Basic education and gender equality

Original UNICEF article can be found here

Despite progress in recent years, girls continue to suffer severe disadvantage and exclusion in education systems throughout their lives. An estimated 31 million girls of primary school age and 34 million girls of lower secondary school age were not enrolled in school in 2011. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest proportion of countries with gender parity: only two out of 35 countries. Furthermore, many countries will still not have reached gender parity. On current trends, it is projected that 70 per cent of countries will have achieved parity in primary education, and 56 per cent of countries will have achieved parity in lower secondary education.

Girls’ education is both an intrinsic right and a critical lever to reaching other development objectives. Providing girls with an education helps break the cycle of poverty: educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will; less likely to die in childbirth; more likely to have healthy babies; and are more likely to send their children to school. When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that influences generations to come.

Girls’ education is essential to the achievement of quality learning relevant to the 21st century, including girls’ transition to and performance in secondary school and beyond. Adolescent girls that attend school delay marriage and childbearing, are less vulnerable to disease including HIV and AIDS, and acquire information and skills that lead to increased earning power. Evidence shows that the return to a year of secondary education for girls correlates to a 25 per cent increase in wages later in life.

Barriers to girls’ education

While gender parity has improved, barriers and bottlenecks around gender disparities and discrimination remain in place, especially at the secondary school level and among the most marginalized children.

There are various barriers to girls’ education throughout the world, ranging from supply-side constraints to negative social norms. Some include school fees; strong cultural norms favouring boys’ education when a family has limited resources; inadequate sanitation facilities in schools such as lack of private and separate latrines; and negative classroom environments, where girls may face violence, exploitation or corporal punishment. Additionally, schools often lack sufficient numbers of female teachers.

Increasingly, adolescent girls also face economic and social demands that further disrupt their education, spanning from household obligations and child labour to child marriage, gender-based violence and female genital cutting/mutilation. Recent estimates show that one-third of girls in the developing world are married before age 18, and one-third of women in the developing world give birth before age 20. If all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64 per cent, from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million. Inadequate or discriminatory legislation and policies often inhibit girls’ equal access to quality education. In countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, formal or written threats to close girls’ schools or end classes for girls have fueled gender motivated attacks on schools.

When compounded by factors such as poverty, disability and locations, such barriers can become nearly insurmountable for young girls.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2013-0131/Iman Morooka
Children attend a remedial class, held inside a building sheltering displaced families in Homs, Syrian Arab Republic.

Empowering girls

Recognizing the opportunities provided through girls’ education, UNICEF supports governments in the reduction of gender disparities through interventions at national, local and community levels aimed at empowering girls. Through the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), we champion the rights of girls and help countries achieve gender equality in education. UNICEF serves as lead agency and hosts the Secretariat of the UNGEI partnership. In addition, we empower girls by supporting life skills-based education and female role models in education. Child-Friendly Schools promote gender equality in the classroom by providing an overall gender-sensitive environment that is conducive to learning at all levels.

These varied and multilayered disadvantages that girls face in education highlight the complex interrelatedness between gender and other disparities, along with the deep-rooted nature of these inequalities. Girls’ access to education alone cannot address these structural barriers, which require transformative approaches and strategies that tackle discrimination and power relations between males and females in schools and society at large. In line with the Operational Guidance on Promoting Gender Equality through UNICEF-Supported Programming in Basic Education, UNICEF has shifted towards a more comprehensive understanding of gender equality. This has resulted in an increasingly holistic approach to education that recognizes the importance of power in the inter-dependent relations among families, schools, communities and national governments.

2015 and beyond

As we look towards 2015 and beyond, UNICEF continues to take a more transformative approach to girls’ education by tackling discrimination, violence and the exclusion of girls from education. As such, programming in girls’ education will focus on the empowerment of girls in tandem with improving their learning and measuring learning outcomes. We are working with partners to move beyond indicators focused on gender parity and focus more on measuring larger progress in girls’ education on dimensions of equity and learning outcomes. Furthermore, this emphasis on girls’ empowerment will demand even greater attention to social emotional learning and innovation within programmatic approaches in education.

For more information on gender tools and other resources, please visit UNGEI’s website.


Molecular Biologist, Write. Schooling in Equality.

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