A Breakthrough Magazine
Empower. Educate. Transform.
When we first started working in schools of Haryana in 2012, we noticed gender stereotyping at an early age, like when girls were asked to serve tea to the visitors while boys were asked to bring out chairs. In many schools, girls deal with sexist slurs, or being discouraged from playing during their periods, or have sermons read to them about the lengths of their skirts, or how friendly they’re being with boys. This also includes urban, elite schools. For boys, corporal punishment rules include any kind of labor intensive tasks as if girls are not capable of carrying weights! In rural schools in Uttar Pradesh, we found girls don’t have the vocabulary for aspirations. When parents don’t prioritise education for their daughters and schools offer discouraging interactions based on your gender, the result is often a crack in the system.
In 2020, an estimated 40%
of girls were out of school,
according to a report by both
UNICEF and the World Bank.
Every year in India, especially within the public school system, large numbers of girls enroll into schools. But a huge number drops out by the time they reach the age of 15. The reason is not always poverty. Strong gender norms contribute to dropouts in the secondary or higher education level. Studies also reveal how parents believe that private schools offer a better education, leading to better career prospects. Hence, they are more willing to pay for their sons’ education at private schools than their daughters’. This polarization of schooling – boys: superior, private schooling; girls: inferior, government schooling is creating imbalances that are severely gendered and has consequences not only for the self-esteem and identity of girls but also affects their future prospects of education and employment. So much in your educational journey depends on the kind of positive reinforcements you are receiving in your place of education for it to become valuable and meaningful for you. Are your teachers asking you questions in class? Are they encouraging you to work on the STEM subjects and making them interesting for you?
Are caste/race based slurs ever used in their interaction with you? Is menstruation a hush-hush subject in your school? Are you encouraged to interact with other genders without fearing retribution like shaming and scolding?
Gender equitable behaviors need to be intentionalized by every school leader and teachers if we are to reach gender equality and if all genders are to carve out aspirational futures for themselves. We need to work with the school community and the state administrative officers so that schools can realize their potential to be transformative spaces that can impact the future of large numbers of young people through its near universal reach. Schools are major contexts for gender socialization, in part because children spend large amounts of time engaged with peers and teachers in such settings. Schools can diminish gender differences by providing environments that promote gender
equitable views, curiosity to ask questions, and better inter-gender relationships. Yet, so few education programmes are gender intentional in addressing the school system.
If India is keen on achieving gender equality goals, there is a need to focus on the role of education in doing so. We are already aware of the multiple positive benefits associated with it, such as strengthened economies and reduced inequality, more stable, resilient societies that give all individuals associated with it the opportunity to fulfil their potential.3 For schools to become gender transformative spaces, we need to utilize the whole school system – from policies to pedagogies to community engagement – to transform stereotypes, attitudes, norms and practices by challenging power relations, rethinking gender norms and binaries, and raising critical consciousness about the root causes of inequality and systems of oppression.
Breakthrough’s long-term vision is a gender transformative society where adolescents live a life free of discrimination and violence. A gender transformative school system goes beyond superficial acknowledgments of gender disparities; it aims to dismantle the societal constructs that perpetuate inequality and discrimination.
It recognizes gender as a spectrum, breaking free from binary definitions and embracing the diverse identities and expressions that exist. By doing so, it seeks to provide equal access to high-quality education for all individuals, regardless of their gender identity, expression, or social background.
This is not the work of one organization alone, we need a movement built around a strong narrative about a gender transformative education system. This requires collaboration and concerted efforts from educators, policymakers, parents, and communities. It entails integrating gender equality principles into educational policies and practices, providing ongoing training and support for teachers, and engaging with organizations and advocates specializing in gender equality. This magazine is our attempt to do that – to build an inspired community that wants to contribute to a movement that can address gender inequity and inequality at its roots. It will focus on what Breakthrough cares about the most and say it consistently, to be able to bring attention to something that is currently not being done specifically.
The narrative needs to be built so that people will be inspired to engage with it and eventually feel a kinship with. It will define the themes and topics around which content can be created.
Our magazine will allow all user participants to co-create knowledge that then gets contributed back to the gender transformative education movement as a whole across the globe. This can be in the form of information on curricula that can be shared for specific subjects; where best practices for teachers and implementers across diverse settings can be shared: information on immersive trainings and self-assessments on gender across the school ecosystem are available; where shared research and evaluation methods and results are available and shared sustainability/outreach strategies are hosted and discussed.
