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URUGUAY: Schoolgirls Access Computers but Can’t Shake Gender Stereotypes

Cristina Canoura

MONTEVIDEO, Jul 30 2009 (IPS) - The girls who attend the school of Villa García, a township on the outskirts of the Uruguayan capital, are still playing dolls and dress up – only now they do it on their laptop computers.

Brand new laptops, same old games. Credit: Villa García School Photograph File

Brand new laptops, same old games. Credit: Villa García School Photograph File

After they finish grade school, many of these girls will quickly leave their childhood behind, having their first baby when they’re still in their teens, just like their mothers, aunts or other women in this impoverished community did.

In the 1970s, this school stood out for its participatory educational approach and for providing equal learning opportunities for all. But, like most schools in the country, it has since lost ground in terms of gender equality and now, perhaps without meaning to, it perpetuates stereotypes that condition girls and boys for certain roles.

Villa García’s was the first school in the Montevideo metropolitan area to receive the computers distributed under the central government’s one-laptop-per-child programme, known as CEIBAL (a Spanish acronym that stands for Basic Computer Connectivity in Education for Online Learning, but also coincides with the name of Uruguay’s national tree, the Ceibo), which seeks to promote digital equality and to democratise knowledge.

Its pupils are among the large proportion of boys and girls who live under the poverty line in Uruguay: almost half of the child population of this small South American country of just 3.4 million inhabitants.

The aim of this innovative initiative championed by socialist President Tabaré Vázquez is to give every schoolchild and teacher in Uruguay their own personal computer, thus bringing disadvantaged communities into the digital age.


But the programme failed to include gender considerations in its contents, and as soon as kids are allowed to play freely with their computers, boys go straight to online games typically associated with their sex and girls look for doll, dress-up and fashion makeover games, Adriana Font and Karen Souza, two young teachers who work at the school, told IPS.

Carmen Beramendi, head of the National Women’s Institute (Inmujeres), the government body responsible for gender policies and issues, informed IPS that her agency is working with Uruguay’s Technological Laboratory (LATU), in charge of the CEIBAL Programme, to correct this oversight.

To do this, a special videogame for CEIBAL computers is being designed, along with a pamphlet featuring a cartoon story, in an effort to make children aware of the issue in child-friendly ways.

Both of these tools are aimed at “putting current gender roles in the family into question, showing other possible roles and promoting the sharing of responsibilities in family tasks, applying a gender-equality approach and encouraging children to think about what existing stereotypes mean,” she explained.

The CEIBAL Programme has delivered 200,000 laptop computers to date, in a process that began in 2007 in rural and impoverished urban communities outside the capital, and it is expected to cover the entire public school population by the end of 2009. Each unit is valued at 220 dollars, and the project will cost a total of 100 million dollars, financed entirely by the state.

In Uruguay, education is mandatory for children from the ages of four to 15, with public preschool education also available a year earlier, and primary education running from six to 12 years of age.

Font and Souza decided to take the initiative and do something to counteract gender stereotypes themselves, by showing their kids a different view of their own reality. They began by seeking training in non-governmental organisations, as no teacher training on the subject was available through official channels.

Juan Morales, the principal at the Villa García school, whose teaching staff is made up of 38 female and four male teachers, acknowledged that the school “has no policy aimed at changing the roles typically set out” for both genders, because it is “not seen as a problem.”

Sixty percent of the children in Font’s and Souza’s classes are older than the ages stipulated for the grades they are in. This means that most of them are teenagers aged 13 to 15.

When they speak of their plans for the future, they tend to repeat traditional roles. Most of the boys say they’ll go into a technical line of work – like car mechanic – and girls mainly want to be hairdressers.

Gender differences are also reinforced by families. When there’s an after-school activity or field trip, girls usually participate in fewer numbers because their parents want them to stay home and care for their younger siblings and do the housework.

The two teachers try to show their girl pupils “that there are other possibilities in life,” both at work and in the family. These are girls who hardly leave their neighbourhood and whose only knowledge of the world is through the distorting lens of television. “They watch a lot of soap operas and dream about a prince who will come to their rescue and sweep them away,” Souza said.

According to Souza, many women still believe in old-wives tales about their own health that further gender differences. “Girls often come to school with a note from their mothers asking them to be excused from gym when they’re having their period,” she said. When they go camping, mothers ask teachers to make sure their girls don’t wash their hair or play when menstruating. Most of these mothers are women under the age of 30.

Font and Souza agree that to change these patterns, there must be an ongoing effort on the part of schools, with teachers adopting a gender-centred approach.

Gender programmes

But things are beginning to change in this sense in Uruguay. In March of this year, a new educational programme was implemented for preschool and primary cycles, including for the first time ever the issue of gender as an ethical challenge.

The programme states that “pupils are subjects with rights, and under the right to education they must be guaranteed access to a broad and diverse culture.”

Based on this principle, the Social Knowledge area included a chapter on “Construction of Citizenship,” which introduces a gender angle at every level.

Some of the issues addressed by the new curriculum are: the different roles in school, how male and female differences are constructed socially, gender roles in the family, social stereotypes and traditions, equality and discrimination, and men and women at work.

It also examines stereotypes in advertising, women and men throughout the ages, gender identity, and the construction of sexuality as an important part of life.

The programme builds on the First National Plan for Equal Opportunities and Rights, an earlier, more comprehensive gender plan launched in 2007, which implements learning initiatives aimed at combating stereotypes and promoting equality.

These measures were devised by Inmujeres in collaboration with the National Board of Public Education.

Beramendi reports that, as a result of this cooperation, a Gender Network has been created in the education system, whose goals include “revising the sexist content of textbooks” used by school curricula at all levels.

Also, since 2007, special educational activities are held on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, to encourage children of both sexes to reflect on the issue.

One such activity, which covered more than two thousand schools in the country, involved distributing kites with the inscription “Living without violence is great”, and pamphlets on women’s rights and the sharing of family responsibilities.

The printed material included a cartoon family showing the father doing the housework so the mother could participate in women’s day activities.

In November 2008, the Second Workshop on Education and Gender in Preschools was held with the participation of 650 teachers of children under five, who received a training manual entitled “First Steps,” together with a working guide.

This year, a group of specially trained teachers will begin giving courses on sexual education to primary and secondary school students.

Beramendi noted that “interest in these issues is growing,” but said there’s still much to be done to change roles.

As an example, she said that “the school system is more tolerant of male violence. If a girl reacts violently to aggression, she’s judged more severely” than her male peers.

Another example she gave is that “Mothers are still the ones who are called whenever kids are having problems with their schoolwork, and this reinforces the idea that only mothers are responsible for their children’s ‘failure’ or bad behaviour,” Beramendi said.

The head of Inmujeres said that teachers are becoming more and more aware of the need to change the way boys and girls are seen and to incorporate a gender perspective in their teaching. But she admitted that “we’re still far from implementing a new, significant and permanent practice” in Uruguay’s classrooms.

 
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