Sofía Valdivielso

The Gender and Education Office (GEO) of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) was established to help break down traditional sex roles and to counter implicit gender attitudes that assume the superiority of one sex over the other – a form of hegemony that is also cultivated in language. The point is not merely to recognize the differences between the sexes and respect them as equal. In close cooperation with other regional and global women’s networks, GEO pursues political advocacy, particularly at the major UN social conferences, while monitoring compliance with mutually agreed resolutions and commitments.

Language, Gender and Equality

A Perspective from ICAE and its Gender and Education Office


The crisis of a social system based on the division of roles according to sex is one of the dilemmas facing our emerging information society.

Change in general leads to confusion. We are living in an age when the new system has not yet been born while the old has not yet died. Men as well as women are limited by traditional identities based on sex. In the hegemonic gender models, both sexes have been locked within very rigid roles. Hegemonic masculinity, which consigns rational thinking, control, and power to male identity, has prevented men from developing and expressing the emotional sides of their personalities. And hegemonic femininity, which requires women to be emotional, sensitive, and self-sacrificing, has denied them the right to all those aspects that are held to be masculine. In so far as masculinity has always been defined in opposition to femininity, it has hindered both men and women from becoming integrated human beings. The process of overcoming this dichotomy has already been initiated. But old attitudes and behaviour patterns persist. The number of women who die each year as the result of male violence testifies to the prevailing domination and control of one sex over the other.

In order to overcome this dichotomy and construct more integral and holistic models of identity, we must become more sensitive to the obstacles which prevent the emergence of societies whose people are diverse but equal. Education as a social process is one of the spaces where gender identities are constructed. A good education based on the recognition of, and respect for, difference is fundamental to overcoming outdated models.

This is a complex task hampered by numerous obstacles. Two aspects, in particular, as I see it, are closely related. One is language – the words we use to describe the realities in which we are immersed. Language may appear to be neutral, but in fact it is not. Behind every word we use to name our world there is a power relation. It is men who have traditionally named reality for women. And, in the majority of cases, we women have accepted the language they use. This uncritical acceptance has prevented us from reflecting on our reality.

The other aspect is the fact that the people in charge of facilitating the emergence of more appropriate identities generally continue to operate with outdated models laden with deeply entrenched prejudices.

In the 1990s, especially after the Peking World Conference on Women, women’s issues began to acquire political importance everywhere in the world. Institutions were created, among other things, to foster equality, to monitor adherence to the commitments made by the various governments, and to implement positive action policies designed to narrow the gender gap.

At first, these institutions put us all into one single category. In so doing, they implied a homogenization of all women. We are all women. Nevertheless, reality is not something that is singular and universal, but rather plural and multiple. As women we are equal in many respects. But there are also many factors that differentiate us. Disregarding differences can only result in a reproduction of the status quo.

The present article seeks to examine these two dimensions: language and equality. To do so, it will first be necessary to clarify the meaning of a number of concepts. Although we tend to believe that using the same words means that we are proceeding from the same understanding of them, this, unfortunately, is not always the case. Conflict and misunderstanding are frequently the result. In a second step, we will take a closer look at GEO as an example of an educational network which works toward a more equitable and just education.

A Few Conceptual Clarifications

The conceptual framework within which we work is very broad. In our opinion, it is encumbered by social prejudices which, in the majority of cases, prevent us from knowing what position is being represented and what message is being conveyed about women. For this reason it is necessary to clarify certain basic concepts. To delimit the subject with which we are dealing, given the limited scope of this paper, we have chosen to concentrate on two concepts that we consider important: gender and equality.


The concept of gender emerged during the 1980s with the aim of breaking with the tradition of biological determinism implicit in the use of the term ‘sex’. This new analytic category revealed the cultural character of the identity constructions of men and women.

There is no normative and unequivocal definition of gender. First introduced at the height of a phase of theoretical effervescence, the concept has undergone continuous refinement and further development as research in the field has progressed.

The concept of “gender” was first appropriated to emphasize the cultural as opposed to the biological connotations in the word “sex”. The basic idea was to underline the idea that women’s inferior position has to do with reasons of a sociocultural nature rather than being intrinsic to human nature. This initial interpretation was soon regarded as too limiting. It was criticized for its determinism as well as for the dualistic approach that draws a parallel between feminine-woman and masculine-man. According to these first assumptions ‘sex’ refers to the biological characteristics which distinguish women from men (anatomical, physiological, hormonal, and other such distinctions), and ‘gender’ refers to the characteristics attributed to women and men by society and culture. (Cobo Bedía, 1995; Lagarde, 1996).

For Seyla Benhabib, gender is a relational category that seeks to explain the construction of a certain kind of difference among human beings. (Benhabib.1992: 52).

