, because women were never described as being able to rise to the highest levels of leadership,” recalls De Dios.

Yet the Philippines is also known to have a culture that allows women more social and personal freedoms and choices, so they are able to take up different professions and have made it to the highest public office.

Women also make up majority of students in this country of 92 million people. In the 2009 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, the Philippines ranked ninth globally in providing equal opportunities for women, including quality in education. It is the lone Asian country in that list of top 10 nations.

Yet gender biases still run deep, and this why gender advocates believe that correcting stereotypes must begin at a young age.

In 2001, Miriam College president Patricia Licuanan, a recognised gender advocate in international circles, made gender part and parcel of the curriculum aimed at offering quality education to women.

At that time too, women’s rights advocates discussed with other schools including the University of the Philippines, St Scholastica’s College, Philippines Women’s University, Philippine Normal College and Ateneo de Davao the idea of championing women’s studies in their own institutions.

Citing exit interviews with graduating students, Pimentel says more students appear to see themselves as productive citizens and leaders after going through gender-sensitive education. Parents have also said that their daughters have learned to question areas of activity usually associate with men.

“One parent told us that her child in pre-school now wants to take up taekwondo, while another shared with us how her daughter wants to pursue law after attending one of our gender-sensitivity training sessions,” said Pimentel.

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