The need for us all to speak up against all forms of gender discrimination is clearer than ever, and I would like to contribute to the discussion from the sector that I know best, the education system.
Of particular interest are changes that must be made across the entire system — ones that contextualise the experience of women, expose power relations, challenge unacceptable attitudes and behaviours, and develop students’ emotional literacy and communication skills. These, I feel, are necessary to have a significant impact on gender discrimination and violence.
We need the curriculum to give greater recognition to the role of women and to the scale and breadth of their impact on our society. While doing so, we need to teach the social history of women honestly and comprehensively.
Likewise, they may never have heard of Ann Lovett, or the X and C cases.
The new Leaving Cert subject of politics and society deals well with the issues of gender and patriarchy, but the subject is not compulsory and the topics are not sufficiently explicit in civic, social, and political education in the Junior Cycle, meaning that many students may leave school without an understanding of how power and gender interact.
We need to improve the delivery of social, personal, and health education and relationships and sexuality education (RSE), as the department has not done this to date. This means the creation of undergraduate courses, relevant teacher training modules, and regular in-services. This would systematically empower teachers with the knowledge and confidence to discuss sensitive issues with young people.
The recently published Flourish programme for Catholic primaries highlights this need. It describes puberty as a ‘gift from God’ and in a lesson on personal safety, encouraged junior infants students to say the ‘Angel of God’ prayer.
The State must take full control of RSE, and it should address issues such as consent, power, sexual orientation, reproductive rights, privilege, and gender-based violence in an age-appropriate manner. Education Minister Norma Foley should clarify that the new RSE course will not be coloured by religious influence.
We need more mixed schools. Ireland is an outlier in the developed world in having so many single-sex schools.
I firmly believe that having conversations on consent, body image, violence, and sexuality will have limited impact if students are segregated according to sex and cannot look each other in the eye or hear each other’s voices as equal human beings.
Schools are the best — in some cases, the only — place where a generation of young people can safely address their fears, concerns, and hopes together.
I’ve worked in both single-sex and mixed systems for about a decade each, and there is no comparison. Others may disagree, but I believe that segregating students is dehumanising and prevents the development of empathy and shared understanding.
We need to accept that certain forms of male culture need particular attention. The Exploring Masculinities programme piloted in 2000 aimed to do just that. The course sought to examine different experiences of masculinity, promote respect for diversity and gender equality, improve interpersonal skills, and raise awareness of a range of issues, including violence against women.
However, the pilot was cancelled due to the sustained criticism of a small number of religious media commentators. A generation of boys were denied the space to gain greater self-awareness, knowledge, and emotional literacy.
We need more male teachers. All students need daily, positive male role models and it is important that boys hear men speaking with emotional literacy about love, intimacy, and consent.
Finally, and crucially, we need to acknowledge that inequality in our society is reflected within and between our schools and if we accept this because it benefits us individually, we are nourishing the ground in which gender violence thrives.
The University of Alberta’s Pyramid of Sexual Violence shows how violence against women escalates when prejudices such as racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism exist. These ideologies create the atmosphere in which it becomes culturally acceptable to ‘other’, to demean, to control, and to harm.
When our schools deny enrolment to any child, whether they are trans, the wrong religion, or cannot afford fees, we are teaching children that it is acceptable to rank humans. When our schools dissuade migrants, Travellers, and students with additional needs from enrolling because it may affect their reputation or position on league tables, we teach students that power imbalances and exclusion are natural and inevitable.
When successive ministers legitimate this system, their ability to use the system to challenge discrimination, including gender discrimination and violence, is fatally compromised.
There are no ‘quick fixes’ — we have a lot of work to do.
• Colm O’Connor is the principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School and a member of the Board of Directors of Educate Together. He writes here in a personal capacity.