Our first issue focuses on contributions from the Global South and not just India. We have Dipak Naker, co-founder of Raising Voices, an Uganda-based non-profit that works towards preventing violence against children and women, who campaigns for a seismic shift in the purpose of schools that not only enables children to reach their full potential, but also help them become the leaders of tomorrow. We also have Sangeeta Saksena, co-founder of Enfold Proactive Health Trust, an NGO that imparts life skills based on sexuality education and child sexual abuse awareness and prevention programmes. Praveen Vempadapu is the secretary and director of Kidpower India, an international NGO that provides safety training and support to vulnerable children in India.
Editor-in-Chief, Engendering Education
1.Joseph Cimpian, How Our Education System Undermines Gender Equity (The Brookings Institute, April 23, 2018)
2.Anupma Mehta, Need for Gender Transformative Focus in India’s Education Policy (The Economics Society, Sri Ram College of Commerce, May 29, 2020)
3.Anushna Jha and Mehrin Shah, Leveraging Education as a Tool to Achieve Gender Equality-Strategies and Signposts (London School of Economics and Political Science, April 8, 2020)
The Anatomy of a Good School
Schools are seen as a critical investment for millions of children in the Global South and yet, the uncomfortable truth is that they’re often caught in unimaginative and violent environments that deprive them of opportunities to grow and think independently. Dipak Naker – the co-founder of Uganda-based non-profit Raising Voices, which creates evidence-based violence prevention programs in schools and communities – invites the readers to rethink the conceptual architecture of a ‘good school’, where the focus shifts beyond the metrics of education, to the experience of it.
Much before India passed the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act in 2012, Dr Sangeeta Saksena had been spending the better part of her professional life trying to understand what young Indians-including children as young has first graders – think of sex and sexuality. The responses surprised her. The co-founder of Enfold Proactive Health Trust in Bengaluru, Dr Saksena joins the inaugural edition of Engendering Education to reveal the sexual attitudes of one of the world’s largest child and adolescent populations, and why it’s imperative for India to have sex and physical safety education from a wider and restorative lens.
One in every
in India is a
victim of CSA.
A 2017 survey by humanitarian aid organisation World Vision India.
Through Enfold, Dr Saksena sought to create safer, respectful, and gender equitable spaces through preventive education, awareness and rehabilitative support for survivors of CSA. And one of the key tools to do that was the creation of an indigenously-designed, age-appropriate, cultually-relevant curriculum on sexuality and personal safety education for children and adult stakeholders. Along with Dr Shekhar Seshadri, the doctors also co-authored On Track-a workbook series on life skills and personal safety for school children from grade 1-10 (published by Macmillan Education India). These workbooks also include information manuals for parents and teachers.
Enfold is the first organization to offer personal safety as part of the curriculum from grade 1 onwards in Indian schools, says Dr Saksena. This was much before POCSO came into effect. But in a country like India, where stigma and bias against sex education has led to much backlash against educators over the years, Dr Saksena and her team promoted children’s and adolescents’ safety and wellbeing, keeping ground realities in mind.
“Given the cultural backgrounds of most of these children, we decided to use words like ‘sussu’ and ‘potty’ for private parts until grade 4,” said Dr Saksena. “As gynaecologists, we can say anatomical terms like vulva and penis, but in this case, we decided it’s up to the parents to give proper names of genitals when they deem it fit for their children. Our aim was to give an unambiguous vocabulary to small children to ask questions, report discomfort and any unsafe behavior.”
The resistance to sex education in India has been consistent. In 2007, India saw massive protests in six states against inclusion of sex education in class 10 syllabi by the state boards. In 2009, several Indian states suspended sex education program designed to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS after protests by lawmakers who said it would corrupt young minds. Dr Saksena said that such backlash could have been partly due to the use of curricula and materials that were not indigenously developed and were not adapted to Indian socio-cultural milieu. However Enfold’s work was not affected – in fact it grew.
Over the years, the Enfold team has incorporated some key values into their approach:
- Education in gender equity, sexuality, and personal safety can build acceptance and respect for the body and its sexual and reproductive functions and the diversity in gender and sexuality; promote safe behavior towards each other and thereby prevent sexual abuse and gender based violence against children and adults alike.
- One can heal from child sexual abuse and gender based violence with professional help.
- It takes community effort and child sensitive systems to keep children safe.
- People of all gender and sexual identities have equal right to safety and dignity – and individuals, families, communities, and our laws, policies, and systems can promote this.
