Girls worldwide face unnecessary barriers to education. It is up to schools to tear them down, to the benefit of all students.
In recent years, headlines that read, “Why are girls outperforming boys?” “The gender gap: Boys lagging,” and “Why girls do better than boys” have flooded the media, creating a frenzy that pits educational achievement as a battle of the sexes. The relatively high rate of girls attending schools worldwide suggests to some that the issue of educational access for girls is no longer relevant and should be deprioritized (e.g., Sax, 2016; Watson, Kehler, & Martino, 2010; Whitmire, 2010). The lion’s share of these writings cite the feminization of education as a problem or suggest that feminist movements have gone too far, leading to the downfall of boys (e.g., Mulvey, 2010; Ripley, 2017).
Yet even as gender gaps narrow in educational achievement, the personal and social costs of achievement remain high for girls around the world who face daily hostility and harassment as they attempt to gain an education. I argue that to combat these costs we need to develop feminist schools that protect all children from such threats and puts them on an equitable path to success.
Barriers girls face
In the United States, where girls surpass boys at most levels of education, 1 in 7 girls reports feeling unsafe in and/or on their way to school, and this number doubles for those who identify as LGBTQ+ (National Women’s Law Center, 2017; UNESCO, 2017). Underlying these experiences with sexual abuse and bullying are beliefs, at the individual and school level, that girls occupy inferior positions relative to boys and/or should not strive to defy gender norms.
Girls faced with these challenges in the U.S. commonly suffer from poor mental health. In fact, a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that those who experienced sexual abuse and/or forms of gender-based violence at school have a higher probability of reporting depression, low levels of self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts. Perceived school safety and access to mental health services act as important protective factors against the traumatizing effects of violence (CDC, 2016; Ozer & Weinstein, 2010). Thus, these concerns need to be addressed in American schools, regardless of whether girls appear to be accessing education at high rates or not.
These same concerns apply globally as well. For example, in southern Africa, as in the U.S., boys and girls access primary education at equivalent rates. Yet, research suggests that up to 30% of schoolgirls in the region are, at some point, sexually abused or raped in or around the schoolhouse, commonly by teachers (King & Winthrop, 2015). As I heard from one expert I interviewed for my own research, girls often suffer from “STGs” — sexually transmitted grades. That is, they are forced into sexual activity by their male teachers in exchange for accurate reporting of their academic work.
One area where schools can make a difference is in combating the ways in which patriarchy continues to limit the expression of masculinity among girls and femininity among boys.
Undoubtedly, sexual assault is far from the only barrier that girls encounter. In some regions, their educational achievement is hampered by a lack of school infrastructure, such as bathroom facilities. In Ghana, for example, only 50% of schools have toilets (Smith-Asante, 2014). In South Africa, only 40% of schools do. Thus, girls who attend these schools have no place to properly and privately change their sanitary pads (if they can afford them at all). As a result, girls often decide not to attend school during the five to six days of their monthly period, which causes them to fall behind on their coursework. And once they fall behind, many drop out.
In both developed and developing countries, gender stereotypes continue to constrain girls’ achievement. For example, the World Health Organization and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health recently concluded a four-year study of young children and their parents in 15 countries (Bolivia, Belgium, Burkina Faso, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa, the United States, and Vietnam). They found that even today, in all 15 countries, rigid gender norms continue to be instilled in both girls and boys as young as age 10 (Blum, Mmari, & Moreau, 2017). Typically, in much of the world, girls are still encouraged to stay inside, learn house chores, and focus on being vulnerable and nurturing, while boys are told to go outside and play and to be independent and strong. (These stereotypes appear to have negative consequences for both girls and boys, with girls more often dropping out of school, being exposed to violence, and facing depression, while boys deal with higher rates of addiction, propensity to commit crimes, and suicide.)
No matter where girls are from or what challenges they face, they need schools that not only provide academic instruction but also serve as models of gender equity.
No matter where girls are from or what challenges they face, they need schools that not only provide academic instruction but also serve as models of gender equity, places where they can thrive free of gender bias. This work is about more than providing girls with toilets; it is about the need to address the destruction of unequal power relations between men and women. To achieve this, schools must focus on subverting gender inequality rather than reproducing it. In short, schools must become feminist.
