It’s never too early for gender equality

Katelin Raw - VVOB
22 December 2017
Flemish organization VVOB and African NGO FAWE are encouraging early childhood teachers in Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia to proactively engage all their learners – boys and girls – in their classes. The organizations are developing a toolkit to guide the teachers in this.

SDG 4 centres on quality and inclusive education, and highlights the importance of gender equality in the road to its achievement. Girls and young women indeed still encounter too many barriers in claiming their education, more so than boys. Many factors lie at the root of this challenge, but one important cause stems from many governments’ struggle to make schools “gender responsive” environments. Gender responsiveness means going further than being sensitive to the way boys and girls are treated (un)equally. It means proactive steps are taken to make sure girls achieve the same learning outcomes as boys.


Over the last few decades, many organizations and governments have made significant progress for girls in terms of access to education. And yet 131 million girls worldwide are still out of school. This is indeed a gender problem: girls are 1.5 times more likely than boys to be excluded from school. This keeps girls and young women small, because one additional school year can increase a woman's income by 10 to 20 per cent.

But it also keeps larger societies small: some countries lose out on more than 1 billion dollars a year by failing to invest in their girls’ education to the same level as their boys’ (Source data: GPE).

Safe and supported

As such, education plays a crucial role in the emancipation of millions of girls and their societies. And we need to keep up efforts for access to education. But we should be bolder, go further, and invest in more than access alone.

School environments need to be gender responsive, so the female learners that are able to make it through the school gates, do not drop out later on. Girls need to feel safe and supported when they are at school, both physically and mentally. If not, the efforts made to get them to school will be completely pointless.

Top view of children who are playing a game at the table.

Gender responsive

VVOB – education for development and the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) are developing a gender responsive toolkit for early childhood teachers in Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia in tandem with the ministries of Education of these countries. The toolkit will be used in the initial teacher education of student teachers and the professional development of inset teachers.

The goal of the toolkit, which is planned to be finalised mid-2018, is to encourage early childhood teachers to provide a gender-balanced environment in which their young learners can develop to their full potential. By more consciously developing gender equality in classrooms, gender stereotypes can be challenged before they become a set and unconscious way of thinking in children.

We need to give children every opportunity to discover their own talents and to shape their personality how they wish, to have an open mind, and to learn how to deal with diversity, without being constantly reminded about their sex.

Girls like pink

But are kids really that sensitive to gender stereotyping? Christin Ho from RoSa vzw, a Flemish gender expertise centre and partner organization of VVOB, lent her insights at a two-day workshop in Lusaka. She says children are definitely susceptible to stereotyping: ‘Children spend most of their time at school. From a very young age they learn to cope with insecurities, emotions, difficulties and others. We assume girls and boys enjoy equal opportunities, but in practice we see that our society is dominated by gender stereotypes that determine how kids ‘should’ behave at school. Frequently heard statements such as ‘girls like pink’, ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘girls play with dolls, boys with cars’ push young children in a certain direction. We need to give children every opportunity to discover their own talents and to shape their personality how they wish, to have an open mind, and to learn how to deal with diversity, without being constantly reminded about their sex.’

The early years of education, therefore, is a crucial time to develop a gender-sensitive view of the self and others in children. This creates a positive environment in which girls and boys make choices in later life that are in line with their real talents, personality and potential, and not necessarily with their sex.

A gender responsive toolkit for early childhood teachers


The toolkit is being developed by three working groups (in Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia) jointly led by VVOB and the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE):



VVOB – education for development is a Flemish NGO with 35 years of experience in sustainably improving education systems worldwide. Through trajectories of capacity development, we support the initial teacher education and professional development of teachers and school leaders in nine countries (including Belgium) in early childhood, primary, general secondary, and technical and vocational education. We can count on financial support from Flemish, Belgian, European and other international financial institutions.



The Forum for African Women Educationalists is a pan-African NGO working on the empowerment of girls and young women through gender-responsive education in 33 African countries. FAWE promotes gender equality in education with the development of positive policy, practices and attitudes towards education for girls.

How can you be gender responsive in the classroom?

Tips for early childhood teachers

Christin Ho: ‘You need to be aware of gender stereotypes and challenge them immediately. Teachers can ask themselves a series of questions: Are there as many female characters as there are male ones in the books that I read out? Do these characters break stubborn gender stereotypes? Are the play corners attractive for everyone, for girls and boys? Do I address my children with ‘boys’ and ‘girls’? Am I subconsciously guilty of using stereotypical statements such as ‘strong boys don’t cry’, ‘girls shouldn’t fight, they should be nice’? Do I make sure all my children can discover and develop their talents? Do I challenge my children when they say something stereotypical? But in the end, it all starts with one simple realization, the realization that things can be different.’

Gender Teaching
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