The organization’s Support and Rehabilitation team supports close to 75 children who have reported sexual violence. In 2022, the organization published a Handbook for Support Persons to work with child victims under the POCSO Act. In 2016, Dr Saksena and Dr Saldanha created the Suvidha Project – the first initiative of its kind in India that offers education on gender equity, sexuality, and personal safety to children with disabilities. The ‘Suvidha Suraksha’ kit is for the parents and teachers of children with intellectual disabilities, autism, and related conditions. Enfold offers them training in the use of the kit, building their capacity to offer sexuality education in the context of disabilities. The Suvidha Sparsh kit is also available for use by children with visual and hearing impairment.
The internet and social media has played a big role in exposing young Indians to age inapproprate sexual content that is, at times, inaccurate, unscientific, and violates other’s rights. “Social media puts pressure on children,” said Dr Saksena. “In earlier days, we
Recommendations have been made by the Verma Committee and others, and the CBSE curriculum also includes it. “But we need a wider perspective that is gender transformative, which includes disabilities, and is restorative. Some forms of education also focus only on the physical aspects rather than emotional,” said Dr Saksena. “There’s a misconception that sexuality education begins at 12 or 13 years of age. It actually starts much younger, from the time the child begins to understand words and expressions. We need more work.”
Right now, Dr Saksena and her team are advocating to include comprehensive sexuality and personal safety curriculums in all schools and colleges, across all streams. “My personal aim in life is to see that this education is made easily accessible and reaches everybody in a language and manner that is comfortable for them,” said Dr Saksena.
1.Protest Against Sex Education, Times of India (2007)
2. Conservatives Obstruct Sex Education in 6 States, Amelia Gentleman, New York Times (2007)
3. How Indians View Gender Roles in Families and Society, Pew Research Center (2022)
4. Health Secretary launches SAATHIYA Resource Kit and SAATHIYA SALAH’ Mobile App for Adolescents, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (2017)
How did you begin your journey as a child rights activist and director of Kidpower India?
I have a background in engineering, management, and development studies. Being with a non-profit was not initially my idea but I was working with a women’s group as part of my MBA study and I thought I would do a non-profit course. I ended up in the Netherlands to do a masters course in development studies from the Institute of Social Studies. After I came back to India, I realized that I wanted to do something with children and children’s education. In 2007, there was the National Study of Child Abuse released by the Indian ministry of women and child development. It found that around 50 per cent of children – boys and girls have gone through sexual harm, both physical and emotional. What struck me more is that most of the time, it’s not reported -73 per cent of them.
Indian society has a deeply inherent power structure: You have to respect your elders. There’s nothing wrong with this notion but when someone abuses that valuable relation of a parent or teacher or a family relative, how do you stand up for yourself? That was the important point I was looking at when I wanted to start something in India. Apart from the abuse statistics, how much is being reported and how many children speak up?
What is the most important aspect of facilitating trainings with children?
What’s important to me while training is not just instilling confidence in standing up to abuse, but the practical approach of it through the workshop model of training. I went to the US and joined Kidpower International’s trainings. They provided us with all the materials and training to adapt to the Indian circumstances. The program also targets the disabled and differently abled, as well as across LGBTQ+ spectrum and non-binary identities. For India, I created a program specifically for girls, which isn’t there in the U.S. It’s called ‘GirlPower’. It’s the same lesson plan and skills but adapted to the circumstances of women and girls’ lives in India. This program has been translated and adopted by other countries like Lebanon, Vietnam, and Mexico.
What does the Kidpower training entail?
The first thing we teach at Kidpower is being aware of the circumstances and being confident. We talk about how to use your body to set boundaries in a strong way and how to use your voice to say no. This is a practical training so we take real-life examples from the lives of the children.
In India, there’s quite a taboo around sexual abuse. How did you start approaching schools with Kidpower’s safety trainings?
We mostly focused on Visakhapatnam. We approached the schools and non-profits. The best part is that our trainings are free and they are also available online. So many schools are open to our trainings. We conduct around 20 trainings a year.
One of the guiding principles of Kidpower is that safety is priority, and other people’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offence is not important. It’s easily said but in a society where children grow up with the notion that they’ve to respect elders and not talk back, how do you first ensure your safety? This is the power relation between children and elders. We train people how to overcome this. We train multiple stakeholders but the elders, like the parents and teachers, should enable a safe space for that to happen by understanding the power relations and believing the kids.
