Building peace in the minds of men and women

Inspiring youth ensuring that every learner matters

03 January 2020

Every learner matters equally, regardless of their specific needs, difference, status and gender. But 25 years after the adoption of the Salamanca Statement, ensuring each learner has an equal opportunity to receive and benefit from an education remains a major issue worldwide. Meet four inspiring youth from around the world who are working to ensure that every learner matters. They attended the International Forum on Inclusion and Equity in Education that took place in Cali, Colombia in September 2019. 

Akshay Raundhal, 24 years old, India, Volunteer at The Humsafar Trust

Based on your experience, why does inclusion in education matter when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Education is for everyone and the fact that institutions are driving away certain students because they are HIV positive needs to be treated as a crime.  It has been proven over time that education is a powerful tool to uplift others. Inclusion in schools helps form a community of diverse people and makes everyone learn the most valuable lessons in life – acceptance and compassion towards each other, a major need for children living with HIV.

What motivated you to become an activist?

During my school years and college life, there was no LGBTQ adult to look up to. Until the age of 17, I didn’t know what being gay meant. The bullying and unsafe environment around me put me into my shell which led to low esteem and anxiety issues. Fortunately, I came across Humsafar Trust. The people there helped me with self-acceptance and that’s when I decided to contribute to my community in some way. I started with volunteering for community events, pride and got involved in tackling health issues that are prevalent in the LGBTQ community.

How was your experience as a gay student? Did you feel included in school?

I wasn’t completely open about my orientation initially in Medical School. I used to be an easy prey to bullies because I wasn’t too masculine. Usual comments behind my back, jokes, loud laughs when I walked down the corridors had become a ritual. It did have a negative impact on my mental and academic health. I decided to turn things around and approached my Dean to ask for her permission to organise a LGBTQ sensitisation workshop in college. The event was successful and from then on, I became openly gay in my college. My confidence helped me to shut down the bullies thereafter.

What did you think your participation at the International forum on inclusion and equity in education brought to the Forum, and how do you think the forum contributed to broadening participants’ perceptions of inclusion?

I had the opportunity to network with people coming from different backgrounds and other youth activists. Together as a group, we talked to people about our work and shared our motto – Keeping LGBTI safe in schools. It was satisfying to see that other participants were receptive about this issue, although I felt it could have been dealt more deeply and given more time in the forum, as issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity or expression are still treated like taboos.

How could we ensure schools and learning settings are truly inclusive for Students living with HIV and LGBTI students?

The best way to ensure inclusiveness is to normalise the concept of HIV and alternate sexualities through a more inclusive curriculum and well-trained teachers. A child's mind is a blank slate and good teachings right from the beginning can help them cure their ignorance.

Teachers need to undergo a mandatory training programme on how to deal with students who are different. The institution should give freedom to students to form LGBTQ support groups helping them to address their issues and to find innovative approaches to reach out to other students. A strict legal framework should be established to avoid that schools deny such students their right to education . All anti-bullying policies should include HIV status as well as sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as frequent drivers of violence and bullying that must be monitored.

Ariana Tran, 27 years old, Vietnam, Vice President of the Young Key Affected Population of Viet Nam

Based on your experience, why does inclusion in education matter when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Several developed countries have introduced sexual and reproductive health and rights education into schools, but in Vietnam, the barrier in teaching sexuality education to children still exists. Many teachers find it difficult and embarrassing to let their students know about gender-related issues, sex and reproductive health because they think these aspects are sensitive and that children should not pay attention to them until they become adults.

Because children and adolescents are not well prepared for problems related to gender, sex and reproductive health, the percentages of unsafe sex, unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections have been increasing rapidly among young people. Teenagers tend to be easily contaminated.

What motivated you to become an activist?

I have been a victim of discrimination myself at school and I personally hope I can do something so that the younger generation has a safer and friendlier environment.

