Spectacles for gender, from childhood

Though the government’s will and many of the policies established are directed at trying to position a gender-related focus in the different spheres of Cuban society, a great deal of the population and among many key social actors there are still sexist representations regarding gender, which reproduce discriminatory, biased and not very healthy practices for women and men. In this context, it is pertinent to work on the subject matter of gender during childhood, with an educational intention. This allows for having an early influence in the process of forming the personality and promoting beliefs and values coherent with gender equity.

Foto: Jorge Luis Baños_IPS

Gender equity and women’s empowerment are one of the Millennium Goals Declaration, a document of the United Nations that served as a world common action and cooperation framework on development, since it was approved in 2000 and up until 2015, when the period of time to meet these goals ended. However, in 2013 gender equity was still considered one of the areas in which the advances had to be boosted and more audacious measures had to be taken.

In fact, though in a 2014 report the UN recognised the advances made in this sense, several elements were pointed out about which ones were important to continue working on, and gender inequality appeared as one of the aspects that had had a negative effect on the results of the Declaration’s other goals. Recently, the post-2015 Development Agenda was drawn up, a document with 17 declared goals; one of these directly related to gender equity and the empowerment of women and girls – number 5 -, and others that collect different goals linked to gender.

Cuba recognises the meeting of this goal on the national territory. However, despite the fact that in the last 50 years the island has been a social scenario of change, the gender situation has become a cultural pattern that remains patriarchal, a condition shown in the still sexist organisation of Cuban society.1 “In the process of women’s empowerment, the advances made in terms of policies and structural platforms in Cuba are relevant compared to other societies, but they are insufficient in terms of cultural learning.”2 Several studies, though they recognise the advances made in the country in terms of gender equity, specify that there are still aspirations to conquer. For example, “lawyer and sociologist Olga Mesa used the gender-related focus to deal through the compared law how in Cuba the juridical equality of women and men has been achieved, but [she notes that] many subtle and open inequalities still continue due to the sexist customs and culture present in men and women.”3 Meanwhile, the also sociologist Rosa María Voghon4 says that in Cuba, indeed, since mid-last century a greater control over resources by women has been confirmed; but at the same time she adds that, despite those significant achievements, this population sector continues having greater levels of privation and dissatisfaction regarding basic human needs; which allows for affirming the need to pay greater attention to the conditions and mechanisms that have an influence in that reality and therefore produce structural changes based on a gender perspective.

All the above demonstrates the need to continue coordinating actions that guarantee the sustainability of the results achieved until now and that, in addition, will allow for advancing in that direction. Regarding that problem, there is still a homogeneous situation throughout the country. Though the government’s will and many of the policies established are directed at trying to position a gender-related focus in the different spheres of Cuban society, a great deal of the population and among many key social actors there are still sexist representations regarding gender, which reproduce discriminatory, biased and not very healthy practices for women and men.

In this context, it is pertinent to work on the subject matter of gender during childhood, with an educational aim. This allows for having an early influence in the process of forming the personality and promoting beliefs and values coherent with gender equity. Between the first and fifth year of life, girls and boys “get to know their body, distinguish themselves from the other sex and, in coherence with this, start cultivating their feelings, the conviction of their masculinity or femininity. As a result of the above…they start appropriating the generic models that, for their sex, the sociocultural context dictates. Thus, their sexualised character starts to recreate and to express itself, socially, through the gender role (manifestation of identity in their daily behaviour), according to the expectations and demands of their context.”5 On the other hand, it can be said that it is feasible to work on what is related to gender with primary schoolchildren due to the social situation of their development. The need to know the reality and explain the different phenomena that take place in it, as well as the future usefulness of the knowledge they acquire – for their individual wellbeing as well as for their performance in society -, are significant elements in this stage of life, in which potentials exist that allow girls and boys to modify their representations about those stereotypes and roles that have traditionally been assigned and assumed by one and the other sex.6School organisations undoubtedly are favourable spaces to work the gender problem with children, due to the fundamental role their play in the integral formation and personal development of the students. Some studies have confirmed the influence that family, school and community relations have on the gender construction of girls and boys. However, Cuban primary school teachers and schools at times do not have the necessary training to deal with this issue from a complex and inclusive perspective. For example, studies carried out reveal that androcentric curricular contents are given in the classrooms, as well as different values, attitudes and expectations for boys and girls.

