Student-Friendly Schools: A Collective Pride
Remember how I talked about my greatest pride in my blog post “My Greatest Volunteer Accomplishment of All: It Isn’t Mine at All?” Well that stands true for the training workshop I’m about to recap. In essence, I feel a deep sense of collective pride for the enthusiastic participants, volunteers and co-facilitators who made this all possible. Without idealists determined that it’s possible to change the world, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are today. Therefore, without further adieu, let’s talk about change. Let’s talk about gender. Let’s talk about sex (and why our definitions of all these needs to change now).
To start, within Peace Corps Thailand I serve on the Gender and Development committee with some other hardworking, dedicated volunteers: Sarah Lingo, Andy Munn, Kirstie Boyette, Meredith Wipf, and Mayumi Rebeiro.
What is the Gender and Development committee, aka GAD?
There are Peace Corps GAD committees in countries all over the world. Some identify as GAD, while others followed the name change to GenEq/WID (Women in Development) as of 2012. Our committee within Thailand aims to assist communities by promoting gender empowerment and equality for all persons, particularly youth. We conduct youth-led activities, trainings, develop monitoring and evaluation tools and criteria, campaigns, and most importantly, educate communities. Our collaborative effort is part of the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment initiatives of Peace Corps Global.
Back in April our staff liaison, Suvimon Sanguansat, approached our committee with an idea to replicate and facilitate a workshop she recently attended in Rwanda. It was the first in the world carried out, and if we decided to roll out the training handed down from Peace Corps Headquarters in Thailand we would be one of the first countries.
What in the world is the training all about?
Our Student-Friendly Schools (SFS) was a three-day training workshop that prepared 15 Peace Corps Volunteers and their 15 counterparts on how to respond to school-related gender-based violence in their communities. Together, we redefined and taught the definitions of sex and gender where we came to understand that gender roles vary between cultures, From there we discussed how gender stereotypes lead to fixed ideas that limit individuals opportunities, happiness, and even health. We broke down the causes and influences of gender-based violence which involved looking at the role of the educator and what we can do to help. Our main seed of thought: think small, realistic and big changes will eventually come.
Finally, each community drafted specific action plans to take back to site. We concluded with monitoring and evaluation techniques to track our progress which carries one of my favorite messages: the evidence of success, of change, is in our stories. Don’t get bogged down with numbers so much. Just figure out a way to translate these stories into something countable, relatable, and improvable. Evaluate, then start again. That’s where the magic happens. People connect and sought to be understood through the telling of stories; harness this (with some numbers in there for good measure). This is one of my favorite quotes from training:
“The surest way of sustaining student-friendly schools is to cultivate evidence of success, honor community achievements, and disseminate lessons learned. We can do this through stories and sharing our achievements.”
Overall, workshop participants developed a community-specific plan to address the social concept of gender roles and the negative consequences of gender-based violence as well as how to recognize, prevent, and respond to these problems.
Why is any of this important?
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a worldwide problem that raises public health and human rights concerns, Thailand included. These problems arise in any number of forms such as: bullying and teasing, sexual abuse, STDs, unplanned pregnancies, high dropout rates, low self-esteem, gangs, unsafe living environments, and perpetuation of gender stereotypes therefore resultant cyclical violence. Remember: the change starts with us.
***KEEP READING TO REACH THE YOUTUBE VIDEO SLIDESHOW AT THE END***
Notable Moments of Success From Student-Friendly Schools Training:
1. We redefined sex and gender then observed the differences between the two. The group came to decide that sex is universal, there are two (male and female), it comes from nature/birth, and is not a choice. One Thai host national chimed in to state that sometimes maybe there is a third sex, and you can, in fact, change your sex with gender reassignment surgery. We stuck with two for training purposes, deciding that the person would then become the other of two sexes, but I know there are trans-identified persons out there with a rally cry of support for that acknowledgement.
2. I lead a warm-up activity where I had 30 flashcards with 6 types of patterns on them (think: square, circle, square, or triangle, circle, square). I drew 4 different groups of patterns with 7 in each group. On the remaining two flashcards I drew 2 completely and separate unique patterns that didn’t match any other (do you feel like you’re in high school algebra yet?). Then, I taped the flashcards to the participants backs where they could not see them. From there, I instructed them to get up and go around the room and organize themselves into groups…without talking. Once they found their groups they were forbidden from helping or communicating with anyone who wasn’t the same pattern. After about 8 minutes, only the 2 people who had unique patters were left standing alone and confused. When we sat down to wrap-up, I told them that the unique patterns represented individuals within our school system who feel ostracized because they are different; they feel unaccepted and rejected.
I asked the participants how they felt. One participant said that, “At first it was really fun and exciting, but then I started to panic because everyone was finding their group and I hadn’t found mine yet.” Another participant said that he felt inclined to help other people find the right place but his group actually got firm and mean, forbidding him from communicating with anyone else. And lastly, a Thai participant (in a high-ranking position in his community) who was 1 of 2 unique patterns said, “I was having a little fun until everyone else found their groups. Then I got very confused and anxious. I thought I was doing something wrong. I could tell that some of my friends wanted to help me but couldn’t. Eventually, I just sort of hid away in a crowd of people hoping no one would notice I was different. I had no idea that students in schools could feel this way. This is not good. Oh my. We must change this.”
3. At one point in the week, a Thai man in a high-ranking community position stood up to say this: “I had the choice to go to another training instead of this one but I chose this one instead, not really knowing what I was getting into. Having been here for two days, I can say that I’m glad I came. I made the right choice.”
Did I mention how proud I am of us again? Right. Good. Check out the video below to understand the cause of my beaming pride. Nice job, Peace Corps Thailand.