Over my years of involvement with school health programmes in India, I have found that  incorporating gender sensitization into the core curriculum in schools is a concrete way of closing the gender gap. In many countries, schools have some form of sex education; however, it is often too narrowly focused on the biological aspects of reproduction. I believe that children need to be educated about gender-related issues in a more holistic fashion.

Schools are a good platform because children can learn about fairly complex topics with their peers, through activities and interactive sessions. I have found that children are more comfortable learning about issues like menstrual hygiene management in school, through participation in hygiene clubs for instance, as opposed to at home, because such topics are still considered taboo in some families.

Similarly, as part of a project I managed during my tenure at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, I observed that school children responded very positively to a session focused on the linkages between gender equality and nutrition. One of the reasons for chronic malnourishment and anaemia in girls is that, in numerous families, girls are allowed to eat only after boys and are often given limited quantities of leftover food. Through a series of activities, the session encouraged children to put an end to this regressive practice in their homes.

A couple of years ago, I met an adolescent girl who had been left so traumatized after being teased at school during menstruation that her mother decided not to send her back to school. The root cause of a number of such incidents that adversely affect the health, education and well-being of millions of women across the globe is a lack of sensitivity on the part of men and women (in my opinion, women are often equally responsible for perpetuating regressive attitudes).

I therefore believe that age-appropriate modules encompassing the key gender-related elements of health, nutrition and detrimental social practices (like female foeticide and dowry traditions) need to be developed and taught regularly in schools. This is a crucial opportunity because children are at a stage in their lives where their views about gender and associated issues are in the process of being shaped. They can still become agents of change who transfer progressive behaviours, attitudes and practices about gender-related issues to their families.

Author: Urvashi Prasad is a Global Shaper in the New Delhi Hub. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014 will be released on 28 October.

Image: A girl in an open air school at Krishnadevpur village, north of Kolkata. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood