Central American teachers tackle “machismo”

Guest Blogger: Nancy Knickerbocker, BCTF & Participant in CoDev Central America Education Delegation, April 2013

San Julian, EL SALVADOR—Using puppets they’ve made from paper bags, groups of Grade 5 students enact the daily drama of family members getting ready for their work in fields, kitchens and classrooms. Papa, Mama and children’s puppets chop wood, haul water, cook, eat breakfast, do dishes, help grandparents, pack up their school supplies and say farewell for the day.

Students made puppets to portray a typical day in family life, and then discussed whether division of labour within families was democratic and gender-equitable or not.

“What differences do you see between the two families?” asks teacher María Eugenia Morelos de Ária. The children pipe up eagerly. In one family the children help both parents, but in another the father gives orders while the mother and daughters do the chores, and the sons eat or play. “The Diaz family is not democratic,” the students agree.

As an activist within the Salvadoran teachers’ union ANDES, Morelos is one of the founders of a transformative new program in Non-Sexist and Inclusive Pedagogy supported by the BCTF and CoDevelopment Canada. “I believe we need change in our country,” she said. “We want a democratic El Salvador and as teachers we want to contribute. The only answer is to dare to try to make a difference.”

Ensuring equal rights to education for girls and boys, both rich and poor, is fundamental. Soon after the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front was elected in 2009, they passed a law to ensure that no child will ever again be denied access to education because their parents cannot afford pencils or paper, uniforms or shoes. All school supplies now are provided by the state.

Teresa Pérez Nolasco says the ANDES Women’s Secretariat are challenging the sexist content in text books and are creating a new gender-equitable, values-based history of El Salvador, one which does not shy away from the painful period of the 1979-1992 civil war and women’s central role in the struggle to end long years of dictatorship.

When teenagers get pregnant, who gets to stay in school? This student said that debating from Maria’s point of view really made him think.

“No one really wants us to talk about sexism but it’s everywhere— in the streets, in our homes, in our classrooms, in our unions. It has to be a permanent topic of conversation,” Pérez said, adding that the schools chosen for the Non-Sexist and Inclusive Pedagogy program are all located in areas with a high incidence of violence against women.

The teachers hope that small changes at school will pave the way for bigger changes in society. Now, rather than seating girls on one side and boys on the other side of the classroom, they have both genders work together in small groups. Instead of allowing the boys out on the playground while the girls do dishes after snack time and sweep the classroom at the end of the day, now all students take turns at these tasks.

Teacher: “What would happen if your papa found a condom in your school bag?”
Boy: “He’d praise me for being well prepared.”
Girl: “He’d kill me!”

In a culture steeped in machismo, these changes have sparked a backlash. Most of Morelos’ students are from campesino families, re-settled in San Julian after their homes were devastated by the 2001 earthquake. Few have had much education, and most adhere to strict gender roles.

“You are going to make my son sweep the classroom? It would be better that I come and do it for him because my son is NOT a girl!” one mother told the teacher.

A girl asked: “Teacher, how can I tell my papa to clear his plate from the table? If I do, he’ll hit me!”

A boy told her: “If I help my mama do the dishes, my father will say I’m gay.”

Morelos emphasizes that greater equity benefits both genders. “For years and years we’ve been putting boys and girls into boxes. Now we teach them they can be part of a big change,” she said. “We explain the project and we involve them in the methodology. Sometimes they help me teach the parents.”

Graduation day: pride in professional development

Despite parental resistance, the Ministry of Education has officially recognized the ANDES Non-Sexist Pedagogy program and granted a diploma for teachers who completed the 118 hours of course work and practicum.

ANDES General Secretary Israel Montano noted that in all its 46 years of existence ANDES and the Ministry of Education had never reached agreement on anything. During the war, they were sworn enemies. But democracy and human rights have come to El Salvador, and now it’s time for fundamental change.

“It costs us to admit that we are machistas,” Montano said, “but it will mean a huge leap forward in terms of the quality of education in El Salvador. The theme of gender is going to be one of the fundamentals of the new curriculum.”

Francisca Melara, a Grade 4 teacher, was proud to share her achievement with her children Jefferson, 14, Ingrid, 11, and Kevin, 7. “It was difficult, but the Non-Sexist and Inclusive Pedagogy program is the best professional development I have ever experienced,” she said.

There were lots of smiles, and a few tears, as 92 teachers from throughout El Salvador crossed the stage at the Superior Teacher Training School to receive their diplomas.

BCTF President Susan Lambert praised the ANDES activists. “You have shown such courage and unflinching determination. I want to applaud you. This is true professional development, and it is so encouraging to see the Ministry of Education recognize and support this diploma program. It is through this vital work that teachers in El Salvador will help to build a better world.”

Honduran teachers advocate, even in perilous times

By contrast to the cooperative relations between ANDES and the Salvadoran government, BCTF’s union partners in Honduras operate in a dangerous political landscape. Teachers and others who oppose the policies of the de-facto government of Pepe Lobo have endured severe repression and rights abuses since the military coup of 2009. (See sidebar story.)

Nonetheless, they courageously continue their advocacy on behalf of their students and themselves. Women from COPEMH, the Middle School Teachers’ Union of Honduras, have been working with support from the BCTF and CoDevelopment Canada to develop a curricular module on Gender Equity and Human Sexuality. They have gone through an extensive process of consultation, training, and development of the module, which they aim to get incorporated into the national curriculum.

Daysi Márquez, a chemistry teacher and COPEMH activist, acknowledged the difficulties of trying to work with a government that is attacking teachers’ rights, jobs and lives. “We have to build strategic alliances in support of our children, no matter what else is going on,” she said. “We have to build our hopes for the children of this country to have a better future.”

On the same day as teachers were staging demonstrations and rotating strikes in eight of the 18 departments of Honduras, Márquez presented the draft module to Education Ministry officials in Tegucigalpa. Both unionists and bureaucrats agreed that with spiraling rates of sexually-transmitted diseases and pregnancy among girls as young as 12, adolescents need practical information to keep themselves safe and healthy.

“Beyond that, though, we want our girls to have a life plan, to dream of becoming somebody, not just a mother,” Márquez said.

Curriculum director Nellie Piñeda said: “I didn’t know you [the union] had this wonderful project reaching out to the most marginalized children. Approaching the ministry is the best thing you could do, bringing it through the process. I congratulate COPEMH, and the excellent work of your compañeras.”

The BCTF’s Lambert acknowledged that gender-equity work is critical, and not only in Latin American schools but in Canadian ones as well. “Systemic sexism cripples the life chances of more than 50% of the population,” she said. “Every teacher should take non-sexist pedagogy as a driving principle in their work.”

Elsa Villeda, the only woman on the executive committee of COPEMH, said the workshops had multi-dimensional impacts on the teachers. She asked, “What changes have you seen in yourself and your teaching as a result of the non-sexist pedagogy training?” Here are some of their comments:

There was opposition at home from my husband, but now I’m a new person. I don’t have the fears I used to feel.

I feel stronger as a mother and more confident as a teacher. It’s given me a whole new set of teaching tools to erase and unlearn mistaken concepts about sexuality and gender.

My classes are more dynamic, more participatory, more open to the opinions of others.

I can talk about sexual themes in class without fear or embarrassment. I learned to respect gay and lesbian people for who they are.

It’s been a very profound experience in my life. I’ve learned to be more courageous.

“COPEMH women are moving forward,” Villeda said. “Without doubt there will be many obstacles ahead, but our collaboration and sharing strengthen us. As a team of women, we are ready to contribute to our union.”

“And to lead it!” Márquez chimed in, to hearty laughter all around.

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