In general, there is awareness of the importance and the need to deal with the gender problem in the different Cuban educational levels and at present the educational institutions are set to work on this. Moreover, there exists the will to increasingly incorporate the gender-related focus in the different processes taking place in these organisations. But despite the existence of positive experiences and the valuable work carried out by some specialists from the sector, in numerous primary school organisations a gender-related educational work that involves and benefits the student body and the teaching staff has not been able to be continued on time. The factors that could be preventing the advance in that direction include the lack of documents establishing how to organise this work, the still insufficient training of the teaching staff regarding this subject and their own stereotyped representations about gender.

On the other hand, the relation between gender and health is a view still not very dealt with in the gender studies in Cuba. The principal initiatives in that direction have been promoted by ALAMES-Cuba Collective Gender and Health Network; the former National Centre for the Prevention and Control of STDs and HIV/AIDS; and the National Centre for Sex education (Cenesex). In the educational sector, the work carried out by the Gender, Sexology and Sex Education Chairs, located in the Pedagogic Sciences Universities, stands out. It is important to take into account that working in favour of a healthy gender construction includes calling attention on the negative consequences that behaviours determined by stereotypes, discrimination or violent elements can have on health, and advance toward their decrease with the conviction that health can be promoted this way.

From the moment of their birth, girls and boys find themselves immersed in a society with preestablished ideas and beliefs about what it is to be a woman or a man, as well as the shared characteristics according to sex, which has an influence in the way it is considered they must behave because of biologically belonging to one of the two groups. These expectations presuppose a process of social assignation, which greatly influences the health of persons and can cause social inequalities; visualising them enables the recognition of the specific needs of each sex.7 If the performance of the health focus at work in terms of gender were to be analysed it can be noted that, most of the time, aspects related to sexuality are dealt with from a gender perspective. A review of the works written by several persons who have studied gender in the Cuban context – data collected in a study that approached gender studies in Cuba between 1974 and 2008–, allows for confirming that, among the subjects dealt with, the ones that stand out are: homosexuality, reproductive health and AIDS, practically concentrating on women.8 Therefore, one notes the need for working on the relation between gender and health from a more integral viewpoint, in which health is understood as a social phenomenon mediated by multiple factors that determine it, among them gender; and where it is recognised that manifestations and behaviours derived from sexist gender constructions, as is the case of violence, can hinder individual and collective wellbeing, cause severe damage to health and even death.

There are few projects in Cuba that work on gender as a social determinant of health, and much less those with a focus on childhood. Antecedents of initiatives that incorporate art manifestations and social communication in the ludic activity of girls or boys do not exist to have a grasp of the gender-related focus. Because of this and all the aforementioned elements, as well as their favourable results, “Espejuelos para el género” (Spectacles for gender) has opened a way for itself as a very pertinent and noble project that has gained a space in the national context.

 

Gender construction in girls and boys in favour of health

The initiative emerged in 2012 and, since then, it has the participation of diverse institutions and organisations: National School of Public Health (ENSAP), Faculty of Communication of the University of Havana (FCOM), Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO), the José Martí Pioneer Organisation (OPJM), National Network of Nursing in Child Health and the ALAMES-Cuba Collective Gender and Health Network. It has been promoted by a multidisciplinary research team whose aim is to help promote changes in current Cuban society, specifically in that related to gender construction in school-age girls and boys and, as part of it, in the processes of socialisation of the patterns of gender construction taking place in primary schools.

Though in its first stage (2012-2016) it was characterised for being a project with a very strong practical component, since as part of its methodology it carried out a group of educational workshops in the primary schools where it worked, it is a research project that emerged with the following scientific questions:

  • What are the characteristics of the shared sociocultural gender representations by a group of girls and boys?
  • How does the application of cultural and social communication manifestations in the ludic activity of girls and boys contribute to understanding the gender-related focus in them?

