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Gender Equality: a core component of multilingual education

All children have the right to education and increase their potential by learning at school. The most marginalized children who don’t or can’t have equal access to education are mostly girls due to social norms and socio-economic barriers. In addition, an estimated 2.3 billion people, nearly 40 percent of the world’s population, lack access to education in their own language.

On the occasion of the 5th International Conference on Language and Education: Sustainable Development through Multilingual Education (19-21 October 2016, Bangkok), the East Asia and Pacific (EAP) UNGEI network facilitated a special session to explore the complex intersectionality of gender, early childhood education, and multilingual education (MLE). The session explored the role of gender roles, construction of gender norms and societal beliefs about gender, in Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE).

Three speakers, Camilla Woeldike, Carol Benson and Ella Yulaelawati, shared information concerning data and the barriers relating to gender and language in education. Information on methods and tools was also shared to demonstrate how it is possible to support the performance of children, parents and teachers.

Language plays a significant role in education and social cohesion. Dr. Carol Benson noted that the basis for learning should be the language(s) children understand and speak. Learning in our first language (mother tongue) can give a more in-depth understanding of concepts and terminologies in the language we have grown up with. Children can easily express themselves and their teachers can see what they have learned as well as diagnose difficulties on relevant issues. Examples from the field demonstrate how the self-confidence of children, especially girls and young women, was significantly increased when they were given the opportunity to learn and speak in their mother-tongue. This was partially due to the fact that the children were able to learn better and enhance their skills, but also because of increased empowerment from being accepted within the larger education system.

Gender and linguistic analyses are needed to better understand the difficulties and challenges that ethnolinguistic minority children are facing at school. If we conduct these gender analyses using quantitative and qualitative methods it would facilitate and help to explore and create appropriate programs and strategies on the key issues of gender, language and education.

Ms. Camilla Woeldike repeated during the panel the importance of ensuring gender analyses by looking beyond sex-disaggregated data, exploring other avenues for information and using qualitative methods to capture the complex challenges around language of instruction and mother tongue based education. Furthermore, the promotion of gender-sensitive curricula and materials further helps to bridge disparities and address barriers, (e.g. disabilities, minority status, school-related gender based violence, distance to schools, emergencies, etc.). She also shared a list of resources and tools that can help promote gender equality in education.

Ms. Ella Yulaelawati noted that opportunities for children have to start early and start at home. It is in the context of the family that children begin to know and understand their gender role. Gender roles are significantly influenced by social norms. The structure of the society and social norms are shared through verbalization in communities. Gender roles and expectations for each sex are built in and exchanged with others through language, both spoken and unspoken.

Such concepts and beliefs are passed on to the child as part of her/his engagement with the world. The early years of a child’s life represent a critical period for the acquisition of language, but they are also a critical period for gender socialization. It is therefore important to provide a gender-responsive environment, free of stereotypes and enhancing opportunities for both boys and girls, right from the start. For example, supporting parents and teachers to use gender sensitive language and giving equal chances for both girls and boys may be ways to foster gender responsive environments.

The EAP UNGEI network calls for a stronger focus on the relationship and impact of language and gender on children’s opportunities for quality learning, emphasising the importance of interventions starting from the early years (Early Childhood Development/pre-primary). UNGEI invites all partners to share findings and experiences on this issue to raise awareness and encourage a stronger gender-lens within approaches addressing MTB-MLE.

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