Promoting changes in gender norms in Latin America: why boys’ education matters

Promoting changes in gender norms in Latin America: why boys’ education matters

In Latin America, discussions on education and gender take a different form. Here, as discussed during a recent UNESCO convened workshop for key education stakeholders in Brasilia, the gender gap is at the expense of boys particularly at the secondary level and for the poorest families.

The GEM Report’s recent policy paper shows that in Latin America and the Caribbean, for every 100 females, 96 males completed primary, 94 completed lower secondary and 91 completed upper secondary education, while only 83 were attending some form of post-secondary education.

Not that this is a new phenomenon: disparities in secondary education have persisted in Latin America and the Caribbean for at least 20 years.

Lower secondary completion rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, by gender

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Source: World Inequality Database on Education

Different factors keep boys and girls out of school

The GEM Report analysis argues that two broad sets of factors combine to leave boys falling behind.

Firstly, poverty and the need to work is perhaps the main factor preventing boys from continuing their education or leads to irregular attendance and eventual dropout. Unlike in other parts of the world, poor boys tend to bear the brunt of education marginalization in many Latin American and Caribbean countries. In Honduras, while only 65 males completed upper secondary school for every 100 females, just 27 poor males did so for every 100 poor females in 2011.

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Honduras upper secondary completion rates by gender and poverty

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Source: World Inequality Database on Education

When a poor household’s income suddenly drops, the family may respond by withdrawing the boy from secondary school so that he can earn money.   And research from Brazil and Jamaica finds that boys are most likely to find jobs in manual and construction, which do not require completion of secondary education.

Secondly, the negative school environment can be a factor that loosens boys’ ties with the education system and ultimately pushes them out. Traditional teaching methods and curricula tend to reinforce gender stereotypes and maintain the status quo.

Unfortunately, schools can too often be spaces where boys are exposed to rigid and violent norms – and, as has been observed in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, the ensuing physical violence and bullying, can provoke a vicious cycle of disengagement from education and involvement in school gangs.

But both the pull factor of the labour market and the push factor of the school community are not neutral. Rather, they can be traced back to prevailing gender norms in society, which place expectations on boys to behave in specific ways. Gender norms are perpetuated, directly or indirectly, by education systems. A hidden curriculum leads to biases in textbook representations of gender and in teaching practices. These norms and beliefs that are traditionally associated with the exclusion of girls can also negatively affect boys.

Cultivating practices from the region

Many approaches have been taken by countries in the region to address this imbalance.

Conditional cash transfers made to individuals or families, as long as a child is enrolled in school and attending regularly, can offset not only direct school costs, such as fees, uniforms and books, but also opportunity costs for poor households. In Jamaica, boys living in urban areas who received cash transfers under the Programme of Advancement through Health and Education (PATH) performed better by 4% in the Grade Six Achievement Test compared with nonbeneficiaries. Improved school performance led to boys receiving places in higher quality secondary schools. PATH is one of the few programmes that vary support by grade and gender, with boys in higher primary grades receiving larger stipends.

Whole school approaches that address the wider school environment and its community can also help to promote sustainable change. Face-to-face educational programmes with boys and young men have spread beyond schools across a range of settings, from clubs and sports teams to workplaces and other institutions.

In Brazil, the government initiative Escola Alberta sees schools offering workshops for young people at weekends to counter high levels of violence in urban communities. Cultural, artistic and sport activities are combined with workshops on diversity, rights and citizenship. Evaluations of the programme indicated several positive outcomes, including a reduction in some forms of violence and theft in schools.

dont forget the boys 4Another set of initiatives in Brazil was established by Instituto Promundo, a civil society organization. Program H included group education sessions, youth-led campaigns and activism to transform gender stereotypes among young men. Program M helped young women to challenge deeply held stereotypes. Now adopted in over 20 countries, it has been praised as best practice in promoting gender equality. Evaluations of Instituto Promundo educational workshops with young men to prevent gender-based violence and promote gender equality in Brazil, Chile, India and Rwanda found they led to significant changes in gender-equitable attitudes and significant decreases in self-reported violence against female partners.

These examples from the region demonstrate that it is possible to engage men and boys in changing gender norms and effect significant attitudinal and behavioral shifts. Learning from each other, as happened on June 26, at the event in Brasilia, is crucial to spreading good practice and finding solutions that work.


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