Coherently, the general objectives it proposed initially were:

  • To characterise the shared representations about gender by a group of girls and boys.
  • To identify the contribution of the use of social communication and art manifestations in the ludic activity to understand the gender-related focus in girls and boys.ninos_mg_6673-360x240

Methodologically, it was designed based on a qualitative perspective as a participatory research-action, and, for its implementation in primary educational institutions, thematic workshops were carried out in four manifestations: social communication, literature, music and theatre. In these workshops, whose designs were related to the conception of popular education, multiple participatory techniques and a participant observation guide were used that, through the analysis of the behaviours and attitudes of girls and boys, complemented the data collected in the list of meetings.

In those workshops, in addition to discussing gender-related problems, there were exchanges about technical elements proper of each manifestation. In this way, for example, in the case of the social communication workshops, through education for communication, the children were prepared not only for a critical reception of the multiple gender-related messages they could receive, but also to construct communication products that would allow them to share their knowledge and concerns about this problem.

The project proposed the organisation of the study, in each educational institution, based on two fundamental phases: an initiation, where the research team’s first approach to the girls and boys takes place and progress is made in the characterisation of the gender representations, and one of strengthening, where the team continued with the characterisation but also gets involved in the problems regarding several gender-related categories, there was reflection about the situations of daily life and different products were made – according to each manifestation – that would allow for them to communicate about these same aspects.

Specifically, the categories on which they worked were: sex, gender, gender identity, gender roles and gender-related stereotypes, which were used in the workshops, were elaborated and reviewed constantly with the participation of the girls and boys who formed part of the experience.

  • Sex: Biological characteristics that differentiate girls and boys.
  • Gender: Difference created by society between women and men, the masculine and the feminine, according to the different world cultures.
  • Gender roles: Functions or roles that society expects from girls and boys, women and men.
  • Gender-related stereotypes: Ideas shared by society about the feminine and the masculine, which at times does not have to be that way, and are passed on from generation to generation.
  • Gender identity: Extent to which people identify with their sex and gender. It is formed at an early age and is consolidated during their lives through the passing on of social norms, customs and traditions that influence the feelings, attitudes and behaviours.

In this first stage the project was executed in three primary education institutions of the capital’s municipality of Plaza de la Revolución: Felipe Poey Aloy, Adalberto Gómez Núñez and Gonzalo de Quesada. In each one the girls and boys with which the project worked were chosen according to the school’s address, according to their trajectory and inclinations for the manifestations of literature, music, theatre and social communication.

In the third school, at the request of its teaching staff, the project’s research team decided to include the work with teachers and it was when the course on Gender and Popular Education started to be given and a Virtual Library was prepared that would allow making an in-depth study on gender. Also in that school the research team confirmed that the results started being repeated, which is why it stopped being relevant to continue with the characterisation of the gender representations in girls and boys and it was decided to incorporate a new question and a new research objective:

  • What knowledge about gender do the girls and boys of the studied schools have?
  • Evaluate the understanding of knowledge about gender in girls and boys.

For this, an evaluation process was designed that used several exercises and games related to the subject of gender, which are collected in one of the educational materials elaborated in the framework of the project: a Book of Puzzles. Specifically, the games used were “True or False,” “Links” and “Crossgender.” The first presents a series of affirmations with the intention that the true or false ones be pointed out; in the second several questions have to be linked with the correct answers; and, in the third, identify the words or phrases with which to complete the crossword puzzle. All the boys and girls who had participated in the project of the last two schools through which the experience had passed were evaluated. This took place two years after having worked in both schools.

The first stage of “Espejuelos para el género” will conclude this year and the research team, in coordination with the Education Ministry, will start its generalisation in other territories in the country, with the aim of supporting the transversalisation of the gender-based focus in more educational institutions and thus promote among the girls and boys healthy gender constructions.

 

Results after four years

During the workshops of each manifestation (social communication, literature, music and theatre), in the initiation stage, a close relationship between gender identities, roles and stereotypes shared by the participating girls and boys was identified. In general, it was perceived that the stereotypes and roles traditionally assigned to one and the other sex in society are influencing to a great extent their gender construction.