What is your area of focus in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Fighting sexual abuse which, in my area, affects heavily young girls and transgender people. We raise awareness and support young girls, especially transgender girls and women, so they know how to protect themselves from abuse. We also organise extracurricular sessions in schools to provide information to children, as teaching reproductive health and sexual health is not yet implemented in all schools. During these sessions, we focus on educating children about gender, safe sex and HIV.

How was your experience as a transgender student? Did you feel included in school?

When I was in school, I did not know much about gender. I was a boy, with feminine gestures and emotions. My friends teased me, bullied and beat me brutally. During the 8 years of secondary school and high school, I suffered from violence, alienation and discrimination. The teacher didn't care about how I was abused. She only thought that it was mischief and children kidding around. I went through psychological trauma. Sometimes I felt I was depressed and didn’t want to contact anyone. I shrunk into myself, and I could not control my emotions. The moments I was being bullied were always coming back to my mind. Many times I asked myself: "Who am I? Why am I not treated like my peers?” It was not until I went to college that I gradually opened up to people. And it was at that time that I had an opportunity to work as a health activist and psychological counsellor for young people who were discriminated against like me. Working in this field, I hope the next generation will have a safer, friendlier and healthier learning environment.

How could we ensure schools and learning settings are truly inclusive for transgender students?

We should introduce a Gender program for children right from middle school to help them understand their body and help them realise that transgender people are not different from other people.
 

Julian Kerboghossian, 28 years old, Lebanon, Board member of The Global network of people living with HIV and Mpact Global

Based on your experience, why does inclusion in education matter when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights?

It’s our right as young people to have clear and honest information about issues that affect our health in order to make informed decisions on important issues for our lives, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are among them. As per Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child, every child should have “access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual, moral, physical well-being and mental health”. If we don’t have information, then we don’t have knowledge. Without knowledge, we are limited in how we can act for our own health and rights. Education is the starting point – it’s a fundamental right – we need the newest and the most accurate information, shared in an accessible way so we can actually engage with it.

Can you describe your activist role and what are your main fields of action?

As an activist I joined this field 8 years ago and started volunteering at some local organisations moving to the regional level representing young people in several spaces. I currently serve as the vice-chair of the Global Network of People living with HIV and I am a Board member at Mpact global, working for gay men’s health and rights.

My main field of action is advocating for meaningful youth leadership in SRHR, and specifically within the HIV response. Young people are significantly affected by HIV. I am driven to empower young people to demand and claim their seats at the table in high level spaces where decisions taken impact our lives. I am also currently working on setting up a new platform for young people in Middle East and North Africa with the support of UNAIDS and other youth activists in the region which will be announced soon. So stay tuned….!

As a youth leader do you feel LGBTI students and students living with HIV are included in school?

Young LGBTIQ+ people and young people living with HIV around the world continue to be denied their rights to good quality education because of fear, stigma, discrimination and lack of understanding and support from schools and the community. We have been seeing a lot of stories of school dropout, bullying, suicide, violence and even murder targeting young LGBTIQ+ communities all over the world. Education is the key to reduce these hate crimes and suicide incidents among young people who are different through awareness at schools, comprehensive sexuality education, training teachers to teach young learners about the importance of accepting and respecting each other, no matter how different they are.

What did you think your participation at the International forum on inclusion and equity in education brought to the Forum, and how do you think the forum contributed to broadening participants’ perceptions of inclusion?

My participation at the international forum on inclusion and equity in education brought the challenges that young people in all our diversity face accessing education including young people living with HIV, young drug users, young people who sell sex and young LGBTIQ+ people. The challenges of these specific communities are usually neglected and left behind in such spaces so I would like to thank UNESCO for giving us this fantastic opportunity by bringing young people from different backgrounds to share their different experiences and thoughts about inclusion in education which indeed broadened a lot of participants’ perceptions of inclusion. 

How could we ensure schools and learning settings are truly inclusive for LGBTI students and for students living with HIV?

