By Mesa Goebel (HCA Volunteer – Summer 2018)
El Porvenir, Honduras is a beautiful town, rich with friendly neighbors, churches, schools, pulperias, mountains, and pineapple fields. However, El P also faces multi-faceted problems that are not easily fixed. Food insecurity, unemployment, academic unpreparedness, abuse…these issues all perpetuate in the area. The Honduras Child Alliance aims to support families in El P as they work towards a better future for themselves. Specifically, the HCA tackles social issues such as academic unpreparedness, language-learning, and food insecurity. This support comes in the form of educational enrichment and healthy living programs for kindergarteners through adults. I found one of HCA’s most important impacts on the community is the fact that their classes provide a safe environment for kids to play and just be kids. These safe environments could be essential in removing kids from gang environments and as a shelter from unsafe or insecure home situations.
Although these programs strengthen the community, sexism remains as a roadblock to educational advancement for both girls and boys. As I am passionate about gender issues, I decided to focus on the ways in which gender constructs affect kids’ learning, and whether it may be holding them back, especially young girls. To investigate the complexities of machismo within education and Honduran society, I prepared questionnaires and interviews. I also drew on my own experiences, what I witnessed in classes, and several academic articles about secondary education in Honduras. I found many themes and patterns among my research and experience.
Classroom Expectations and Behavior
One of the most uplifting outcomes of my research is that the majority of kids in HCA’s programs believe in the equality of girls and boys on a surface level. An essential part of PEP+ (Porvenir English Program ‘plus’), is the discipline system. Every day in our PEP+ classes, we go over the rules of class and unacceptable behaviors. The three unacceptable behaviors are sexism, sexual behavior, and racism. If a child portrays one of these three, they must leave the classroom and come back to class another day, hopefully when they are prepared to behave kindly. For the gender focus of this Capstone, I’ll focus on sexual behavior and sexism. The usual process for going over these complex, challenging, and wide-spread issues is by asking kids to name them and explain what they look like in practice. The PEP+ program includes children ages six through 12, so we try to provide simple, easy to understand examples of sexism, racism, or sexual behavior in action. A usual example of sexist behavior we discuss is the perception that certain activities, or even colors, are designated for a certain gender. For example, boys play soccer and girls play with dolls, never the other way around, and the girls’ color is pink whereas boys’ is blue. Volunteers also offer up the phrase, “Niños y niñas, mujeres y hombres, son iguales” AKA “Boys and girls, women and men, are equal.”
In my time in El Porvenir, the explanation of sexism was met with a variety of reactions. My very first class, it was met with giggles and a boy next to me even responded “No” to the assertion that girls and boys are equal. Intrigued, I asked him why he responded negatively, but he had no answer for me, just a shrug. Neither of these reactions were uncommon in classes. Consistently, the children who responded poorly to sexism were boys, and I continued to ask them for an explanation to no avail. From my perspective, the boys’ words came from a gut reaction, caused by a culture of machismo. It was instinctive for them to reject equality because many of them see sexism everywhere, whether in the home, their friend groups, or the media. As younger boys, however, they have not yet learned to identify sexism and its detrimental effects. I believe HCA is setting a good foundation for these boys, as well as girls, as they learn to identify sexist behavior. However, if the things they are learning are not being reinforced in their home or in school, it is considerably more challenging for their understanding to evolve and become inclusive of girls and women. A study of the Garifuna people, descendants of African slaves that settled in coastal Honduras, revealed similar results. From “Opening the black box: women’s empowerment and innovative secondary education in Honduras,” the author interviewed women and men about gender roles and machismo, revealing that “…educational systems reflect prevailing social attitudes and prejudices and can serve to reproduce rather than challenge the social status quo” (p. 33). HCA sets a good foundation for equalizing the genders, but the “social status quo,” sadly, does not disappear when children enter the classroom.
Another crucial part of fighting sexism in classes is identifying sexual behavior. The consistent explanation volunteers give for sexual behavior is no touching others without permission or saying sexual comments. This behavior is usually better-received than sexism. However, when asked to explain what inappropriate sexual behavior looks like, they normally remember not touching others without permission, but forget the section about no sexual comments. This leads me to believe that they tend to associate sexual behavior with actions, not words. There is a reckoning occurring all over the world of inappropriate behavior, especially with the ‘Me Too’ movement and cracking down on workplace harassment, which, of course, includes verbal harassment. The children’s unfamiliarity with the unacceptableness of sexual comments reminded me that much of the world still accepts sexually charged comments as normal, especially when verbalized by men.
In addition to sexism and sexual behavior, children in the PEP+ classes showed subtle expressions of gender bias. Often after doing a material-intensive and messy activity, the boys would run off to the next activity while the girls were left cleaning and organizing. Volunteers did a good job of addressing this issue, but it hints at the messages about women and men that children experience every day: that women clean and do other work whilst men are exempt and may play. Also, girls were sometimes hesitant to participate in physical activity because they believed those games were for the boys. Throughout the summer, however, I noticed that consistent encouragement and enforcement of class rules helped change these behaviors and promoted progress in the children that I observed. By the time I left Honduras, I witnessed girls that were before hesitant to try activities pushing themselves right alongside the boys as well as boys who previously expressed distaste about working with girls playing together harmoniously.
