Awa Fall-Diop is fighting discriminatory gender stereotypes in Senegal's education system by introducing curriculum and textbooks that portray women more often and in a greater diversity of roles.
The New Idea
Awa is undoing negative images of women in public school textbooks, with the broader objective of producing more gender-neutral images and behavior in children's education. Currently, gender discrimination is implicit in all of its teaching materials and techniques, its pedagogical tools and media, and the persons employed to teach.Believing that textbooks that portray men and women in a more egalitarian way will have a domino effect on gender relationships within the school system and in society, Awa has created a new curriculum, intended for children from an early age through secondary education, that creates positive female role models who exemplify women's potential. In addition to lobbying government to institute this curriculum, she is teaching students gender-sensitivity and training teachers in gender-neutral education.
In the textbooks used by most schools in Senegal and other countries of West Africa, all activities or ideas symbolizing economic, social, and scientific power are represented in masculine form. Feminine figures are relegated to marginal or subordinate activities of production and employment and are exclusively depicted in childbearing and domestic scenes. Female figures are excluded from all depictions of power and decision-making and are stereotyped as not having an aptitude for science and technology.Different series of books have been used by the school systems in past decades, but the social rapport between the sexes in these texts has not changed, and these images are reinforced by the surrounding societal context. As a primary school teacher, Awa realized that every time she looked in a textbook for an image representing a profession, an animal, or any other entity, it was always presented in masculine form. A closer look at the textbooks used in primary schools revealed a clear difference in the types of activities and professions assumed by men and women. The same male domination can be observed in the social interactions between men and women in the schools and institutionalized in the policies and processes of the system. The educational system is thus a powerful force in keeping the status quo firmly in place. The most recent Senegalese population count and census indicates that women, constituting 50 percent of the total population, represent merely 41 percent of the student population in primary school and only 25 percent in secondary school. Women are equally underrepresented at the university level and among teachers
Awa created ORGENS (Observatoire des Relations de Genre dans l'Education Nationale au Sénégal–Observatory for Gender Relations in the National Education of Senegal) with eleven other educators in 1994, to promote the ideals of equal access to education, positive gender relations within the educational system, the opportunity to succeed, and the edification of societies through education.ORGENS' intervention plan has two main components: training and sensitizing students, parents, and teachers in gender-balanced education and lobbying decision-makers to implement policy that promotes gender-equality in schools. ORGENS' strategy centers on the creation of change from within, by first making teachers and parents aware of certain elements in the educational system that impede change. Such internal change will then facilitate the National Education Ministry's approval. Awa began by making changes in her own classroom. She diversified the gender examples she uses to illustrate her explanations, and began involving boys and girls in the same tasks, such as cleaning the classroom or the schoolyard. Her actions represented a major shift for which some colleagues, students, and parents were not prepared. They initially opposed her efforts, but she has since convinced them of the need for change. She held a number of discussions on textbooks, and many of her colleagues who previously were not sensitive to the issue began to employ gender-neutral teaching methodologies. School teachers can only use manuals recommended by the Ministry, though, so Awa began to direct some of her effort toward changing policy.Awa conducted an in-depth study on primary school textbooks in conjunction with Codesria, a renowned thinktank. The outcome of this study prompted Awa to meet with the Senegalese Minister of Education to share the results and express her concerns. The results also fueled Awa's decision to concentrate specifically on gender issues in educational tools, including science, history, and geography textbooks. Her objective was to breathe new social and gender perspectives into the young and unformed via the gender sensitization and training of teachers and their students, and, at a later stage, the rewriting of school manuals. ORGENS uses several methods to accomplish its objectives. First, it directly facilitates recreational-educational activities for children. "Equality-Solidarity" summer camps for boys and girls aim to bring children to a new understanding of gender roles by leading them to share in activities that were previously deemed "masculine" or "feminine."Second, ORGENS is making inroads into adult education. Awa first began working with a prominent local organization to re-edit gender-insensitive books, training tools, and methods in adult education. She later created the Institute for Research, Education, and Training to complete the education process of teachers and further educate them in gender dynamics within the school system.Third, ORGENS works to increase the awareness and consciousness of public decision-makers and win them over to the cause of gender equality. The organization tries to build, in collaboration with all active partners of the education process, a solid constituency of teachers, educators, and teachers' unions. With the backing of this constituency, ORGENS has created an advocacy campaign for the rewriting of textbooks, a gender-sensitive professional training for teachers and educators, and the legal and effective implementation of gender-balanced education methodologies.Given the many contextual similarities on a sub-regional level, Awa and ORGENS have proposed their planning and implementation strategy to their female colleagues in Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso.
Born in 1956, Awa feels that she "inherited" her strength of character from her mother, who was a pioneer in the working-class neighborhood where her family lived. She was the only female head of household in the area at the time and the first person to install electricity in her home, which became the meeting place for the neighborhood residents. In addition, Awa's mother installed a sewer system and latrines in the neighborhood and provided a formal education for her children.Awa has always been a changemaker in her immediate social environment. She convinced the administrators of her boarding school to change a tacit rule that forbade young girls, but not boys, to leave the school without being accompanied by a guardian and to require boys, as well as girls, to perform classroom cleaning chores. Having completed a teacher training program in 1976, she enrolled herself in evening baccalaureate exam courses and passed the exam. This permitted her to enroll in the economics department of the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, but her appointment to a teaching position in another region did not permit her to pursue her university degree. She later participated in training sessions at various subregional organizations, including, in 1995, the Institute for Gender Studies at CODESRIA, of which she was the only member at the time without a university degree. She managed, however, to conduct quality gender and textbook research.Concurrent to her teaching duties, Awa was actively involved in the teachers' union movement in the areas of human rights, particularly women's rights. Awa assumed political responsibility on the national level. She is also a founding and acting member of various organizations working in the domain of women's rights–most notably, ORGENS. Her associates describe her as a fighter, an individual who came along and changed her colleagues' way of looking at things.Passionate about future studies, Awa explains that "it is through a woman's involvement with associations, union and political, that the quest for the ideal in terms of equality, development, and respect for the rights of women is crystallized and transformed into a conscious process which is organized and able to produce results: I learned to structure my ideas, speak in public, run meetings, and develop initiatives at the national level. If this had not been the case, conducting research on textbooks and educational manuals would not have been possible. I would have perhaps remained at the level of intuitive understanding."Having embraced the teaching profession, Awa feels it is normal to be interested in the larger picture of how things (governments, institutions, and societies) function. Concurrently elected to the positions of Primary School District Adviser and Town Council, she turned down the School District Adviser position in order to allow a fellow female candidate to take the job.