To ensure young LGBTIQ+ students and young students living with HIV are included in schools we need new systems that accept and respect young people and that take into account diversity. We ask governments to create safe, inclusive and egalitarian learning environments for all young people as well as laws and policies that protect young people from stigma, discrimination and violence; and we ask all partners to fund youth-led organisations so we can lead creative media and peer-to-peer initiatives that advance education and promote love and security amongst young people.
 

Lengyi Zhang, 21 years old, China, Core member of Gay and Lesbian Campus Association (GLAC)

Based on your experience, why does inclusion in education matter when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights?

First, classrooms are usually the most important “battleground” where social changes happen. Education shapes how future generations understand the world. If educators cannot convey the values of equality, inclusion and diversity to the students, they might be more inclined to accept homophobia, misogyny and binding gender norms; this uncritical acceptance would only foster a school culture that bullies those who do not conform. Second, for those marginalized students, adolescence is filled with difficulties and vulnerability. The struggles can be unbearable and, yet, they hardly have any support. The lack of support could lead them to take risks, without any knowledge on self-protection.

What motivated you to become an activist?

I was born and lived in a very small town in China where nobody talked about gender at all; nobody ever questioned the norms. During my childhood, I constantly received comments that I was not “a normal girl” from my family, peers, teachers, etc. simply because I did not like wearing dresses. The consequences that these comments conveyed was truly destructive to my self-esteem. I had to force myself to grasp the stereotype of “how to be a girl”. The last straw that pushed me to challenge these norms was when I confronted my sexual orientation for the first time at the age of 16. The process was extremely difficult and lonely. The lack of support in the family and at school stimulated suicidal thoughts. After I slowly accepted myself, I felt that I had to do something for teenagers like me since I understood how difficult it would be.

What is your area of focus in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights?

In Gay and Lesbian Campus Association of China (GLCAC), we help teachers to see the importance of gender/anti-bullying education. By holding 3-days training sessions, we allow teachers to see how gender stereotype is artificial and harmful for everyone; they will also cultivate a comprehensive understanding and empathy for LGBT students’ struggles at school through acting in bullying skits and listening to LGBT students’ stories. Then we would help them to integrate gender education into their curriculum and to develop their personalized plan. After they leave the training session, we supervise their progress during a year.

How was your experience as a LGB student? Did you feel included in school?

It was never easy. Coming out to peers and teachers was extremely painful, especially when the school had neither education nor policy for LGBT visibility. Teachers never talked about gender or sexual orientation other than reinforcing the binary stereotypes. Students’ conversation was deeply shaped by the social norms and media, which usually disseminate homophobic values. LGBT students would not dare to risk themselves and establish their support groups, because coming out to a homophobic community could become a nightmare. I felt that I was hiding a tremendous secret, and that feeling was absolutely suffocating. 

What did you think your participation at the International forum on inclusion and equity in education brought to the Forum, and how do you think the forum contributed to broadening participants’ perceptions of inclusion?

Sharing our work in China to participants around the world was definitely a rewarding experience. Most participants were not quite aware of the importance of inclusive education for LGBT students. I was very glad to see how young LGBT advocates around the world made a contribution together for this issue to be visible. At the same time, I learned the concept of inclusive education much better after attending this forum. I could see for the first time how groups that advocate for different issues could collaborate to combat together. Inclusion cannot be achieved without solidarity. It helped me reexamine how we could convey a vision larger than gender when we train teachers in the future.

How could we ensure schools and learning settings are truly inclusive for LGBT students?

The government must explicitly include gender-based bullying or LGBT student protection in all anti-bullying policies. Without acknowledging such a need, schools would not understand that inclusion for LGBT students matters. However, it is equally important to empower our educators. Most teachers still do not understand how gender stereotypes and homophobia contribute significantly in school bullying; in addition, for those teachers who sincerely wish to help their LGBT students, they could barely improve the situation since they have no training. Therefore, raising teachers’ awareness on gender-based bullying and empowering them with proper training will be the most important step for creating a gender-friendly campus.
 

Photos : UNESCO