Accordingly, it was observed that the girls and boys tend to assume as natural the gender differences socially accepted by the majority of the people in their most immediate environment. These are manifested through the attribution of differentiated roles and attributes for women and men, for example: being brave, strong and gentlemanly for the boys, linked to the responsibility of working in the public space and ensuring the economy of the home; being delicate, educated, tranquil and hardworking for the girls, with which they are assigned to carry out the home shores. The exercise of paternity and maternity is another scenario where the girls and boys express stereotypes.

However, nuances are appreciated in these assessments. Accordingly, a certain level of acceptance in sharing the different domestic activities between both sexes was confirmed.9 The girls especially recognise in a more flexible way the roles they can assume, which is less common in the boys, who remain close to the most traditional roles, like reading the newspaper and taking out the garbage. The feminisation of power was also accepted.

In the case of the manifestation of music, the participating boys and girls established an association of appearance and sound of the instruments with the feminine and masculine sex. The boys assumed the trombone as a strong instrument played by men and associate the grave sounds and strong tone with the masculine sex. The girls, meanwhile, identify more the high-pitched sounds and the weak tone with the feminine.

When exploring the possibility of playing an instrument by one or the other sex, both the girls and boys accept that they can play both: violin, guitar, flute and clarinet, as well as assuming the role of orchestra director. The girls easily identify with instruments like the violoncello, the harp and the castanets, and the boys identify with the double bass and the trumpet, which reproduces a sexist division in music they have been able to observe traditionally in society.

Already in the strengthening phase, to the extent that familiarisation with the gender subject increased, the girls and boys participating in the workshops expressed more equitable visions. A better understanding of the categories studied (sex, gender, identity, roles and gender-related stereotypes) and their greater use in the debates was noticed. At the same time, some children expressed interest in being promoters of gender equity in the school sphere and in continuing linked to the project. Even so, the sexist and stereotyped behaviours were not totally eliminated, for example: girls and boys were seated separately and the latter refused to assume roles commonly attributed to girls.

In this phase of strengthening the preparation by the children of different products for the promotion of gender equity (audiovisuals, photo galleries, letters, narrations, comic strips, short stories, curiosities, songs and theatre works) favoured the development of a critical look at their own practices, while the levels of commitment with their peers in the school environment increased. All the products elaborated included different ideas to those which had been debated in the initiation phase, since other possibilities of characterising men and women were shown and some changes of opinion about the attributes associated to femininity and masculinity were confirmed.

The assessment that enabled inquiring about the understanding of the gender-related focus in girls and boys, two years after the project was carried out, revealed satisfactory results. As can be seen in the following tables (from 1 to 3), in the two schools where the assessment was made, the ratings of good and excellent to the answers to the three games used surpassed 80 per cent, with the game “True or False” standing out. In the comparison by sex, the girls got the best ratings in all the games.

In the last session of the application of the games during that evaluation, girls and boys were asked if they had found different ways of applying it in the barrio with friends, especially in role games where they assumed the part of teaches or mothers. This could be one of the explanations of the more favourable results in the feminine sex.

 

Table 1. Results of the game “True or False,” according to sex. Gonzalo de Quesada and Adalberto Gómez Núñez schools.

 

Rating Sex Total
Feminine Masculine
No. % No. % No. %
Excellent 20 37 10 18.5 30 55.5
Good 8 14.8 12 22.2 20 37
Subtotal 28 51.8 22 40.7 50 92.5
Regular 1 1.8 3 5.5 4 7.4
Total 29 53.7 25 46.2 54 100

 

 

Table 2. Results of the game “Link,” according to sex. Gonzalo de Quesada and Adalberto Gómez Núñez schools.

Rating Sex Total
Feminine Masculine
No. % No. % No. %
Excellent 7 13.4 5 9.6 12 23
Good 18 34.6 12 23 30 57.6
Subtotal 25 48 17 32.6 42 80.7
Regular 3 5.7 7 13.4 10 19.2
Total 28 53.8 24 46.1 52 100

 

 

Table 3. Results of the game “Crossgender,” according to sex. Gonzalo de Quesada and Adalberto Gómez Núñez schools.

