Fighting gender stereotypes at school
Mahathir also underlined that the issue of gender inequality in society will not change if education in schools itself does not change. And education in schools reflects the surrounding society. If school curricula are not gender-sensitive, and reiterate time and time again, the same gender stereotypes, then this is exactly what girls and boys will absorb. If books constantly say that a woman’s ‘proper’ role is in the kitchen, and that men are always leaders and superiors, then it is no wonder that girls hesitate to take more so-called masculine courses or more difficult ones in school.
We need gender equality, she said, because it makes sense to ensure that half of our populations are full participating citizens just like the other half, she said.
“There is a Chinese saying that women hold up half the sky. But when we look at the important roles that women play in our societies, I think it is more than half the sky that we hold. Without us, there would not be children and if there were, they would not be healthy. Our families would not eat if we did not ensure they had food every day. The experience of the global AIDS epidemic has shown that the biggest disaster to any family is the death of the mother, not the father. As long as the mother was alive, she would do her utmost to keep her family intact, and fed.”
According toMahathir, if girls and women are educated, when they become mothers, they will be better mothers and they will educate their children better. She insisted that this cannot be achieved without equalising the status of the genders, and that there is nothing to lose with gender equality. What, then, is our excuse for perpetuating this inequality? she asked.
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Education crucial for development
Achieving gender equality in education is crucial for a country’s development, said Ms Mahathir, whilst acknowledging that increasing numbers of women are being educated and working outside the home and participating in the daily life of their countries, including in politics.
“International studies have shown that a country with gender equity in education has better economic growth,” she said. “There is a multiplier effect and benefits across generations and communities if girls are educated”, especially in terms of health and safety for children.
If countries succeed only in increasing education at primary levels, then they are preparing their children to work only in certain low-paying jobs such as labourers and domestic workers, she said. If they increase enrolment and completion at secondary school level, then they may be churning out many factory workers and sales people, to manufacture goods for developed countries cheaply. While all levels of employees are needed, it is really tertiary-educated citizens who will truly be able to advance the country to a different level. Hence, while it is laudable that many countries are lowering their illiteracy rates, there must be a focus on keeping children in school as long as possible and supporting them to advance all the way up the education ladder.
Educated girls and boys
Mahathir went on to say: “The first step is to get girls into schools. This success, however, needs to be balanced; we need both educated girls AND boys in society to develop the country. Any imbalance, whether in favour of girls or boys is, to my mind, not healthy.”
The large numbers of girls in educational institutions does not translate automatically into a better life for girls and women if ingrained attitudes remain, she stressed. PEMANDU, the Malaysian government agency tasked with dealing with economic transformation, found that a full 40 per cent of female graduates do not even enter the workforce once they leave university. Of the rest, 25 per cent quit after three years in employment. For a country to develop, about 70 per cent of its women must be in paid work, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), so these numbers are worrying, she said.
“We can surmise that the reason for this phenomenon is that gender stereotypes have not changed,” Mahathir said. “Despite their degrees, female graduates often find that there are fewer jobs for them. In part, gender stereotyping has meant that their choices of courses tend to be limited to the arts, which often does not coincide with what is needed in the job market. Even if they choose the sciences, they tend to choose professions that are considered more ‘suitable’ for women.”
She also noted that women face the same problem they have faced from the moment women began working outside the home: they have two jobs, one outside and one inside the home. “For many women, without support, this is just too difficult. In a country like Malaysia, where domestic help is expensive to come by and good crèches are rare, the pressure on women is hard. Thus it is no wonder that many companies complain that just when women hit their stride at work, they often drop out because it is then also the time when they marry and have children.”
The role of education in fostering equality and inequality
Ms Mahathir pointed out that part of the struggle to achieve gender equality within education consists of challenging gender stereotypes in the classroom and in teaching materials. She argued that there cannot be societal change if a gender-sensitive approach is not at the heart of curricula and wider educational system reforms.
“As far as gender relations go, inequalities in education both reflect and further breed inequalities in society, especially between men and women,” Mahathir insisted. “Neglecting girls’ education means that they will remain ignorant and therefore vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Their lack of knowledge makes them powerless against those better educated and open to abuse that sometimes leads to ill health and even death.”
She gave the example of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was given away to another family as recompense for some wrongdoing of her brother’s and was raped and beaten. Although she was illiterate, her survival depended on her own determination to seek justice. Mukhtar herself identified her lack of education as the source of her troubles and, with the money she obtained from various sympathisers after her successful court case was publicised, she opened a school where she herself is studying.