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Transforming education: feminism and gender equality

By Leonardo Garnier, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General Transforming Education Summit  

04 Oct 2022

Education has a double and somewhat contradictory role: it has to reproduce culture and it has to change culture. It has to change with culture; and it has to further promote that changing culture.  

But what do we mean by “change”? Change in what direction?

Education should help students to learn to live and to learn to live together.  But this is not a simple matter, though we usually underestimate how complex and difficult it is.

Living together is about cooperation – and it is also about competition. In his classic book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith developed his well-known argument about the importance of competition in order to better cooperate among ourselves, in order to better produce goods and services for other, as they produce for us.  

But it was the same Adam Smith, in his other great book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, who warned us about the risks of unfettered competition. Unfettered, competition alone can be dangerous for our capacity to live together well. We need sympathy, he said – what we now call empathy. We need to care for each other, to rejoice with them, to suffer with them, to respect them, to admire what is admirable and, also, we have to be careful with the false symbols of prestige.  

Living together is about affection – and also about disaffection. And we have to learn how to love, how to care, how to be careful. And careful we must be, because in the same way that we can make others happy and be made happy by others – a simple smile, a caress, a kiss, are good examples – we can also hurt and be hurt, badly hurt, even killed.

Leonardo Garnier speaking at the closing of the Global Feminist Coalition in New York.

And this is so because living together is not only about sharing, respecting, and caring, but it is also about ranking, about wealth, and about power. Living together can be wonderful but, as history and life show us, it can also be ugly.  

Education cannot eliminate these dilemmas, but it can help us better navigate through them, it can help us understand them, it can help us identify the dangers – the symptoms, the red-flags – and it can help us to learn how to live better together, how to love better, how to care better, how to please better – how to give and receive pleasure better – and how to stand up against our ugly side: how to stop humiliation, domination, commodification, dehumanization, aggression.  

Since time immemorial and throughout very different kind of societies, men have attempted to excel and dominate over others. And I say men because this tendency to rank and to control and to exert power over others has been a particularly manly thing; in the same way that caring – and the responsibility for caring – has been a particularly feminine thing: both a joy and a burden. Power has been mainly a man’s world – and even more a white man’s world, I should add. A masculine world. A patriarchal world. Through millennia, women were sometimes assimilated to property – the property of men – and sometimes assimilated to children – immature, and also the property of men.  

As a result, our culture evolved with this peculiar division of labor, but also of wealth, of power and – of course – of rights. Patriarchy is so engrained in our culture, so hardwired in our brains that when we attempt even the slightest transformation of education in order to redress the imbalance in these rights, to recover the importance of caring for both women and men, and to reclaim the rights of women, it sounds revolutionary. And it scares some people.  

It is true: it is revolutionary. I have no doubt that when the history of our times is written, it will clearly assert that feminism has been the most important political and cultural transformation of this and the last century.  

By questioning power relationships at all levels – from the home to the homeland – feminism has made us realize how absurd the old ways were, even as they seemed – and still seem – so normal.  

And that is the problem: they still seem normal or, as some would say, it’s “tradition”.  

And we, men, do not notice, we do not realize, we do not perceive what women feel every day, at every instant, whether at home or walking in the street, whether in school, at the factory or at the office, in the arts, and even at universities. They know: it’s a men’s world. 

When we excel, we think we earned it. To excel, women must be twice as good and work twice as hard.  

We walk carefree through the streets; women walk always with fear.  

Most teachers are women; most principals are men. 

The list is endless. But we don’t even notice.  

That is why education is so important. If culture is slowly changing, education must include and further promote this change. Education has to be transformative. From the earliest stages, children should learn to see each other as equal in their diversity. Because yes, of course, we are different and, yet we are equal in rights.  

Feminism, furthermore, opened the path for furthering this deconstruction of patriarchy, as we started to understand that sex and gender were not as normally binary as we thought. So yes, we are now learning to perceive how diverse we are and, precisely because of that, how much we have in common – and how we all deserve the same rights.  

To be truly and fully human, education must include sexual and gender transformative elements, so that – as I said above – we really learn how to care and how to love in the so many ways we humans are capable of caring and loving. And also – this is critical – so that we all learn that it is our duty to stand up when any person, anywhere in the world, is being humiliated, excluded, discriminated against, or hurt in anyway because someone sees them as “different” of inferior. Much less when we are dealing with sexual and affective relations, that should be cause for joy, not for hurting each other.   

Let me end with an anecdote. When we were creating the sex and affectivity programs for Costa Rica – about ten years ago – the team that was working on the program came to my office. They were mostly women, professional women, but they were worried by my insistence on including “pleasure” as a key topic in the program. They feared that this would upset conservative sectors and the Church and that, in turn, this could endanger our whole effort at introducing sex education in the curricula. They suggested we better settled for a more inoffensive word, substituting “wellbeing” instead of “pleasure”.

I was amused, and I asked them the following question: “Tell me, if you go for a weekend to the beach with your spouse or your romantic partner, and you have a really good time sexually speaking, when you are on the way back home, would you tell him “Thanks love, you gave me so much wellbeing…?”

They laughed. They understood. Pleasure remained in the program.

Let’s tell it like it is. Pleasure is pleasure. Power is power. And rights, are rights.

Thank you.