Son Surplus and Daughter Deficit: How game-play is transforming gender norms in Nepal
On a Wednesday afternoon in the Siraha district of Nepal, high school principal Shivanarayan Yadav gathers the 9th and 10th grade students in his class to play a game. The students listen intently as Yadav explains that they will be playing the Son/Daughter Game to learn about how a child’s sex is determined.
After speaking for a few minutes to give the students facts about eggs and sperm, Yadav has the students stand in two parallel lines to play the game. One line will play the male partners and the other will play the female partners. Yadav gives the students representing the female partners one seed to represent the female x chromosome within the egg, and gives the students in the male partner line a seed of one of two colors, representing either an x or y chromosome within the sperm.
One pair at a time, the male partner gives a seed to the female partner without looking. If the seed matches the color of the woman’s seed, representing two x chromosomes, the child will be a girl. If the colors are different, representing an x chromosome and a y chromosome, it will be a boy.
Yadav says he has embraced the game as a fast and effective way to teach a complicated subject. “When it’s taught to them through games, students understand quicker. When it’s taught to them the traditional way, they understand very slowly. We say XX and XY chromosomes but with the simple use of seeds, students understand everything easily. What we take hours to teach can be taught in two minutes here.”
For these students, learning about sex determination has implications beyond the classroom. Nepal has made great strides in education and literacy; yet gender disparities persist and many cultural norms reinforce a preference for sons over daughters. Women are often blamed and stigmatized for having daughters. They may face violence, divorce, forced abortion, and pressure to continually conceive until a son is born, despite the biological reality that women’s bodies do not dictate the sex of their children.
For these reasons, Yadav says the Son/Daughter game is necessary. “The problems that we faced yesterday and are facing today, we won’t face tomorrow,” he said, “Because the children that play the games are the parents of tomorrow. If they know that no one is to blame for the gender of a child, the tradition of threatening, beating women, or marrying again in hopes for a son will lessen.”
The Son/Daughter Game (modified from Care International’s “Bead Game”) is one of nine community games called Pragati. The games improve reproductive health knowledge and address harmful gender norms negatively affecting reproductive health outcomes in Nepal. The activities and information in the games are complemented by a series of critical reflection questions. In the Son/Daughter game, the participants reflect on the ways son preference devalues girls and places unfair pressure on wives as — well as their husbands who may feel socially pressured or emasculated.
One student in the class, Majit, says he’s learned a lot by playing the games. “I feel they are extremely important and they piqued my interest too. I like how it talks about community problems and women’s issues. In the son-daughter game, we learned that gender just happens. People blame the mother if they have a daughter, but there is no role of the woman in the gender of the child. The game made it clear to us…I am not married but these games have taught me how to approach married life.”
In communities where the Son/Daughter game and other Pragati games were played, qualitative findings showed reduced discrimination against women along with improvements in communication and relationships among couples and families. This research suggests links between providing accurate information, the complications of long-standing social and gender norms, and improvements in women’s lives.
Community-level games were a first step. Now, to increase the reach of these messages and further combat harmful gender norms that reinforce son preference in Nepal and abroad, IRH is collaborating with the social initiative GRID to turn the games into apps. The apps, called Nari Paila, will be free to download in Nepali and English on Android smartphones in early 2019.
In the app version of the Son/Daughter game, players assume the avatars of a young Nepali couple who are being pressured by a family elder to have a son. The game requires players to navigate this challenge via applied learning. Along the way, a helpful goat educates the couple on reproductive biology through game-play, while the adversarial yeti complicates the situation by promoting myths about reproduction. Through the game, players learn about the role of chromosomes in sex determination and how, even though the male chromosome determines the sex of a baby, no one has the power to decide the sex of a baby.
Look for the Nari Paila games in February 2019!