Sri Lanka has in some circles been considered a model of post-colonial gender equality compared to its South Asian counterparts due to high literacy rates for men and women, 97.7 and 98.6 respectively, universal franchise for both sexes as early as 1931, and two female state leaders. Sri Lanka’s long history of free and compulsory education for boys and girls which was achieved shortly after independence, and girls’ equal access to education and gender parity in all three levels (primary, secondary, and tertiary) of education has been an important contributing factor to this idea of gender equality.
Yet women still continue to grapple with the same old questions of gender inequality in Sri Lanka. In addition to experiencing high levels of gender based violence, women’s labour force participation is half that of men and double their unemployment rates. In 2013 only 35 percent of the working population were women. Women continue to be under represented in upper level management and decision making positions in both the private and public sector. Equal participation, retention, and performance by girls in education has not led to equal representation of women within decision making. A glass ceiling continues to keep women out of governance. Currently there is only a five percent representation of women in parliament and two percent in local government. Which begs the question, what is going on here, why haven’t gains in education translated to economically independent and empowered women in Sri Lanka?
Education is often championed for its transformative possibilities related to liberation, empowerment, social justice, individual freedoms, human rights, and the reduction of social inequities such as gender inequality. From this perspective, education is regarded as a means that will enable learners to think critically and have the ability to challenge the status quo. Schools are sites for the construction of girls’ and women’s identities and should ideally contribute to their active role in society. Generally, however, education systems reflect and help to reinforce the prevailing power arrangements of the state and society. Many education reforms focus more on utilitarian goals, such as the transmission of knowledge and skills, to help learners become contributing members of the existing and often hegemonic, political, economic, and social order. This has been the case in Sri Lanka, where utilitarian goals have side-lined the agenda of promoting values of gender equality. Rather than challenging gender norms and stereotypes, education has played a significant role in perpetuating them.
Sri Lankan classrooms are often embedded with gender boundaries that reproduce powerful patriarchal hierarchies. Interviews with civics teachers, analysis of the civics curriculum, discussion with students and classroom observations show that there exist two key challenges to promoting gender equality in Sri Lanka through education. These include strong gender biases and ideologies held by teachers and a curriculum particularly social studies and civics curricula and a school system that emphasizes the protection of culture and tradition at all cost. These factors work in tandem to maintain the status quo when it comes to challenging traditional gender norms.
Teachers generally hold strong gender biases based on their own upbringing and ideologies. Though they agree that gender equality is important, many teachers believe that because girls are doing so well in schools there is in fact no gender inequality in schools or Sri Lanka for that matter. This may be true on the surface level with respect to the classroom, where girls are on equal footing with the boys in classroom discussion and marks. The differences are apparent in the subtle hidden curriculum of the day-to-day practices of teachers and students. Whether it is the way teachers only call upon female students to sweep classrooms or ask only the male students to move desks, gender roles and responsibilities are assigned in the day to day life of the school through teacher-student and student-student interactions.
Some teachers took the “I don’t differentiate between girls and boys” stance, not understanding the need to move beyond the equal treatment of boys and girls to the equitable treatment of them. The characteristics attributed to boys and girls respectively also impacted their engagement in learning. For example, many teachers and students felt that girls were better in the social science subjects because they were patient and good at memorizing information. Boys were perceived to be adventurous, problem solvers who could think outside of the box and therefore are more suited to science and technology subjects. One can only imagine the detrimental effects these fixed expectations have on girls AND boys.
The gendered expectations of teachers are reflected in the students’ civics textbooks that promote gendered forms of citizenship, which is further protected with the seal of tradition, and culture, thus creating a rift in the way boys and girls are able to engage in society. The mandatory civics curriculum from grades 6-9 continues to depict men and women and girls and boys in outdated traditional gender roles, despite mandates by the Ministry of Education to avoid gender biases in textbooks. Much of the text feature male role models and historical figures. In rare instances there are images of girls in leadership roles; however, these instances are relegated to the school. Images related to men and women’s roles in society, such as work, or family conform to traditional fixed gender roles, thus reinforcing the status quo that although women have full access to education they should still maintain their traditional roles in society in and outside of the home.
The disparity in gender roles is further reinforced with an emphasis on the theme of the protection of traditions, cultures, and customs. In all of the textbooks examined, there was a strong and repeated emphasis on the need to follow traditions. For example, the grade nine civics textbook states, “Social Security is ensured by virtue of the individual upholding the customs and manners, social values, rules and regulations as well as traditions that prevail in society” and the grade seven texts states, “You should be well aware of the traditions followed by members of the family. You should vehemently follow and practise these traditions”. The depiction of women and men in traditional gender roles alongside the emphasis on the need to follow tradition to uphold society leaves very little space for teachers or students to challenge the status quo. Interlinked with tradition is the family, a space that is exulted as sacred and foundational to the core of society. The civics textbook creates a direct link between the family unit and the nation as a whole throughout all of the grades. One should be obedient to the leaders of the nation just as one is obedient to the head of the household i.e. the father. Thus the curriculum and classroom are essentially grooming girls to become good (well educated) mothers and wives and boys into providers and leaders in society.
Students and teachers, particularly in war affected communities, echoed the text books’ emphasis on holding on to tradition, culture, and family values. This is in response to the destabilization of the traditional family unit as a result of three decades of war and the rapid influence of globalization. War affected communities had been sheltered from mass media and globalization for close to 30 years and are now dealing with the consequences of open access to everything from Facebook to pornography. Many teachers and students’ response to this is to fall back to traditional values and norms. Some teachers and students felt that the influence of social media on the way women dressed was leading to the increase in gender violence against women. The example provided was the predominance of young women wearing leggings rather than traditional clothing. There is a growing belief that the shift away from tradition puts women at risk of violence and that it is in some ways warranted because women had strayed from the model of the traditional good women. This creates a dangerous space for women and girls who may challenge the status quo.
Even though education in post-war Sri Lanka is contributing to reinforcing gender norms rather than challenging them, currently there is a significant gap in knowledge and understanding of the link between education and subtle day to day practices that devalue women and girls. A fixation with equal access has led to a dangerous complacency that facilitates and normalizes inequity. Officials and policy makers often fail to consider that the content of education perpetuates negative norms and stereotypes. Challenging these deeply entrenched practices will require the explicit integration of gender equality training for all those involved in the education system from policy makers to teachers. But before that policy makers at the highest level need to confront their own ideologies and have an open and honest conversations on how long we are going to continue to hide behind gender parity, tradition, and the traditional family unit to allow gender inequality to persist in Sri Lanka.