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School program in India nips gender-based violence in the bud

GEMS students in Jharkhand, India. (Credit: ICRW)

What can a game of Snakes and Ladders teach a child about violence? It turns out a lot. A recent study shows that a new gender equity program in Indian schools can transform not only how students respond to gender discrimination and violence, but how their teachers, parents and communities do as well.

A government study in 2007 found that two out of three children in India are physically abused. But over the last two years, nearly 4,000 students, ages 12 to 14, in 40 schools in Jharkhand, India, have participated in the Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GEMS) program. Last month, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), which helped implement GEMS, published an evaluation of the program’s success.

Researchers found that the percentage of students in GEMS schools who strongly believe in gender equality increased 12 points (from 2 percent to 14 percent) after two years – double that of students in non-GEMS schools, which increased from 1 percent to 7 percent.

The percentage of students who disapproved of peer-based violence also increased from 40 percent to 67 percent after two years in GEMS, 15 percent more than non-GEMS students, after adjusting for other factors including sex, caste, religion, parents’ education and more.

Students’ responses to witnessing violence also changed. Compared to non-GEMS schools, 11 percent more boys in GEMS schools now intervene in physical violence positively, by reasoning with the perpetrator or reporting to a teacher or principal.

Use of violence to stop emotional violence dropped 15 points lower among boys in GEMS schools than comparison schools, and the decrease in girls who watched, enjoyed or joined in acts of sexual harassment fell 21 points more than in non-GEMS schools.

“The GEMS evaluation confirms that students as young as 12 have already formed regressive notions regarding gender,” Nandita Bhatla, lead researcher on the report and senior technical specialist in ICRW’s Asia regional office in New Delhi, said in a press release. “But GEMS shows that the reflection and discussion can reverse these attitudes and create change toward questioning violence and inequality.”

According to Bhatla, when GEMS was conceived, around 2007, adolescent programs focused on life skills for students in ninth grade and above. Gender was only introduced as a chapter or module isolated from discussions on reproductive health, self-esteem, nutrition and other life choices. Rarely, if ever, did it consider gender power relations and violence, and most of the curricula only addressed girls, despite evidence showing the importance intervening harmful notions and behavior in boys.

“We know that the roots of gender inequality are sown early through socialization, and yet few institutional responses were questioning these fundamental notions,” Bhatla said in an email to Humanosphere. “We believed that an understanding of the fundamental constructs of gender and equality, prior to learning life skills, and at younger ages, would create reflective individuals who would then imbibe any other knowledge through a gender lens, and recognize and challenge inequality wherever they see it.”

To do so, GEMS uses various interactive methods including role playing, debates and games, such as a life-size board games.

“I really like playing the Snakes and Ladders game,” one boy said in the GEMS promotional video. “Like, in box No. 3, there is a message that says that you should not perpetrate violence. If you haven’t been abusive then you climb up the ladder. Then, when the snake bites you, because you have been abusive or violent, you climb down. This means that if you do not perpetrate violence, then you’ll rise, but if you keep using violence, then you can never move forward.”

Students also noted that attitudes toward gender and violence reverberated throughout the school, especially among younger children who mimicked the behavior of the older students. But the ripple-effect did not end there.

Teachers participated in GEMS training workshops, and many of them noted how implementing the curriculum has made them rethink assigning roles based on gender, abusive terms, gender-segregated seating and even their response to conflicts in the home. After GEMS, more students also reported they had teachers to depend on if they faced violence.

However, “any effort to challenge inequitable gender norms will face resistance from different groups of people, including teachers, parents and other institutions,” Bhatla told Humanosphere.

Parents, in particular, have expressed resistance throughout the two-year journey, from the “questionable content” in the baseline surveys, to their children participating in the GEMS sessions, to how outspoken their children become about gender-based discrimination and behavior in the home.

To address that challenge, GEMS proactively invites the parents to school campaigns and reaches out the community. Students also take home a GEMS Diary – an activity workbook for them to complete with their parents and siblings.

“However, the next phase of GEMS is looking to strengthen community engagement such that it creates an enabling environment for students and key adults in their life to practice and sustain changed attitude and behavior,” Bhatla said.

GEMS began as a pilot program in Mumbai in 2008. Now, it’s in five states in India, including Jharkhand, as well as Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

“As GEMS material is open source, it’s difficult for ICRW to ascertain who else is using it,” Bhatla said, “though we are pleasantly surprised by its relevance and appeal in different contexts.”


About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email