Over the course of the past 20 years, the conception of gender has undergone four fundamental shifts: (Martín 2006):

The shift away from sex-gender identification: At the very beginning, the argument was introduced that biological sex is not destiny. And, as ethnography has demonstrated, there are no innate and universal qualities which are automatically applicable to men and women in all cultures. Accordingly, as a social construction, the concept of gender filled a gap and proved to be a valid and operative interdisciplinary concept.

The shift away from generic duality: Gender, which was introduced as a concept in contrast and reaction to the biological determinism of sex, was likewise constructed as a binary category (masculine/feminine); but because this duality failed to take other practices and multiple identity constructions into consideration, it proved to be inappropriate. Accordingly, it was redefined as an abstract, multidimensional, and relational category of analysis.

The shift away from sexual duality: Studies on sexuality proposed that the concept of sex is also a social construct, and ethnographers introduced the argument that in various cultures there are other notions of gender besides the categories man and woman. This led to a redefinition of gender, based on the idea that rather than biological sex, there are diverse socio-sexual perceptions which are specific to society.

The shift away from heteronormativity: With the emergence of discourses criticizing that gender ignores sexual practices outside the boundaries of heteronormativity, it became necessary to reframe theories which seek to take into consideration how non-normative sexualities affect the construction of gender.

The different feminist theories agree on the premise that gender is a historical, social, and cultural process rather than a fact of nature. According to this approach, more than a category, gender is a broad theoretical framework of categories, hypotheses, interpretations, and knowledge relating to the collection of historical phenomena constructed around sex. Gender is present in the world, in societies, in social subjects, in their relationships, in politics, and in culture.


In everyday speech the term equality is synonymous with identity in the sense of identicalness. We say that two things are equal, or that they are identical. We also use the word equal as a synonym for sameness when we say that things are equal in the sense that they are the same. The confusion reflected in the common use of this term tends to lead to the assumption that the opposite of equality is difference. And this, in turn, generates the dilemma that if equality is perceived as something good, it follows that difference is something that is bad and should be eliminated. Or put the other way around, if difference is perceived as good, then the struggle for equality should be abandoned, considering that no one wishes to be identified as equal in a world that celebrates diversity. Taking this line of reasoning to the extreme, if the notion of difference leads us to deny universality, the logical conclusion would be to say that if women – or the poor, or immigrants – are different, the fact simply has to be accepted. As a consequence, an intolerable inequality is reduced to something that is considered perfectly natural.

In a call for terminological precision, Amorós (2005) emphasizes that synonymity of this type is nocuous. She argues that the concept should be used in the enlightened sense, i.e. equality as being entirely synonymous with identity.

“We speak of identity when we refer to a set of indiscernible terms that share a common assumption. If we state that “all indios are lazy”, or that “all women are emotional”, we imply that all the subjects subsumed under that assumption are identical, and that they are, therefore, indiscernible under that common assumption. Nevertheless, when we speak of equality, we refer to a relation of harmonization according to the same parameters that determine the same rank, and make the same comparison of subjects that are perfectly discernible.”
(Amorós, 2005: 287)

Isabel Santa Cruz (1992) reconstructs the grid on which equality is inscribed. Three concepts emerge from this matrix to give a more precise definition of the concept of equality. The first concept, “equipotency”, implies that two people have the same ability to act. The second, “equivalence”, presupposes that two people have the same value and are situated at the same level on a scale of values that can perfectly well be different. For example, if we say that justice is as important as solidarity, or that masculine values are as important as feminine values, we are drawing equivalencies precisely because of the fact that they are different. Finally, the concept of “equiphonia”, or the capacity to have the same recognition in discourse, assumes the capacity to maintain a discourse that enjoys the same credibility as the other discourse and is perceived as equally reliable. (Santa Cruz, 1992)

Following this logic, the right to difference presupposes the right to equality as understood according to the above-mentioned matrix. Any difference not included on this matrix must be challenged. There are differences that are undesirable because they are unjust. Equality, hence, is something that needs to be constructed. And it needs to be contrasted not with difference but with inequality, for all inequality is ethically intolerable. Accordingly, our task consists of defending and furthering the right to equality because it is not just biological differences that are part of nature, but human differences as well. They are facts of life. Inequalities, on the other hand, are the consequences of unjust human realities.

The Gender and Education Office (GEO) of the International Council of Adult Education (ICAE)

GEO has its origins in the Women’s Programme of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE), which was originally based in Canada. In 1996, the objectives of the Women’s Programme were redefined and adapted to meet new needs in education and gender. In the following year, the Gender and Education Office was set up in Montevideo, Uruguay, and, with the support of the Latin American Popular Education Network among Women REPEM and its infrastructure, was entrusted with managing and coordinating activities relating to gender issues. The office’s chief mission is to promote education as a strategic tool toward the realization of justice and equality in gender relations.