 

Rating Sex Total
Feminine Masculine
No. % No. % No. %
Excellent 16 33.3 9 18.7 25 52
Good 6 12.5 10 20.8 16 33.3
Subtotal 22 45.8 19 39.5 41 85.4
Regular 3 6.2 4 8.3 7 14.5
Total 25 52 23 47.9 48 100

 

It is possible to say that, though studies that used the project’s methodology to work on gender during childhood were not found, the results obtained in the characterisation of the shared representations are similar to those achieved in national and international studies where identity, roles and gender-related stereotypes are recognised as social constructions and are marking many of the daily life processes.

The results obtained also show that the factors that participate in the socialisation of gender are multiple and that the ways of being man or woman can be varied, according to the diverse figures/models like the mother, father, the family, the social group they belong to, the parents; institutions like the school, the media, the world view of each culture, health services, the Church and the State.10

Moreover, the results coincide with what was obtained in the studies carried out in other contexts with respect that there does not exist a natural/biological condition that symbolises the social superiority of the males, but rather that it becomes that of the “naturalisation” of some roles and gender-related stereotypes. Thus these mandates still remain in the cultural guidelines and passed on to girls and boys since a very early age through stereotyped sexual models that are socialised, despite the social changes.11

It was also confirmed that the work carried out with girls and boys with respect to the relation between gender and the benefits for health is a novel and necessary treatment. The persons born in the family context develop in this and in other social spaces like the school and the community, which is why they receive a cultural and historic legacy full of symbols expressed in traditions, customs, norms and values, which contribute to each person building a group of representations and meanings of what is expected of them, aspects that have an influence on their health. In this sense, it is fundamental to question such meanings from an early age and in the different social contexts to create awareness about the effects of gender in the health practices of women and men.12

Diverse studies show that girls and boys are the main actors in the processes of health promotion and education. For them it is useful to have the necessary information to understand diverse issues, which is why it is indispensable to turn them into subjects prepared to promote the change in the environment in which they live, to the benefit of their wellbeing and those surrounding them.

Some of the identified lessons learned throughout the project include the following: the multidisciplinary character of the research team allowed for the development of the subject from diverse focuses, which is a strength to deal with the issue of gender; working this subject with the children is an advantage, given that at these ages the gender identity is being formed, a contributing factor since they do not have preconceived ideas of what is or isn’t natural; and the application of the ludic activity made it possible to confirm the value of games as a means to apply the participatory techniques and question the gender-related focus in the studied age group.

Projects like this one reaffirm that gender is one of the subjects whose complexity requires the integrated view of several focuses and disciplines and that the ludic activity, as a social and emotional activity that has its origins in the spontaneous action of children, artistically oriented and directed, is an ideal means to characterise the gender constructions in these age groups.13 Among the results obtained by the project, the educational products designed and validated during the four years of work deserve special mention. The first was the Librito de bolsillo (Little Pocketbook), made by the girls and boys of the first school, who were interested in having a simple and useful material to exchange with their peers about the gender problem. The pocketbook included the definitions of the study categories of the project and a game that invited the children to think about the gender stereotypes, asking them to link the masculine and feminine figure to certain objects.

Since in the pocketbook the definitions of the project’s categories were written by girls and boys and, therefore, understandable for their ages, it started being used in the second school in the strengthening phase of the workshops to introduce those concepts among the schoolchildren. In this way it became a part of the project’s methodology.

The second material that was elaborated was the “Espejuelos para el Género” Manual of Good Practices, in which the project’s methodological proposal was included to explore the gender construction in girls and boys. It is designed for all persons interested in identifying, in a novel and attractive way, the gender-based focus in children and collects the design of the workshops implemented by the project in each manifestation, as well as the description of the participatory techniques used and some considerations necessary for each workshop.

With the aim of supporting the teachers in their training on the subject of gender, a need identified by the teachers themselves, the “Espejuelos para el Género” Virtual Library was elaborated. It has an important amount of materials that can facilitate the study and training of the teaching staff and with this increase the inclusion of the gender-based focus in the different school spaces and activities. A favourable characteristic of this product is that its reproduction does not need big investments since it can be easily shared through several devices.

