Bigger Than Boxes: Gender and Social Justice in the Classroom

Bigger Than Boxes presented by GAD (Gender and Development Committee)
Olivia Dawson, 129 YinD

Gender and Social Justice in the Classroom: A Prompt for Self Reflection to Get You Started

Background Info

Did you know that Thailand’s own women’s empowerment movements can be traced back to its roots in modernizing and industrializing during the early 19th century? However, based on research by Thai scholar Duanghathai Buranajaroenkij prior to this, women in rural contexts had equal roles in the agricultural production and manufacturing as their male counterparts. Additionally, in Thailand’s history, men moved in with their wife’s family, and thus wives were not economically dependant on their husbands, because both men and women received equal inheritances from their respective families. Therefore, kinship lines for both men and women were given equal importance. Thai women have had the ability to own property and have land rights since the 1860’s onward. According to UN Women, 57 percent of PhD’s awarded in Thailand today are to women, which is the fifth highest rate in the world; and science researchers in Thailand are 51 percent female. Additionally, according to the Foundation of Women, Thailand recognized women’s rights as human rights under the National Economic and Social Development Plan in 1997 and Thailand guaranteed 90 days maternity leave as of 1993. While gender equity dynamics are much more complex than these few statistics, are these facts surprising to you? Keep that answer in the back of your mind as you read further.


Integrating social justice into a classroom, at its most fundamental, requires a reflection upon yourself and your own values, beliefs, and lenses that you carry with you. It’s necessary to grasp what intersectionality looks like so you can better address your students varying expressions of identity. Much of the article will include prompts for you to question yourself, and see where you can bring more intentionality to the work you do at site. If you are confused about the use of the word intersectionality in this context feel free to check out this video which explains it in an American context:

Thinking Critically about Gender

The following questions are based on the University of San Francisco Education Department’s strategies to integrate social justice into the classroom. [1] Beyond these, they also recommend creating a visual representation of the issues you wish to address. Luckily, infographics concerning gender in Thailand can also be found on the GAD website for your use, in your classroom or otherwise. (Infographics are located on the right-hand side of the Toolkits webpage.)

When you are thinking about your lesson plans and creating your curriculum, are you creating a safe space in your classroom? Are you setting norms about respectful interactions for both you and your students? Some of the mechanics of how to do this will be addressed at Student Friendly Schools Conference in the coming months. Handouts in both Thai and English can be found on the GAD website under the SFS tab.[2] 

Are you creating time and space for your students, your co-workers, and generally the people around you to tell you about potential gender-equity issues? Are you building those relationships, ones where you act as listener? Are you then addressing those issues, through counterpart or student-identified projects? Instead of having a set idea of what gender empowerment looks like, listen to how those around you view or think about this topic and develop projects based off of those suggestions. For example, gender empowerment to us might look like creating opportunities for the girls in our communities to play soccer since it is a highly gendered activity here. However, they might find listening to women business owners and women community leaders a better fit for their vision of what gender empowerment looks like. This might differently address the lack of opportunity for female leadership that many Thai scholars note when talking about gender dynamics in Thailand.

When creating service learning components to the work you do at site, are you keeping those gender-equity issues in mind? Are you asking your students to consider where or how they fit into their communities, and what makes them feel worthwhile there? This can be as basic as considering geographic space; for example, the Wat can be a highly gendered space in some communities that boys are encouraged to extra spend time at, but girls are not. So when thinking about service learning, consider if your students of varying genders will feel comfortable in the spaces you want to serve.[3]

Power Dynamics and Gender

Intersectionality and empowerment narratives as a volunteer exist in a globalized context.[4] As such, we too must ask ourselves to reflect upon our place among them. In a classroom context, an intersectional perspective can be used to better affirm the students around you and not create a limiting narrative of what empowerment looks like. Globalized empowerment, be it about gender-related issues or otherwise, cannot be an unquestioned good within a development context. Our own ideas of empowerment as volunteers are deeply entrenched in power relationships at all levels of society and our own cultural context. Our labor then must consider power within ourselves as an individual, power within others and our relationships, and power to bring about change within institutions.[5] We have to consider this on an individual basis for ourselves and then cast a wider net for the communities we serve.   


Empowerment can be a process where all genders subvert/challenge norms and expectations, but not always. It’s important we as volunteers self-reflect on how empowerment narratives have been presented in our non-Peace Corps lives. Consider what gender empowerment looks like to you? That narrative is probably not the best cultural fit for the communities we serve, and that is fine. It’s okay to keep those in mind when we create learning  spaces for our students, but recognize that they will probably have very different narratives of what empowerment looks like for themselves.

Can you name and place those narratives you may have experienced? How do they reflect your own experience with gender? Is this culturally appropriate to also expect of your students? In many cases it might not be, and this can be a form of imperialism when we as volunteers misapply our narratives.[6] 

To take this one step further, what about your own cultural consumption? Are you consuming experiences outside of your own in the books you are reading, in the television you are watching? Are you integrating an expectation to take your own lenses off and empathetically listen to others into your everyday life beyond living at our sites?

Click here to find a classroom activity pertaining to this topic.







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