GEO was formed as a multicultural, interregional, and global network. It responds to a wide range of different priorities from diverse regions, and it works locally and globally to establish and promote cooperative and horizontal relations with the various NGOs and networks, but also with stakeholders such as universities. It seeks to disseminate knowledge, to raise awareness, and to foster the sharing of experience and materials relating to education and gender between and among local, regional, and international institutions.

Priorities in the work of GEO include: reinforcing gender mainstreaming in public policies, enhancing women’s advocacy work, and monitoring and following up on commitments made in the course of the so-called UN Social Cycle of conferences.

GEO publishes a monthly Internet periodical called “Voices Rising”. Geared to people and organizations engaged in the promotion of education and gender, the publication enjoys worldwide readership. The periodical disseminates information sent in by readers interested in sharing their knowledge, and it seeks to facilitate cooperation between and among the various actors in different regions of the world.

The office works closely with other networks, notably with REPEM (the Network of Popular Education among Women), DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era), FEMNET (the African Women’s Development and Communication Network) and Social Watch (an international network of citizens’ organizations), forming in the process what can rightly be called a network of networks.

From its inception, GEO has played a very active role in the sector. It has participated in virtually every conference organized by the United Nations, and always with the same objective: to bring the message and the language of CONFINTEA into each and every one of the spaces created for reflection and debate. This participation has facilitated a better and clearer understanding of the interconnectedness of everything, and has fostered the realization that the problems we currently face cannot be solved by a single agency or a one-sided sector approach.

On the conviction that education is one of the factors that will make this possible, we have therefore formed a network of women feminists interested in developing justice in gender relations. We proceed on the assumption that education is a universal right, and that it is not a concession to be granted, but something that we are entitled to by the mere fact of having been born, regardless of our place of birth, gender, race, or membership in a particular social class. Based on these fundamental principles, we work in three different directions that we consider interrelated and interdependent.

As an education network, our main mission is to affirm and emphasize that education is a strategic instrument toward achieving greater justice and equality between genders, races, ethnic groups, and social classes. To make this happen, it is absolutely necessary, in our opinion, to conduct advocacy work in every sphere where issues related to human rights and education are debated, and wherever policies in those connections are designed.

Over the past decade, in addition to participating at the conferences sponsored by the United Nations, we have played an active role in the events organized by nongovernment organizations. From its very beginnings, we have participated in the World Social Forum, the international organization committee of which ICAE is currently a member.

Our aim in being an active part of this process is to ensure that the resolutions relating to the significance of education for all – girls and boys, and women and men alike – and specifically the resolutions adopted at international conferences on education, are respected and reaffirmed in future conferences so as to avoid the need to “recreate the wheel”. Duplication, to our mind, is a waste of energy and does not lead to better results.

In this sense, our presence at these forums enables us to call attention to points of intersection in the various agendas. We can open up spaces of communication beyond the areas that traditionally fall within the domain of education, and we can contribute our insight to the discussion of issues that are not restricted to education. What we learn in other forums, we can introduce in circles that focus on education.

Working along these lines is a difficult and slow process, but we are convinced that it helps us avoid the kind of fragmented thinking that views reality as being organized around single topics or isolated disciplines. It enables us to move forward with a more integral approach which includes, but also transcends, the specific knowledge of different disciplines and spheres.

Research is another dimension which defines the work of GEO (GEO, 1999, 2003….). Besides the fact that we consider it important to demonstrate what we profess, our research provides us with useful tools to support our lobby work. Our first research study involved the elaboration of indicators to follow up on the resolutions adopted by CONFINTEA V. The results of our study were presented two years later at the first follow-up conference held in Manila. We conducted an analysis of indicators relating to gender issues. Our methodology served as the basis for a broader subsequent study coordinated by ICAE. That study, known as the “Shadow Report”, was presented at the CONFINTEA midterm review which was held in September 2003 in Bangkok. From then until 2010, when CONFINTEA VI was held in Belém, we directed our energies towards working in networks with other sectors and stakeholders, on the conviction that cooperation between and among sectors and actors is crucial in the search for alternatives to a multidimensional and complex reality. We have participated in the various World Social Forums, Global Action Weeks, and the Global Call to Action against Poverty. And we have played an active role in organizing follow-up conferences and measures on the Millennium Development Goals and the International Civil Society Forum (FISC) in anticipation of the next International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA.)

A third dimension of our work involves the interconnectedness of local and global issues. In the awareness that global changes have a concrete impact on our local communities, and that global and local processes are intrinsically interrelated, GEO works at both levels, and does so in concert with local networks. We are mindful of the context in which life develops, of our links to the Earth and the territories in which we are located, of the concrete people who live there – the boys and girls, the men and women alike. At the same time, however, we are careful not to lose sight of the global context where decisions are made that affect each and every one of us.


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