It is not easy when we try to dispel myths. The trouble with myths is that they are deeply embedded in the social fabric of life. People believe in them and turn them into stereotypes which are oft repeated to prove a point.
As the International Women’s Day draws near our organization decided this year to focus on creating awareness about some myths that form barriers to the development of women and girls . The following are the myths being sought to be dispelled
- It is a man’s world
- Women cannot be leaders
- Women are too soft and emotional
- Girls belong in marriage not in a school
- She asked for it.
All the events being held country wide by our organization this year seek in some way to dispel these myths. In Chennai, we decided to have some programs with children studying in schools run by the Corporation of Chennai to create awareness about these myths. We were suggested eight schools in north Chennai by the Joint Commissioner ( education) , Corporation of Chennai.
In the process of doing these programs we found ourselves coming face to face with a different category of myths.
Myth 1- Teachers from government schools are not interested in teaching
This we learnt was the biggest myth! Planning for our events required holding meeting with the school Head mistress/ master. Since our office is located in South Chennai, it was quite an exercise trying to get to these places in the north of the city. Our drivers were as lost as we were and finally when we reached some of the schools it was almost 5.00 PM. We were not sure if anyone would be there – but there was a surprise in store for us- we found special classes in progress. Classes being conducted by the teachers from 4-6 PM every day! They deal with one subject each day and all students who are weak in that subject are expected to attend! These classes are compulsory for the children of classes 9 and 10! In each of the schools the enthusiasm of the teachers and the head master/ mistress in planning for the event was so infectious! They invited the women councillors to participate in the events as judges and chief guests on our behalf. I met today Mrs Hemamalini – a gracious lady who is the ward councillor for ward 70! She accepted our invitation our phone ( our letter had not reached her on time) and was there at least ten minutes before the event!
Coming back to the teachers-not one of them complained about the extra hours that they had to put in. One of them was making tea on an induction heater for the kids who were attending the special class while the other lady was taking a class. This is a provision made by the Corporation so that these children can have something to drink with the “sundal” ( a dish made with chick pea and eaten as a snack) which is provided by the noon meal program. Unfortunately as someone pointed out to me later – this is a good scheme with poor funding- there is no budget for milk to be put into the tea. The kids and the teachers are used to black tea which they offered to us apologising profusely!
Myth 2 Children in Corporation run schools have poor capacities in terms of extracurricular activities
This is a myth that stems from the first one. Many of us believe that children in corporation schools given the “poor teaching” just about make it through their exams and therefore have no skills besides learning by rote and reproducing it on paper. While, I will not completely disagree about the learning by rote, what surprised us was the way they brought creativity into their performance! We had a speech competition today where four schools participated. Though it was obvious that some of the speeches were probably written with the help of the teachers, the manner in which the kids spoke- their confidence and expression was absolutely amazing!!! I think these are kids if nurtured well have the potential to turn into leaders! I could almost see a dozen “puratchi thalaivis” there!
We also had a football match yesterday for one of the schools! The games mistress of the school was initially hesitant because she was not sure if the girls had the stamina to play a game like this. But the Head mistress was more than confident. We started out the match at 10.00 AM- the ball had the myths about women written on it so that it could be symbolically kicked around! Wow .. ! What energy and enthusiasm!!! What touched me personally was the fact that for almost the entire football team – their first meal for the day was a glass of “kanji”( watery rice porridge) that is provided as part of the free meals by the government! Their eyes widened when they saw the cake that we had brought for them as a trophy – shaped like a football stadium with “I am powerful” written on it!
Myth 3 Education ALONE is the key to the empowerment of women and girls
The trouble with our education system is that it does not really prepare us for any skills that can be used in life. Education is linked to examinations and when the exams are over it is as though the lifetime achievement in terms of goals is complete! This is what prevents education from becoming the change agent that it is expected to. The education system does not prepare the student for creative thinking, reasoning etc which are important life skills that anyone would need to get ahead in life. The teachers of these schools ( with due respect to their commitment ) as well as teachers of other schools are very examination and marks centric in their entire approach to education. “We face harassment from the parents if the child does not pass the public exam in standard 10” shared the head mistress of the Corporation school on Wall tax road. While parents demanding accountability is a good sign what is important is to look at the learning expectations. There is no stress on development of individuality and independence and what therefore happens is the focus on conformity! These bright sparks get extinguished before they clear their tenth exam. They get back into being what they are expected to be – into women who “obey” their husbands and bear the responsibilities of the family by burning the candle at both ends- their mothers may have done it through manual labour while these girls may do it through some other form of mindless work just to put the food on the plates of their family! I don’t know if the fact that they are engaged in work that may involve less physical labour is an indicator of empowerment. Roles still continue to be the same and power exercised similarly! So what is the value add that education would be bringing to their lives?
I think somewhere the education system needs to change to factor in these requirements if we are to become a society that promotes and sustains individual thoughts and actions . These are the basic requirement for an empowered individual who can make the choices suited to their needs. A band of committed teachers is wasted if there is no change in the values behind the education system. And if those values do not change, those myths about women and girls will continue to exist because even if textbooks mention them as myths, for the kids it would only be some points to be remembered until they write it down on paper and get the marks that they wanted. It would not be a reality that they would want to change in their lives!
For me personally this has been a revelation! I have never really had an opportunity to work with young girls through the schooling system. Given the fact that we have good education infrastructure, reasonably good teacher commitment and a responsive administrative system there should be a lot that is possible.
Someone once told me that these gender based inequalities and stereotypes developed over centuries and would therefore take an equally long time to be dispelled! I think that is ridiculous. If we can send rockets into space then why can’t we change the way we think and act? It is all in our hands…
Those of you who are based in Chennai, do join us at the Marina Beach on the 8th of March at 5.00 PM near the Gandhi Statue to take a pledge towards committing ourselves to making that change…! It is a public event and any one who is interested can participate in. I have attached an invitation in this post.
See you on the 8th !