The Banner for the classrooms and Pamphlet for the family were designed for two very important socialisation agents in the formation of girls and boys: teachers and family members. The aim of the banner, which includes the same concepts collected in the pocketbook, is to back the teachers in the curricular and extracurricular activities, while the pamphlet is a very useful instrument for the parents meetings in the school, where the teachers share with the family issues of interest for the children’s education that helps them be prepared for that task.

Finally, the book Puzzles and the “Espejuelos para el Género” multimedia were elaborated based on the experience accumulated by the project’s research team after working in the three chosen schools. The book collects curiosities, definitions, advice, songs, games and activities related to the gender subject, as well as stories and poems by the girls and boys who participated in the project. Many of the book’s elements were taken to the digital format for the multimedia and audiovisual materials were added, some also produced by the children participating in the project. Both products can be used in the schools during the active recess of the children.

Each one of these products has been evaluated by the users themselves, who have endorsed its usefulness in the school environment. Moreover, they are a guarantee for the sustainability of the project’s results since, in one way or the other, they make it possible for teachers, parents and children to continue thinking, discussing and learning about gender. (2016)

 

1 Castañeda, I. E., Corral, A. and Barzaga, M.: “Perfiles de género y salud en Cuba”, in Revista Cubana de Salud Pública, 36(2), 2010. Recovered from http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=21416135006

2 Espina, M., Núñez, L., Martín, L., Togores, V. and Ángel, G.: Desigualdad, equidad y política social. Integración de estudios recientes en Cuba. [CD-Rom], 2010.

3 Núñez, M.: Yo sola me represento. De cómo el empleo femenino transformó las relaciones de género en Cuba, Panama, Ruth Publishing House, 2011.

4 Voghon, R. M.: “Repensando la (re)producción de la pobreza desde la perspectiva de género. Un estudio de caso”, in Fleitas, R. and M. Romero (Comps.): Familia, género y violencia doméstica. Diversas experiencias de investigación social, pp: 56-75, Havana, Juan Marinello Cuban Cultural Research Institute, 2012.

5 Torres, J. M., Lozano, A. and Rodríguez, N.: “Formación de promotores por la equidad de género desde la infancia”, in magazine Revista Cubana de Salud Pública, 39, 45-49, 2013.

6 Idem.

 

7 Torres, J.M., Martínez, N., Rodríguez, N., Díaz, Z., Lozano, A. et al.: “Construcción de género en la infancia, un camino hacia la promoción de la salud”, in magazine Revista Género y salud en cifras, 13(1), 2015, recovered from http://cnegsr.salud.gob.mx/contenidos/GySenC/ContenidoV13_1.html

8 Núñez, M.: ob. cit.

 

9 Rodríguez, N., Lozano, A. and Chao, M.: “Construcción de género en la infancia desde la literatura”, en Revista Cubana de Enfermería, 30(1), 2014.  Recovered from http://bvs.sld.cu/revistas/enf/indice.html

 

10 Liendro, E.: Género y Salud. Una introducción para tomadores de decisiones. Mexico, D. F., National Centre for Gender Equity and Reproductive Health in collaboration with the National Centre of Studies on Women and the Family, 2008. Recovered fromhttp://www.salud.gob.mx/unidades/cdi/documentos/DOCSAL7598.pdf

11 Vázquez, B.: Romper con estereotipos de género desde la infancia, 2010. Recovered from http://alainet.org/active/37341&lang=es

12 Torres, J.M., Martínez, N., Rodríguez, N., Díaz, Z., Lozano, A. et al.: “Construcción de género en la infancia, un camino hacia la promoción de la salud”, Havana, 2012-2013. Magazine Revista Género y salud en cifras, 13(1), 2015. Recovered from http://cnegsr.salud.gob.mx/contenidos/GySenC/ContenidoV13_1.html

 

13 Torres, J.M., Martínez, N., Rodríguez, N., Díaz, Z., Lozano, A. et al.: “Actividad lúdica para la construcción de género en la infancia y adolescencia”, in magazine Revista del Colegio de Enfermería de Chile, 143, 25-28, 2013.

 

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