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Mexico takes the battle for gender respect to the classroom

Incidents of 'machismo' – experienced everywhere from streets to schools – combined with growing violence against women, are lending urgency to calls for discussion around gender relations.

Whitney Eulich
Carmen Guzmán, a second-year Teach for Mexico fellow in rural Guanajuato, teaches a course on gender violence, respect, and human rights. On Jan. 19, 2018, she shows her class of high school seniors a photo that leads to a discussion about cat-calling, why people do it, and how it makes the targets feel.

When Carmen Guzmán Orozco first arrived at the Telebachillerato Comunitario San Andrés de Baraña as a teaching fellow in 2016, she was taken aback.

It wasn’t the lack of water or internet connection that surprised her at this school of 140 high school students – it was the whistles.

“I’d walk by the classrooms and boys would openly whistle at me,” says Ms. Guzmán, a 20-something, second-year fellow with Enseña por Mexico (Teach for Mexico), a program modeled after Teach for America that places high-achieving college graduates in public schools here for two years.

Guzmán’s fellowship includes identifying a problem and coming up with a project to address it. The teachers are asked to watch for issues that take kids out of school, but aren't necessarily directly related to education – such as organized crime – and to create courses around them. In Guzmán’s case, after spending time in this rural community on the outskirts of Silao, Guanajuato, where stereotypes about gender roles run rampant, she quickly realized there was a need for a course on gender violence, respect, and human rights.

Such classes are not common in Mexico, where a conservative religious outlook influences classroom culture, and views about gender – often introduced and enforced in the home – can be difficult to counter with coursework. But incidents of “machismo,” like those Guzmán encountered, combined with growing violence against women, are lending urgency to the need for more discussion around these topics.

“Women killed in this country have left a historic imprint on our society,” says Daniel Hernández Rosete Martínez, a professor who researches masculinity and violence in education at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. “Machismo is deeply, deeply ingrained.”

The conservative, Catholic roots in Mexico mean that few teachers want to recognize – or broach – gender, machismo, or the human body in the classroom, he explains. And brushing over these conversations has lasting effects.

Deep thinking in class

On a recent Friday afternoon, some 30 high school students sit in a circle, examining a black and white photo. The woman in the picture is walking down the sidewalk, and a string of men in the background appear to be calling out to her, heckling. 

Guzmán invites the students to describe what they observe.

“She looks uncomfortable,” says one student, Lupita, tugging on the collar of her school uniform, a dark blue v-neck sweater.

“I imagine her getting dressed that morning and feeling very confident,” shares another student across the room, Karla. “But once she gets on the street, these men are interpreting her clothes as something for them.” 

“The men think she’s beautiful, but they’re expressing it poorly,” offers up a young man named Oscar. “It’s making her uncomfortable.”

“Do you think she likes what the men are saying?” asks Guzmán. The group responds with a unanimous “no.” The conversation moves toward the students’ personal lives: has anyone ever experienced this behavior? “Yes.” Has anyone participated in it? Hands shoot up in the air – “yes.”

These second-semester seniors, who started the workshop with Guzmán last fall, say the conversations with her and their peers, are some of the first about gender, violence, and machismo they’ve had in their 18 years of life.

“When the workshop started, I didn’t think women really suffered that much violence in Mexico,” says senior Juan Martín Santibañez, adding that he is gay and has always considered himself an ally to his female friends. “But then I realized, I had been violent toward my female friends on various occasions, making people uncomfortable without really realizing it. Pinching them or insulting them [based on their gender]. We’re all thinking a lot more about our behavior.” 

On average, seven or more women are killed every day in Mexico, according to a 2017 joint report by the Mexican government and the United Nations, which blames increased drug violence for an uptick seen in recent years. In 2016, 2,746 women lost their lives specifically because of their gender. 

“There hasn’t been success in changing the cultural patterns that devalue women and consider them disposable,” the report says. It defines femicide as the killing of women by their intimate partners. 

Creating resources

Aside from headlines about missing or murdered women, the topic of machismo and femicide is rarely touched on in a systematic, educational way in Mexican society, observers say. 

That’s something the nonprofit Legalidad Por México has noted as well. The organization was created two years ago by Teach for Mexico staff and alums, and it focuses on identifying challenges in Mexico that may not be directly related to the education system, but impact how students learn – and whether they stay in schoolLegalidad Por México focuses on three broad themes: human rights, crime prevention, and violence prevention. They ask Teach for Mexico fellows to identify problems in their communities that are affecting their students, then train the fellows on how to create a course like the one Guzmán is conducting, offering resources on methodology and evaluation. 

“The hypothesis we had was that if you increase the knowledge of children regarding these three topics, give them tools to defend themselves from organized crime, or violence, or understand their rights, they are going to be better able to increase their level of education,” says Ángeles Estrada González, managing director and co-founder of Legalidad Por México.

Ms. Estrada says she noted that there are problems that are unique to different regions of Mexico – such as bullying or environmental degradation. But one issue seemed to have a universal presence in all of the communities where fellows work: gender discrimination.

“It’s not just something we were hearing about in the north or the south. No, it’s something all around Mexico,” Estrada says.

Recognizing violence

Guzmán, who hopes to work for a gender-focused nongovernmental organization or women’s collective after finishing her Teach for Mexico commitment in July, says violence is normalized here. “Any kind of violence, it’s all considered natural,” she says. “It’s ‘normal’ that an argument ends in death. It’s ‘normal’ for boys and girls in school to hit each other.”

The first several weeks of her course focused on demystifying these ideas. She spoke to the students about the many different kinds of violence – economic, physical, verbal – and their basic human rights, like the right to keep studying, even if a boyfriend or parent pressures them to drop out of school.

“In the street, [my classmates] really started to put this class into practice,” explains Juan, the senior, saying they now call each other out if someone is being disrespectful or violent in any way.

Abernece Valdez, a 17-year-old senior who has experienced catcalls walking to school, says she’s “learned a ton” from the course. “I didn’t know that I have a right to education,” she explains.

She’s since started conversations in her home that she never could have imagined before. “My dad is a little machista,” she says. “He wouldn’t let me wear shorts or skirts because he said it would provoke men.”

With the vocabulary and tools she learned in Guzmán’s course, she was able to sit down with her parents and talk about why she wanted to wear shorts: When it’s hot outside, it’s more comfortable for her. “It’s not for men,” she says. To her surprise, her father conceded. 

But it also made her realize something important about her own behavior, she says.

“My boyfriend would yell at me. He grabbed me. When we started the workshop I learned that wasn’t normal. Before, I thought it was just what happened, or that I provoked it,” she says.

“I learned that there’s no point where it’s OK to get violent.”

She dumped him.

“Access to information can create change,” Guzmán says, hopeful that her work and her students will put a dent in machismo. The students are now tasked with teaching the same course to their family and community members. “These lessons are reaching [beyond] my classroom.”

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