13.11.2013 - UNESCO Office in Santiago

Hernando Muñoz, UNESCO consultant on homophobic bullying: School is a place of life and for life, not for bullying.

Photo: Ministry of Education, Costa Rica

In late October, Costa Rica hosted the first International Forum on Integral Sexuality and Affectivity, organized by the country’s Ministry of Public Education (MEP) with the support of OREALC/UNESCO Santiago. The event aimed to strengthen programmes on sexuality and affectivity at Costa Rican schools, calling together specialists from Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico to share their perspectives with students, teachers, guidance counsellors, and school principals.

One of the guest speakers was Hernando Muñoz, a professor at the Universidad de Antioquia, who holds a degree in education administration, professional qualifications in social work, a specialisation in family issues in the field of social research, and a Master’s in cooperation and development, and who also is a doctoral candidate specialising in gender studies. Muñoz sits on the board of directors of Colombia Diversa, and is a vocal activist on gender issues, particularly relating to concepts of masculinity.

What are some key statistics on homophobic bullying at schools? What warning signs should we be on the lookout for? 

The conceptualisation of homogeneity that our culture establishes, that failure to value differences - indeed, society goes to great length to eliminate them. There is an idea that we should all be equal based on “normalcy”, the norm that says that you should be white, middle class or higher, heterosexual, willing to form your own family with father, mother, and children, etc.

The media are running ever more stories about one child hitting another for being black, for seeming gay, girls fighting for seeing each other as thin or fat, systematic harassment where differences are not accepted by either side. We should be aware of the school as a place where values and principles are learned, of how we pass on differences. Education should change from the earliest levels, moving towards more plural education that emphasizes the creation of citizenship, and most of all that leaves people happy in themselves after they complete it. Attention must be paid to the violence that can arise in the school, to how students are treated and valued, the jokes they make, etc.

In your presentation, you talked about the need to “raise awareness in addressing issues of discrimination and exclusion in education spaces”. Are we still in the stage of breaking the silence?

Yes, absolutely. Teachers are not trained in dealing with these situations, and in particular in the case of homophobic bullying, many teachers agree with the idea of such bullying because what predominates is what is “normal”. There is an urgent need to train teachers and the education community, to provide them with arresting and high quality educational materials. This is a struggle that is barely beginning; we have to break the silence every day, as every day sees bullying in the classroom. We have to win over teachers so that they will dare to address this form of bullying, and to take action against it. School is a place of life and for life. We do not want a single more suicide!

One strategy to address this problem is to change the traditional perspective on sexuality (marriage, procreation, couples, etc.), and redefine the body as a space for free choice and building an identity; what does that imply?

It implies a transformation of world views that is going to take a long time, but that I believe to be urgent, necessary, and possible. It must be understood that today children and young people hear about sexuality from a very early age, so this issue must be talked about at school, we have to address the issue and we have to do so well, with clarity, with perspective, with respect. We have to change the approach of equating sexuality with sexual or reproductive health, or teaching more about sexually transmitted diseases or condoms. Sexuality is everything! And we need to do this from a rights-based perspective.

What recommendations would you offer in the struggle to eradicate or prevent homophobia?

It is not easy, there are no guaranteed formulas, but every person - and teachers in particular - must work to overcome their own fears and prejudices. It is about understanding that talking positively and telling the truth about homosexuality, about LGTB people, is not inducing anything or changing anything. The task is to allow the existence of happy people regardless of the colour of their skin, their ethnic group, their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. School should be an unequivocal discourse, going over and above personal beliefs, showing respect for all members of the school community. I believe that governments should make an effort towards training and research to provide teaching materials that will help teachers to address this issue.

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