The stories we read early in life are amongst the building blocks we use to understand and navigate society. My generation grew up reading about the Prince Charming who saved the damsel in distress, a plotline that has been repeated story after story for generations. Of late, progressive and concerned parents are looking for alternate narratives to empower girls and boys alike.
It is criminal when girls are led to believe they need to be rescued from sea monsters by the likes of Perseus and Hercules, Sita from Ravana—this list of girls and women needing a man or god to rescue them can unroll endlessly, like Draupadi’s sari. When there are centuries of cultural norms that define gender roles, it becomes that much harder to change the narrative for women. Generations of children have been growing up with such stories are unable to imagine a world where girls are in charge of their lives or where boys can cry or simply a world that does not adhere to gender binaries. Such stories restrict children’s freedom, imagination and confidence to make their own choices—social, economic and emotional.
Many authors have attempted to change the narrative, whether it is for children to imagine a world where Sleeping Beauty becomes Sleeping Handsome and powerful princesses ride to the rescue or the retelling of The Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, willing us to believe that the five choices that form the crux of the story were ones Sita chooses for herself.
Children need an environment and education that enables them to choose their own paths, unbound by gender and societal pressures. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all children, had access to empowering, gender-sensitive narratives early on, irrespective of the gender they identify with?
Such a revolution is in the making in Punjab government schools. Starting this year, 600,000 adolescents studying across the 4,500 government schools in Punjab will partake in a curriculum that challenges gender stereotypes in their attitudes, aspirations, and behaviour. The Department of School Education in Punjab will work with the NGO Breakthrough to train teachers to integrate a gender sensitisation curriculum in grades 6, 7, 8, targeting children as early as 12 years old. J-PAL South Asia will conduct an independent process evaluation to generate insights for sustained, high-quality, government implementation. This partnership was launched by the Chief Minister of Punjab on the occasion of International Women’s Day, a pathbreaking commitment by the state.
First tested in Haryana between 2014-16 through a randomised evaluation by Diva Dhar, Tarun Jain and Seema Jayachandran, the curriculum, Taaron ki Toli or Legion of Stars, was designed and implemented by Breakthrough, a non-profit with extensive experience in gender equality programming. In the Taaron ki Toli programme, children engaged in classroom discussions on gender equality, and were asked to reflect on the disparity in society’s norms for age of marriage, level of educational attainment, and employment for boys and for girls. Outside of the classroom, students completed homework assignments such as writing stories and discussing gender with family members.
Researchers randomly selected 150 schools in which to implement the programme, and also measured the progress of students in another 164 where the programme was not implemented, to serve as a comparison group. Results were promising—it made the students’ gender attitudes more progressive and enabled more gender-equitable behaviour among girls and boys, though girls may have faced greater external constraints to enacting change. These results also highlight the importance of including boys and men in programmes aimed at altering gender norms, given that they might have more freedom to act on their gender-progressive views.
The pandemic has further exacerbated the gender gap, with financial hardships forcing families to choose which child gets schooling and who drops out to work or look after the younger siblings at home. Such disruptions are likely to push back development gains made over the past several years. What we need are policies and practices that are not only sensitive to the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on women and girls, but coordinated action that brings together various stakeholders with agency to enact change. Think about it: the collective impact of more such narratives across the country, within each school, each community, each household—would that not truly be a revolution in the classroom?
Closer home, bedtime activities for my seven-year-old daughter involve replacing golden-haired Rapunzel, locked in a tower, for the warrior queen Rani Jhansi who rides Baadal to defend her people and puzzles and playing cards featuring dynamic women like Amelia Earhart and Billy Jean King. In our homes and in our schools, we can plant the seed of a new world order, where, echoing Tagore, the mind is without fear and knowledge is free, and all enjoy equal opportunity and independence to chart paths unbound by societal pressures.
Shobhini Mukerji is the Executive Director of J-PAL South Asia’s regional center, hosted by the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR). She is based in New Delhi and provides strategic, technical, and administrative oversight to the pan-India research and multi-sector policy and training engagements in the South Asian region. Shobhini is also on the Board of Directors at CARE India, a large non-profit in India focusing on empowerment of women and girls through programs in health, education, livelihoods, and disaster preparedness and response. You can follow her on Twitter.