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Textbook example of gender equality

It's crucial that the UAE Ministry of Education takes steps to address gender equality in school textbooks.

Two sisters and two brothers sit at the beach, building two sandcastles. The two boys eventually succeed in building a sturdy castle and get praised by their mother, while the two girls' efforts get washed away by the waves.

The story is one example of how females are portrayed in school textbooks in the UAE. Children in Grade 2 read this story as part of their studies. They also see an illustration of the two girls laughing after their failed attempt to build the sandcastle.

For decades, Unesco has reported that illustrations are powerful materials in textbooks because they stimulate the interest of young pupils. They are often used to highlight, simplify and symbolise the essential message. But is this the right message we want our children to receive?

Following the Federal Cabinet's decision to make it compulsory for companies and government agencies to have women on the boards of directors, analysts at a seminar held by the Dubai School of Government have recommended introducing gender-equality lessons into school curricula, as The National reports today.

Gender-rights advocates warned, however, that the idea of forcing men to accept women in high positions is not realistic. Society will probably continue to undervalue the contributions made by women, and fail to recognise their potential, if people believe that female executives gained their positions merely because of quotas. Experts also point out that changing cultural biases should begin at an early age.

In UAE society, many boys are raised believing that women are simply not as capable as men in many areas. The country ranks 107 out of 135 countries in The Global Gender Gap Report 2012, having fallen four places since last year.

Continuing to have books in the school curriculum, such as the one above, will leave the imprint of a negative stereotype in young pupils' minds. Most poignantly, such textbooks can affect how girls view themselves, undermining their confidence and leading them to question their abilities and life opportunities.

It's crucial that the Ministry of Education takes steps to address such textbooks and how they relate to gender equality. Fairer Grade 2 textbooks will not change everything, but it would be a beginning.

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