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Right from the start: Advancing gender equality through early childhood education

Early Childhood Education

Authors: Jennifer Vu, Ghalia Ghawi, Nicole Rodger, Divya Lata

Gender transformative Early Childhood Education has incredible potential to change the lives of children, their families and communities around the world by addressing gender inequality in the earliest years of a child’s life.

Early childhood is a period of unprecedented growth and development.  During this time,  a child acquires the social, emotional, cognitive and language skills that lay the foundations for their future health, development, wellbeing, positive relationships, and productivity into adulthood.  Early childhood is also a critical period in which children learn the gendered norms, attitudes and expectations of their family, community and society, which impacts how they see themselves in the world. 

Studies have shown that children begin to have an understanding of their gender by the age of two or three. For example, children who adhere to gender stereotypes avoid toys and activities they believe are not relevant for their own sex. Gender stereotypes about girls’ and boys’ intelligence may also be acquired as early as age six, with girls of this age less likely to believe members of their gender are “really, really smart” and therefore avoid activities for “smart” children. By the time children reach primary school, they have already developed an understanding of how they are expected to behave, how they are valued and what their future role in society will be, based on their observations and conditioning around gender norms.


An unmatched opportunity for achieving gender equality  

Globally, enrolment in ECE has increased in the past two decades, with current figures reflecting gender parity in most instances. However, behind the overall gender parity figures lie differences in how girls and boys access quality provision and what their experiences in the classroom are. Studies have found that pre-primary educators often uphold gender stereotypes through their interactions with children, selection of learning materials, and encouragement of gendered childhood play. 

For ECE to realize its gender-transformative potential, there is a need to proactively consider gender equality in the design and implementation of ECE systems. Without this explicit attention, ECE can instead reinforce and reproduce gender inequality. As stated in the recent report by Plan International, Transform Education, UNGEI, and UNICEF, on gender transformative education, education has huge transformational potential. The pre-primary education system, in particular, has a significant role to play in tackling gender inequality  and gender socialization processes right from the start, addressing gender stereotypes and harmful gender norms at the stage that they are being formed. 


Building frameworks for gender equality through a gender transformative systems approach

Early childhood education systems need to move beyond simply improving access to education for girls and reaching gender parity. In taking a gender transformative approach, ECE systems should consider how we can use policy, curriculum, pedagogy, play and learning materials, teacher training and parental engagement programmes to support children and parents/caregivers of all genders to reach their full potential, free from gendered norms and attitudes that are discriminatory and limiting. 

To build gender equitable futures from the earliest years, governments and partners can adopt frameworks, such as UNICEF’s  Build to Last framework, that can help lay the foundation for a coherent pre-primary education system that integrates gender considerations across all its core components for quality service delivery. With the Build to Last framework as a foundation, a forthcoming UNICEF Innocenti report will delve into gender-transformative practices for different areas of the pre-primary subsector, highlighting the role teachers can play as change agents and how parents and caregivers can be engaged to play a key role in their child’s gender socialization. A recent webinar co-hosted by UNICEF and Plan International also focused on advocating for gender-transformative policies and practices in the pre-primary education subsector, recognizing the potential for this to address discriminatory and limiting gender stereotypes, roles and norms, and advance gender equality. 


Getting it right from the start

A gender transformative approach to early childhood education provides an unmatched opportunity to build gender equitable futures for children, their communities, and countries. Governments, with the support of education partners, must play an important role in taking this work forward to incorporate gender-transformative approaches into their pre-primary education systems to combat the gender stereotypes that children of all genders are taught from birth.