Worlds of Education

Education: a key battleground for anti-gender activists

published 17 May 2024 updated 17 May 2024
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What do protests over gender-neutral school toilets in South Africa have to do with teachers being harassed in Brazil or curriculum changes in El Salvador? In brief, they are all the result of mobilization against the perceived threat of ‘gender ideology’; these are just a few of the examples we found in our forthcoming research on gender-restrictive actors in education.

‘Gender ideology’ is a term used to discredit women’s and LGBTI+ rights. Rarely clearly defined, it is often used as a ‘catch-all’ phrase that refers to issues as varied as giving young people access to sexual and reproductive health information to inclusion of content about sexual and gender diversity in school curricula. The wave of ‘anti-gender’ mobilisation seen in much of the world is often funded by conservative Christian bodies headquartered in the US, Europe and Russia, increasingly in collaboration with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Who are anti-gender actors and how do they operate?

Anti-gender actors include religious bodies, associated civil society groups and politicians (mostly right-leaning). Though largely originating in, and often still dominated by, conservative Christian values and networks, anti-gender activists have allied on some issues with representatives of other faiths and secular interests who share their perspectives, and, at times, across the left-right political spectrum. Anti-gender movements are ‘playing a long game’: they seek to roll back pro-gender equality and LGBTI+ rights legislation or prevent it being enacted, and to (re)-instate the patriarchal social norms that they perceive as being under threat.

They work in three main ways: seeking to influence the outcome texts of international norm-setting fora, such as UN conferences through coalitions of like-minded actors; leveraging political power to influence policy agendas and put forward legislation; and shaping discourse in a socially conservative direction. To do so, anti-gender activists use social and broadcast media, public demonstrations and stunts, and mobilize faith- and parent-based networks, often through misinformation and exaggeration designed to generate fear and outrage. For example, when Ghana revised its sexuality education curriculum in 2019, activists framed it as part of an ‘LGBT agenda’. This is just one example of a common tactic of labelling gender equality or LGBTI+ rights as foreign or ‘western’ imports, ignoring indigenous histories of mobilization in defence of human rights, and downplaying the international funding anti-gender movements receive.

Why are anti-gender activists targeting education?

Anti-gender movements recognize the fundamental importance of education in shaping the values of a new generation. Both the formal curriculum and the hidden curriculum (the values transmitted through the behaviour of students and teachers, and a school’s ethos) can shape gender norms among students. Anti-gender activists thus see education as a key strategic space to control. But their focus on education goes beyond this: a linchpin of anti-gender campaigns is to emphasize the risk to children – and society – that comprehensive sexuality education, discussion of gender equality, or efforts towards LGBTI+ inclusion pose.

They therefore seek to influence what students learn, who can teach, and aspects of how schools operate, such as dress codes, provision of toilets and changing facilities, the use of inclusive language, and even who can access education. Some of the most consistent mobilization has been around sexuality education, but as our forthcoming report shows, anti-gender actors have sought to promote (or fought efforts to reform) traditional gender stereotypes in school curricula, and have challenged efforts to make gender differences less significant (such as opposing gender-neutral school uniforms).

What does it mean for teachers and learners?

In some countries, anti-gender movements have directly harassed teachers. A Human Rights Watch study in Brazil documented harassment on- and offline, including death threats against teachers who covered content such as gender-based violence, LGBTI+ or civil rights movements. But the effects are broader, such as narrowing the overall curriculum. This means that children’s rights to unbiased accurate information that is critical for their health and survival, risks being denied.

The rigid gender norms which anti-gender actors seek to impose contribute to an atmosphere that is the opposite of what education should be: shrinking rather than expanding possibilities, for all children. Whether this is girls who are absorbing messages about a woman’s primary destiny being marriage and motherhood, boys who want to work in traditionally female-dominated professions such as nursing, or LGBTI+ students who face elevated levels of bullying and messages that their identities are unacceptable.

How can anti-gender activity in education best be resisted?

Anti-gender actors are both much better funded, and funded in a more flexible manner than pro-equality counterparts, meaning that they are able both to be agile in response to events, and to undertake long-term campaigns to shift norms and policies. However, resistance can be very effective. Our research found that where a strong human rights framework exists, such as a constitutional commitment to equality, this can be mobilized in defense of equal rights to a full and effective education. For example, strategic litigation has led to state laws in Mexico and Brazil that greatly restricted sexuality education, and policies that banned adolescent mothers from returning to school in Sierra Leone, being struck down. A multi-pronged strategy for countering misinformation is also vital. This can involve directing accurate information about topics such as sexuality education, and proposed reforms to school curricula to parents, young people, religious congregations, professional bodies and others targeted by anti-gender actors. Finally, genuine dialogue based on accurate information can make a difference. The next phase of our research will probe experiences of bringing stakeholders with opposing views together to find common ground for the development of new life skills and sexuality education curricula. We would welcome hearing from anyone interested in this research.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.