by WOMENSENEWS/GIN/Deborah Walter If Bright Amatou has learned anything in school, it's that being female isn't going to keep her from pursuing her dreams. "Women," Amatou says, "are not born to be at the back." "I am attending school because I want to be somebody in the future," the 16-year-old says. "I want to work. I want to be myself." If that lesson has been a long time coming, it's also spreading here in Ghana, where strict, traditional roles for men and women are still the norm. Amatou is a member of her school's gender club, one of six such pilot programs at high schools in and around the capital of Accra. By introducing concepts such as gender equity and gender stereotyping, the clubs give students the skills and knowledge they need to identify sex-based inequities and to demand equal opportunities. "Adults have already formed many of their beliefs and habits in terms of gender," says Kathleen Boohene of the Gender Development Institute, the Accra-based organization that started the clubs. "With the gender clubs we are trying to change the attitudes of an emerging generation." Entrance to high schools is very competitive, and only a small number of young people, ranging in age from 15 to 19, attend. Those who make the cut represent the leaders of tomorrow. Of the schools with gender clubs, two are all boys; two, all girls and two, coed. Each club has patron teachers, who have been involved with the program from its beginning in February 2001, receiving training and support from the institute. The clubs have about 40 to 50 members each, with almost half being boys. Many boys say they join out of curiosity or to learn more about girls, but stay because the information and activities are interesting. Gender club members learn negotiation skills and practice assertion in role-playing exercises, such as how one can react if told they are the wrong gender for a job. They also hold lively debates about whether men or women make better leaders or whether certain jobs are only for men or only for women. Because of the clubs, students are able to talk about inequalities, violence and discrimination in society, says Harold Opuku, 18, a compound prefect, or house leader, at Labone Senior Secondary School in Accra. "I think it is important for we, the youth, to learn about these things," he says. "Before the gender club, we defined jobs for boys and jobs for girls, but now we share the work equally." In Ghana, the general upkeep of a school has traditionally been delegated to the female students, while the task of reading lessons in class has been one for the boys. "Before, we the prefects did not allow the girls to do the readings in class. Also, it was always the girls doing the sweeping and the cleaning," says Amatou, a first assistant girls' prefect at Labone School. "Now the boys and the girls work together: We all read, we all clean and we all sweep." For most students, the clubs are their first introduction to the idea of gender. Now, when they perceive gender bias, the students are not afraid to point it out to their teachers or to one another, and the issue is usually resolved satisfactorily, Amatou says. "At first we the boys were using the words 'gender equity' as kind of a joke," says Frederick Appiah, a senior boys' prefect at Labone. "The gender club has helped us to know each other better and has changed the way we relate to each other in the classroom and on campus." Following discussions about how women and girls are socialized into silence, more girls are now taking the initiative to speak out and participate in the classroom. There is also a growing recognition that girls can hold leadership positions within the school, rather than always occupying secondary roles. The clubs have also inspired some teachers to re-examine their teaching practices. Visual arts teacher Efua Akyeampong says that the gender club has encouraged her to avoid stereotyping and to mix up the tasks she assigns to students. Now she will insist that the boys perform morning clean-up, and will give both male and female students equal opportunities to read and present their work in class. The clubs, funded by local and international donors, have met with some opposition. Though the program works through the school system and depends on the cooperation of school officials, gender roles are still narrowly defined in Ghana, and the clubs challenge very deeply held traditions and beliefs. Club members, especially the male students, are sometimes ridiculed for their involvement. Boys have been criticized for their participation in a club that encourages women to "take over," says Evans Prempeh, president of the gender club at Labone. "Some people say that we speak against the rules in the Bible, that God says women should submit themselves to men," he says. "Some of the other teachers say that there will never be gender equity in Ghana, because nature has ordained that men should be the leaders." But the success of the pilot program has led the Gender Development Institute to begin expanding the clubs to other schools. They have started forming new clubs in the country's central region and hope to eventually expand throughout the country. The handful of existing clubs has taken the new ideas about gender from the schoolyard to the home. In Ghana, women and girls are generally responsible for household work, including cooking, fetching water and cleaning. Many of the students have brought their ideas about gender back to their towns and villages, sharing their ideas with their childhood friends and families. "At first my brother found it difficult to help around the house," says Eugenia Ocloo, a 17-year old club member at Labone, "but I talked to my mother about what I learned about gender equity and now we both share the work." Another student says that bringing these ideas home has helped her to be a better student. "Now," says Abigail Agbo, a 16-year-old gender club vice president at Labone, "if I am to cook before studying, my brother helps me. This has helped me to learn more." Deborah Walter works in media for development and as a freelance writer. (WOMENSENEWS is a specialized service (www.womensEnews.org) that reports the issues that matter to women)
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