A vision for feminist schools
Feminist schools have the potential to benefit both boys and girls because they protect all children from identity-based threats that keep them from achieving at equivalent levels. Schools that are striving to achieve this must ask two sets of questions: First, how do our policies and practices levy disparate effects on pupils’ academic, civic, or social development? Second, how can we develop strategies to respond to these imbalances and thus ensure that students are receiving the same quality of education, regardless of gender, race, or sex? To address these questions, feminist schools develop policies and procedures to foster the belief that each citizen has equal inherent worth and should be treated as such. They reorient the foundation of education in a way that prepares students to engage in a more equitable society, and to transgress and transform their world where such equality has not been achieved (Nuamah, in press).
One area where schools can make a difference is in combating the ways in which patriarchy continues to limit the expression of masculinity among girls and femininity among boys, denying children of both genders the ability to live in ways that are outside these binary gender stereotypes. Because these stereotypes are learned and affirmed at home, in the community, and at school, these are the very places where children can learn a different way. Schools, especially, have a responsibility to expand the gender categories to make room for diverse gender expression. As Carrie Paechter (2006), explains, getting beyond binary expectations
is surely a more flexible and equitable way for us to understand gender, one which treats masculinities and femininities as truly multiple . . . . rather than central to our whole existence (p. 259).
In other words, schools can and must play a critical role in allowing she, he, or they a healthy expression of self.
The Forum for African Woman Educationalists (FAWE), as part of the United Nations Girls Education Initiative, attempts to engage in this type of work through the development of gender-responsive pedagogy at schools, which, in their words, refers to a school where, “the academic, social, and physical environment . . . take into account the specific needs of boys and girls” (Mlama et al., 2005). Some examples they provide include changing the way classrooms are arranged to incentivize forms of participation that do not force girls to raise their hands or shout to be heard over boys, ensuring that learning materials do not celebrate or reinforce traditional gender roles and gender stereotypes, and developing gender-sensitive school management systems that provide mechanisms for girls to report sexual abuse and manage menstruation.
My conception of feminist schools builds on this work by expanding the ways in which we think about gender equality in schools to include the role of power. Feminist schools are attentive to the power dynamics that shape students in the classroom. More specifically, they disrupt power relations and provide students with the tools to do the same after they leave the classroom. Thereafter, students may transgress traditional gender practices and become active agents of societal transformation.
In doing this work, feminist schools care not only about student access but also their physical safety. They care not only about student achievement but also about their mental health and well-being. They care not only about the quality of students’ education but also the quality of how they are treated relative to others. As such, feminist schools act as the most equitable spaces for all students to achieve.
Blum, R.W., Mmari, K., & Moreau, C. (2017). It begins at 10: How gender expectations shape early adolescence around the world. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61 (4), S3-S4.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Understanding school violence: Fact sheet. Atlanta, GA: Author. www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/school_violence_fact_sheet-a.pdf
King, E. & Winthrop, R. (2015). Today’s challenges for girls’ education. Working Paper 90. Washington, DC: Brookings.
Mlama, R., Dioum, M., Makoye, H., Murage, L., Wagah, M., & Washika, R. (2005). Gender responsive pedagogy: A teacher’s handbook. Nairobi, Kenya: FAWE. www.ungei.org/files/FAWE_GRP_ENGLISH_VERSION.pdf
Mulvey, J. (2010). The feminization of schools. The Education Digest, 75 (8), 35.
National Women’s Law Center. (2017). Let her learn: Stopping school push-out. Washington, DC: Author.
Nuamah, S.A. (in press). How girls achieve. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ozer, E.A. & Weinstein, R.S. (2010). Urban adolescents’ exposure to community violence: The role of support, school safety, and social constraints in a school-based sample of boys and girls. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33 (3), 463-476.
Paechter, C. (2006). Masculine femininities/feminine masculinities: Power, identities and gender. Gender and Education, 18 (3), 253-263.
Ripley, A. (2017, September 21). Boys are not defective. The Atlantic.
Sax, L. (2016). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Smith-Asante, E. (2014, April 2). Ghana: 10,000 public schools without toilets. Daily Graphic.
UNESCO. (2017). School violence and bullying: Global status report. Paris, France: Author.
Watson, A., Kehler, M., & Martino, W. (2010). The problem of boys’ literacy underachievement: Raising some questions. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53 (5), 356-361.
Whitmire, R. (2010). Why boys fail: Saving our sons from an educational system that’s leaving them behind. New York, NY: AMACOM.
Citation: Nuamah, S.A. (2018) The makings of feminist schools across the globe. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 51-53.