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STARTING EARLY

The world is yet to bridge its colour divides. Not just black and white and olive, but also pink and blue. The recently released Unesco report, 2007 Education for All, which throws light on the gender disparities in the classroom, makes one more sharply aware of this problem than ever before. Gender stereotypes, like racial prejudice, are imprinted on the human mind early in life. The report confirms, quite shockingly, the role that the school plays in the formation and reinforcement of rigid social perceptions. The school curriculum, different, and often separate, play-areas and toys meant for girls and boys, teachersí assumption of the inherent behavioural traits of the two sexes that get reflected in their expectations from pupils, are all factors which promote such stereotyping. Together with the conditioning at home and with childrenís exposure to a consumerist culture that capitalizes on biases, gender discrimination at school cannot be said to be working very favourably towards the creation of an ideal social environment.

There is no doubt that the school environment thus created is different for different countries, societies, and regions. In conservative sub-Saharan Africa or south and west Asia the shortage of female teachers alone stops girls from going to school. Here the issue of gender equality is complicated by more complex factors than the choice of toys. But the stereotyping of social roles, if promoted by schools, will undo the larger goals that society has set for itself. If girls continue to be perceived as weak, sweet, frightened and needy creatures whose primary duty is to grow up to bear children and look after the family, will there be any reason to question their dropping out of school to nurse the sick, get married or make way for a brother whose eventual role as provider demands that the family pays more attention to his education than his sisterís' The urban school nursery may not be such a brazenly unequal world, but there is enough indication that the girls there, made to believe that it is natural to play meekly with dolls, have grown up to wonder if it was right for them to have ambitions and desires.

Schools have to complement the social environs of a child to facilitate learning. But they also have to act as places where received knowledge will be assessed. A quality environment can be created only when the school authorities are made aware of how the gender-bias works, and what long-term effect it has on students in their development as individuals. Countries like Sweden have tried to deal with the problem head-on by trying to make sure that childrenís toys are not gender-specific. The problem cannot be solved without active cooperation from parents, whose preferences, imposed insidiously on children, often shape the latterís choices. But the classroom must also play its part.

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