Gender Bias Questionnaires
The themes of sexism I witnessed in classes contradicted as well as coincided with the results of the questionnaires I gave to PEP students. I constructed the questionnaire based on the behaviors I saw and my curiosities about the values behind them. The statements in the questionnaire address gender roles and equal capacity between men and women. I wrote the questions in English, then got the help of a native speaker to translate them into Spanish. When asked to give their opinion on a scale from completely disagree (1) to completely agree (5), I found that kids tended to prefer an extreme edge of the spectrum, as they most often answered with a one or five.
It is important to mention that there are some flaws and caveats within these questionnaires. As Spanish is not my native language, I cannot claim that I explained the statements about gender with full clarity. There are complexities within translation and cross-culture communication that I, even if I were a fluent speaker, would never understand. The young nature of the students also brings up several issues. First being that questions about gender require a maturity of thinking and self-reflectiveness that not all young students possess. In addition, I cannot guarantee that students answered honestly, as some students likely answered the way they were taught through HCA’s behavioral rules. However, my interactions with students lead me to believe that the majority of participants thought deeply about the questions, answered honestly, and even enjoyed being asked their opinion, (an activity that educational systems don’t often offer to young students).
I gave the questionnaires to a total of thirty students, fifteen girls and fifteen boys, aged between nine and 12 years old. For the first statement, “It is equally important for both boys and girls to receive and education,” 100% of girls and 66% of boys answered a five, or completely in agreement. Outright, the machismo present in Honduran society may cause young boys to believe their education is more important. As I examined the questionnaires, however, girls were not unaffected, and they also occasionally fell into gender roles. When asked whether their education is important to them, all 15 boys responded in complete agreement, while 13 out of 15 girls responded in complete agreement, but 2 responded in complete disagreement. As I wondered why these girls responded this way, I found a possible answer later in the questionnaire. The sixth statement in the questionnaire reads “Women should remain at home and raise children.” 25 out of the 30 children interviewed answered that they completely agreed, whereas only five said that they did not, three boys and two girls. This suggested to me that the boys and girls whom I interviewed tended to see women’s role as in the home, therefore making their education less significant than boys’.
When it came to girls’ and boys’ capacity, 22 students answered that girls and boys are equally intelligent. Seven boys and one girl responded that boys are smarter. To me, this indicates that most students respect the other gender’s intelligence and would not say outright that they believe boys have a higher capacity for learning over girls. So, although sexism regularly occurred in the classroom, for most students it was not intentional, but a subconscious assumption from the sexist environment in which we all live, to a lesser or greater extent.
The last questions I covered in the questionnaire refer to gendered treatment in school. The last two statements are “Boys and girls receive the same treatment in school” and “Boys and girls should receive the same treatment in school.” 10 students, seven girls and three boys, responded that girls and boys are not treated the same in school, and six students, three girls and three boys, said that they should not be treated equally. Due to the sensitivity of this topic, I did not question them further about treatment in school. Whatever the situation in school classrooms, I found myself grateful that HCA programs are based on the premise of equality between the sexes. Although I did not delve further into this issue to ask how boys and girls are treated differently in school, I found some answers to this query while interviewing high school and college-aged Hondurans.
I saw a similar pattern in my interviews with teenagers and college students; a warming to the idea of equity, yet unsure of how sexism plays out in real life and how to dismantle it. I interviewed four students, two men and two women. The two men were in university and the women attend the local colegio, or high school. I asked them questions about gendered bias in education or sexism in their life in general.
The interviews with the two male students revealed that they see sexism at their university, although it is manifested in subtle ways. The biggest theme from these two students was that their peers tended to designate certain activities or majors to women, and alternate ones to men. For example, one college student spoke of facing ridicule for pursuing a major in tourism, which is considered a “girls’ major” by other students. Similarly, they witnessed women heckled for playing sports, especially fútbol, which some male students said should be played exclusively by men. One male student’s experience is particularly unique because he identifies as homosexual. He mentioned that he sees patterns with the biases he faces, and the struggles women have. One of the most impactful gendered behavior he mentioned was that people at university tend to gossip about women a great deal, more so than men, and this can hurt women’s social standing, as well as distract from their education.
The female students I interviewed mentioned similar themes as their male counterparts, but their perception of gender bias was far greater. According to their experiences, women are discouraged from sports, and math and science fields, mostly by other students, but occasionally by teachers with gendered conceptions of their students. These women, however, spoke of gender bias as a challenge to be overcome, rather than an insurmountable obstacle. One student in particular mentioned that machismo has encouraged her to push herself in her studies, to truly value her education and use it to empower herself. She also said, however, that she didn’t believe her high school is preparing her properly. Like most students, she feels anxiety towards higher education, which will be a new challenge.
This disconnect between gender equity and the biases that students face in school, the media, and at home, is a large and complex issue. Hondurans, and the whole world, need to explore what gender equality in education looks like as gender equity becomes a norm rather than isolated movements. As we study gender equity, however, it is essential that we do not get caught up in our own isolated perspectives. Through the EdGE curriculum, I learned the importance of “confronting your context”, or understanding how your experiences, race, gender, culture, etc. shape the way you view the world. We can always work to gain a greater understanding of others, but I hope to never project my perception of gender inequity on others. I am so grateful to Omprakash and how this program has inspired me to look outside of myself, hear others’ stories, and learn about the world as a whole.