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The Philippines Affirmed Equal Rights in Schools – Now It Should Protect Them

Published in: Inquirer.Net

The Department of Education issued a gender-responsive basic education policy on June 29 that calls for an end to discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The policy is an important step toward providing equal rights for all students—but history shows it is unlikely to make a real difference for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth unless the DepEd transforms its promise into meaningful protection.

A poster for an anti-bullying campaign hangs on a wall at a secondary school outside Cebu, November 2016.  © 2016 Ryan Thoreson/Human Rights Watch

The United Nations reports that bullying is the most prevalent form of violence against LGBT youth in educational settings in the Asia-Pacific. But the Philippines has been a leader in affirming the rights of LGBT youth. In 2012, the DepEd issued a child protection policy to prevent and address bullying in schools, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Protections were strengthened in 2013, when Congress enacted an Anti-Bullying Law with implementing rules and regulations that expressly prohibit bullying of LGBT youth—the first law of its kind in Asia. 

Still, LGBT students in the Philippines face serious problems that threaten their safety, health and right to education. In its new policy, the DepEd acknowledges that LGBT youth are still at high risk for physical, psychological and sexual violence in schools, and that despite existing legal protections, many LGBT students do not feel comfortable reporting incidents to school authorities.

The policy identifies steps that DepEd personnel and school administrators should take to make schools more gender-responsive. Among these steps are: training school personnel to respond to bullying and discrimination in schools; integrating gender, sexuality and human rights into teacher training programs and school curricula; and observing and celebrating Women’s Month, LGBT Pride Month, and Human Rights Month. These not only help keep students safe from violence, but also make them feel included and welcome in school environments.

The DepEd order is a timely affirmation that discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity is unacceptable. But it needs teeth. As Human Rights Watch has documented, existing protections for LGBT youth in Philippine schools are admirable on paper, but too often are not carried out or enforced. Years after the Anti-Bullying Law was enacted, for example, many LGBT students are unaware that bullying is prohibited and do not believe they can do anything to stop it. Similarly, many teachers and administrators are unaware of the law or are simply indifferent to abuses against LGBT students—or, worse, participate in them, creating a climate in which students are especially vulnerable.

If the DepEd is serious about curbing discrimination in schools, it should develop actionable strategies to combat discrimination against and exclusion of LGBT youth. And it should aggressively carry out those strategies, ensuring that teachers and students are aware of best practices and have meaningful redress when their rights are violated.

There are concrete ways for the DepEd to turn platitudes into protections. Instead of merely condemning it, the DepEd should issue a standardized policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in all public and private schools, and train school personnel to enforce it. In light of widespread abuse of transgender students—which can cause them to miss class, skip school, or even drop out—the DepEd should instruct all public and private schools to permit students to wear uniforms, sport hairstyles, and access facilities consistent with their self-expressed gender identity.

It should develop LGBT training for school counselors, issue print and web resources on LGBT issues, and foster LGBT peer support groups in secondary schools. And instead of merely affirming the value of inclusive curricula, it should incorporate LGBT-inclusive materials into the sexuality education modules that educators use.

Calling for gender-responsive education is a valuable step—but it is only the beginning of a strategy to eradicate discrimination against LGBT youth in schools. In the months to come, the DepEd should cement its position as a champion of the rights of all students by making those rights meaningful.

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