In their home, Mohd Izham Zakaria and Noorfadilla Ahmad Saikin’s three sons do the dishes, vacuum the house, hang the laundry out to dry and help prepare meals along with their sister, who is the eldest in the family.
The children are treated as equals and are taught to respect each others’ personal space.
“Teaching them about equality starts with teaching them respect. We make it a point to teach our sons to respect women and girls. Even though it may seem trivial, we show them that household chores are a shared responsibility and not the sole responsibility of a woman or girl.
“If we don’t teach our sons to respect girls and women, they will grow up to become men who treat women with little or no respect.
“They will grow up believing that a woman’s place is in the kitchen or to raise children and will never see women as equals,” says Noorfadilla, 29, adding that she and Mohd Izham try to be “role models” for their four children, aged between 12 and six.
They are making a conscious effort not to raise their children according to traditional expectations of boys (strong, brave, active and interested in sports) and girls (gentle, kind, interested in sewing and cooking).
It is especially hard, since children are exposed to entrenched gender stereotypes from the media as well as in their interactions with others.
Most recently, these stereotypes were uncovered in schools too which caused a public outcry: a Year Three Pendidikan Jasmani and Kesihatan textbook stated (in an infographic) that a girl needs to dress appropriately, change behind closed doors and avoid deserted spaces to guard their modesty. The failure to do so, according to the textbook for nine-year-olds, would result in her being shamed, emotionally distressed or ostracised. The girl would also bring shame unto her family.
Online captures of the infographic went viral with parents and activists criticising the Education Ministry for its gender biased content.
Many also pointed out a glaring lack of guidelines on how boys should behave appropriately, claiming that it put the blame on girls and women for sexual assaults and harassment.
“The central problem (with the infographic) is victim blaming. Placing the responsibility on women and girls to ‘safeguard their dignity’ implies that perpetrators of sexual violence are let off the hook.
“Women and girl children are sexually assaulted regardless of their attire and conduct – whether they are fully clothed or even wearing diapers.
“It is ultimately the perpetrators who are at fault when they violate their victims,” says Karen Lai, programme director of the Women’s Centre for Change in Penang.
For Noorfadilla, who has spent the last decade fighting her gender discrimination case in the courts, the harmful consequences of gender stereotyping cannot be reiterated enough.
Noorfadilla’s position as a relief teacher was revoked in 2009 because she was pregnant.
“Society doesn’t see gender equality as a problem because of our upbringing – we were raised to accept that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and her job is to raise her children.
“We need to teach our children what shared responsibility means. We need to teach our children that girls and boys are equal because these are the messages and traits that they will carry with them into the world,” says Noorfadilla.
Apart from victimising girls and women, gender biased messages ‘demean men’, as it implies that they are unable to control their urges, adds Lai.
“Men can and do know better than that,” she says.
Send the rights message
Admitting that the infographic was problematic, deputy education minister Teo Nie Cheng said that the Education Ministry would revise the content of the infographic as it went against the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child.
She also said that the overall content of school books would be revised and stricter control would be exerted in the future to prevent such gender biasness.
But this alone isn’t enough.
“Messaging in education is critical,” says Lai. “Children have a right to be safe and protected against sexual violence. They have to be taught about their rights, including their rights over their own bodies.
“We should focus on teaching them about these rights to ensure their protection and not asking them to ‘save their dignity’ and worse, blaming them for causing sexual assault when they are victims.”
These positive and empowering messages, Lai points out, aren’t limited to schoolbooks and other educational materials but also in media channels.
“Gender stereotypes in textbooks and educational materials as well as popular children’s programmes, cartoons and advertisements need to be identified and removed and replaced by positive messages about equality and respect,” says Lai.
The starting point, she says, should be teaching children mutual respect.
“We should tell our girls and our boys that they must be respectful towards each other.
“It is all the more important for boys to be taught respect for women and girls because we live in a highly male-dominated society.
“Boys need to understand that they have an important role to play in fighting violence against women and girls, through promoting this message of respect,” says Lai.
For the past two decades, WCC has been running a programme called “Respek” to educate teens about puberty and relationships. It teaches teens self-respect, which is crucial in empowering and protecting them.
“The programme encourages teenagers to have healthy, respectful relationships with those around them.
“It is important for teenagers to have a sense of self-respect and to respect others.
“It is also important for them to understand what constitutes a healthy relationship.
What’s the harm?
A six-year study that examined gender expectations around the world revealed that gender stereotypes are firmly rooted in children by the age of 10 and raise the risk of depression, suicide, violence and HIV.
The qualitative research on children from the ages of 10 to 15 was conducted by the Global Early Adolescent Study (GEAS), a partnership between the World Health Organisation and John Hopkins University).
It found that gender stereotypes which emphasise female passivity can encourage abuse and leave girls at greater risk of dropping out of school or suffering physical and sexual violence, child marriage, early pregnancy as well as HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“We found children, at a very early age – from the most conservative to the most liberal societies – quickly internalise this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent,” said Robert Blum, a prefessor at John Hopkins and the director of the GEAS in an report in Time.
The study also reaffirmed widely held beliefs that the world expands for boys in their adolescence but shrinks for girls.
The study focused on children in Bolivia, Belgium, Burkina Faso, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eduador, Egypt, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa and America.
Another researcher, Kristin Mmari, said that such biased gender roles shape behaviours of boys and girls.
Boys try to build their social status as being risk-takers with unhealthy behaviours as fighting, taking drugs or smoking. For girls, their bodies and others’ attitudes towards them are burdensome. The findings were consisten in all the countries covered.
“In New Delhi, girls talked about their bodies as a big risk that needs to be covered up while in Baltimore, girls told us their primary asset was their bodies and they need to look appealing – but not too appealing,” reports Mmari.
WCC, who works extensively with victims of gender-based violence, believes that gender-based violence has its roots in harmful gender stereotypes that begin in childhood.
“Stereotypes that are prevalent in the media, especially those that depict women as sexual objects and men as sexual predators, result in gender imbalances which can lead to gender violence.
“Victim-blaming of women and girls for sexual assault is also very destructive as it originates in the myth that men are ‘animals who cannot control their sexual urges’, says Lai.