Teaching gender equality to the youngest learners
In focus: Girls' education and gender equality
A new toolkit developed by VVOB and FAWE on gender-responsive pedagogy for early childhood education is a promising resource to support early education practitioners in their daily practice.
March 14, 2019 by Sven Rooms, VVOB Education for Development and Martha Muhwezi, FAWE Regional Secretariat|
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Children at Mkunazini primary school in Zanzibar, Tanzania.
CREDIT: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

In recent years, both early childhood education (ECE) and gender equality have been climbing the priority list of global education. Not surprisingly, both themes are also prominently featured on the list of focus areas of the Global Partnership for Education but also in strategically important regional frameworks like the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25).

The intensified attention for these areas has delivered some of the hoped-for results: the number of children enrolled in ECE has increased in all regions of the world and never before have so many girls attended school.

What is remarkable however, is that until now not much has happened on the crossroads of both. With a toolkit on gender-responsive pedagogy for early childhood education (GRP4ECE toolkit), international organizations VVOB – education for development and the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) have filled a void. The timely relevance of this resource is illustrated by the fact that the toolkit has been endorsed by the African Union and the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (UNESCO IICBA).

Putting early childhood education to gender equality’s use

Research shows that the concept of gender in children forms between the ages of three and seven. During this early phase, children form an understanding of gender norms, identities and stereotypes. By this age they also acquire strong gender biases, such as which jobs men and women should fulfill.

Also, by this time girls have often already been negatively affected by gendered interactions and boys’ masculine conduct in schools. Altogether, this has a huge impact on children’s future lives.

Rigid understandings of gender norms and identities and stereotypes seriously limit young children’s freedom to develop to their full potential according to their unique and valuable talents and interests, irrespective of their sex.

Seeing the growing importance of early childhood education in many countries, VVOB and FAWE see great potential in harvesting the impact of early childhood education on children for the benefit of gender equality; not just by ensuring that girls enroll in preschool education to jumpstart their education, but also by focusing on how preschools and early learning centers can challenge limiting gender stereotypes, norms and identities that will have a lasting effect on children’s lives.

How learning environments perpetuate norms and stereotypes

Similar to other regions in the world, enrollment in early childhood education in Africa is on the rise. This aggravates some persisting challenges, such as the large number of unqualified preschool teachers or teachers that have not been trained to teach at the preschool level; curricula and pedagogies that are not adaptable to the various developmental stages of children; and a lack of play-based pedagogies. In addition, a large majority of teaching staff is female.

Similar to what research has found to be true in countries in the global North, teachers are known to be unconscious validators of harmful gender norms and stereotypes. Girls, for example, are more often praised by teachers for their clothing, appearance and caring behaviors. Boys, on the contrary, are complimented for their physical strength, given more complex tasks in class, given more attention and experience more space to express themselves than girls.

Research from Kenya reveals that preschool teachers influence children to select and use gender-appropriate play materials, rather than stimulating cross-gender or gender neutral play-materials.

Gender norms and stereotypes are not limited to the classroom. They invade young children’s lives in many ways: through media, advertisements, toys and learning materials. They are passed on to them by their parents, their peers or from what they see in their communities and through social norms.

When teachers become aware of their own gender biases, they can also become proactive agents of change and challenge the gender norms and stereotypes that affect their learners outside of the classroom, building agency of children from the early years.

How teachers can challenge and prevent gender stereotypes

Convinced of the powerful effect on gender of quality teaching in early childhood education, VVOB and FAWE joined forces with ministries of education, teachers and teacher trainers in Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia to develop a ‘gender-responsive pedagogy for early childhood education’ toolkit (GRP4ECE).

Gender-Responsive Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education

The toolkit provides early childhood teachers and school leaders with a set of practical and low-cost instruments that they can use to reflect on their own gender biases as well as hands-on tips to introduce gender-responsive pedagogy in their schools and classrooms.

The toolkit is built up of 4 separate booklets:

  1. background on gender-responsive pedagogy,
  2. a booklet for teachers,
  3. a booklet for school leaders
  4. concrete activities to engage young learners on gender.

The toolkit also contains a game which can be played by teachers and school leaders to collaboratively reflect on how to introduce gender-responsive pedagogies in their schools and classrooms.  

Trials in Zambia and South Africa showed the toolkit’s potential in supporting early education practitioners in their daily practice. Or as one South African participant formulated it: “We played the game in the toolkit with teachers, school leaders and parents. It was interesting to get different perspectives. We could immediately link it to our classroom activities. We have concrete ideas on how to do things differently now.”

Going forward, VVOB and FAWE will implement the toolkit alongside their education partners. Even though the toolkit is essentially a self-teaching resource, it will be used to improve pre- and in-service training for teachers, including support of the relevant directorates in the ministry of education, starting with Zambia and envisioning a further roll-out across the African continent.

The GRP4ECE toolkit is an open educational resource available through VVOB and FAWE websites. As its authors, we gladly welcome any other like-minded organizations to use the toolkit in their activities. We also welcome any feedback and questions about the toolkit and are open to discuss any research ideas and proposals to measure its effectiveness. Let’s harness the power of early childhood education for gender equity together!

About the Forum for African Women Educationalists

FAWE is a pan-African non-governmental organisation founded in 1992 by five women ministers of education to promote girls’ and women’s education in sub-Saharan Africa in line with ‘education for all’. The organisation's members include female ministers of education, university vice-chancellors, education policy-makers, researchers, gender specialists and human rights activists.

About VVOB – education for development

VVOB provides support to ministries of education in Africa, Asia and South America in the improvement of the quality of their educational systems. VVOB is co-funded by the Belgian and Flemish government, the European Commission and other international donors.

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Zambia

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