Could you talk about the impact of your trainings?
The major change at institutional levels I found is that children are more willing to share with you if there’s an abuse situation. We’ve seen the power structure change once children speak up. At any abuse prevention training, if you give a message to the girls and boys that there’s no tolerance for abuse, they immediately come to you and complain about the abuse, including from teachers or through corporal punishment. After that, when they need help, we create avenues for them to speak up and get help. This helps schools address the problem of abuse.
Among all the issues Kidpower addresses, what concerns you the most?
In education, we work a lot with slum children who are engaged in rag picking and begging. I would say one of the most pressing problems I have found in such circumstances is how girls are pushed out of schools. Often in such settings, girls as young as 6 years old have to stay back to take care of other children. Then a big challenge is when girls are 15 or 16, an age that is an opportunity for their family. Sometimes, these girls go on a family vacation and just fall off the map, only to come back as a married woman. At Kidpower, we have a scholarship program for girls to address these dropouts and problem of child marriage.
In many circumstances, we have found that when there’s a change in family circumstances, the family prefers to put the girl in a government school while keeping the boys in a private school. Again, we have noticed dropouts in such cases.
Having seen these patterns, we try to address this from a non-profit point of view by providing scholarships to girls and running special learning centres. We also counsel the parents and girls to study further.
What has been the most memorable part of your journey with Kidpower?
When I work with visually challenged children, they have different visual levels. How they practise and use it while travelling or outdoors, I found that very touching. During training, I’ve had a child come to me and say that while travelling in a train, someone tried to abuse them, they shouted and the person ran away. When children come to us to tell us how they used the skills we taught them in real life, it feels very rewarding.
Does the prevalence of abuse on social media make things challenging for you and the work Kidpower does?
The principles of our program remain the same even when we talk about social media with the children. You’ve to keep adapting. Such as, when we talk about social media, the safety principles are the same. We ask questions like: Who’s a stranger? What is the stranger danger? What is personal information? Who are you sharing it with? Social media is a huge challenge for safety.
What is your vision for the future of safety for children?
A coalition of good schools is a good way to reach more children. We’ve had the 2007 report of abuse and then, in 2011, the National Education Policy came into effect. It spoke about abuse prevention in schools and stated that abuse like corporal punishment isn’t allowed. But nothing has happened after that. There’s been no other work or interpretation of policies after that. Something needs to be done at the policy level to bring impact in the lives of children.
Sohini Bhattacharya is the CEO of Breakthrough who has worked in the development sector for more than 30 years. She also co-founded Sanhita Gender Resource Centre in 1996, and is a founding member of the Coalition for Good Schools – Voices from the South – a collection of leading practitioners and influencers committed to delivering access to a safe learning environment for children across the Global South. In The Lede – her recurring editor’s note in Engendering Education – Bhattacharya introduces the readers to the magazine as well as its longstanding vision to bring together diverse voices that reimagine education as a powerful tool for societal transformation.
Born in Tanzania, Dipak Naker is the co-founder of Uganda-based non-profit Raising Voices, and currently works as the Executive Director of the Coalition for Good Schools. His work draws heavily from observing firsthand the profound ways interpersonal violence impacts women and children. For the last 20 years, Naker and his organisation have been creating a comprehensive approach to violence prevention, especially in schools. For our Cover Story section – which invites industry experts and practitioners to author experiences in creating pedagogical interventions for equal and intersectional education practices – Naker invites us to rethink the experience of education.
Dr Sangeeta Saksena founded the non-profit Enfold Proactive Health Trust with her friend and colleague Dr Shaibya Saldanha in order to address one simple question: What do young Indians know about sex? Her questions led to shocking revelations about the scale of child sexual abuse in the country. In the Close Up section – wherein we put the spotlight on those driving critical, and sometimes uncomfortable, conversations – Dr Saksena speaks about Enfold’s journey in designing and implementing an indigenous curriculum on sexuality and personal safety education for school and college students in India.
In 2007, Praveen Vempadapu read the National Study on Child Abuse released by the Indian government, which revealed shocking revelations on the extent of child sexual abuse in India. The same year, his determination to address this systemic problem brought Kidpower International, a global nonprofit leader in teaching child protection and personal safety skills to adults and children, to India for the first time. In Change Maker – a section that features an intimate conversation with child rights and education experts – Vempadapu talks about what Kidpower India does, and how it tackles the problem of abuse in schools.
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