Equity & Diversity

Dozens of Countries Unlikely To Meet Goal for Schooling of Girls

By Linda Jacobson — November 12, 2003 4 min read

In two years, the proportion of girls attending school around the world should be the same as the proportion of boys, according to an international agreement reached in 2000.

The report, “Gender and Education for All, The Leap to Equality,” is available from UNESCO.

But a new monitoring report shows that dozens of countries are not expected to achieve that goal of gender parity, and that millions of girls in developing nations are still not attending school.

“It is in the private and social interest of everyone to reduce gender inequalities in education wherever they exist,” says the “Education for All Global Monitoring Report, 2003/4,” released last week by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “In short, investing in the education of girls has a high payoff.”

Fifty-two out of 128 countries for which data were available—including most countries in North America, Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Arab states—have already achieved the goal, which is one of six adopted as part of what is known as the Dakar Framework for Action.

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Read the accompanying table, “Education for All”

While not a binding commitment, frameworks such as this “are influential and are increasingly subject to both international and national monitoring processes,” the report says.

Twenty-two countries are expected to miss the 2005 goal, but are on track to achieve parity at both the elementary and secondary level by 2015. Another 54 —many in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia— are not expected to reach parity even by 2015.

“While not a complete surprise, these results are obviously a cause for deep concern,” Koïchiro Matsuura, the director-general of the Paris-based UNESCO, said in a press release.

Barriers Remain

The Dakar Framework, adopted by 164 countries at a meeting in the capital of Senegal, also includes a broader goal of gender equity by 2015, meaning that not only are girls entering and staying in school at the same rate as boys, but also that they experience the same teaching methods and opportunities to achieve.

When girls go to school, the report says, the overall labor supply grows, the tax base increases, and poverty is reduced. Girls who are educated also bear fewer children, and the children they do have will be healthier and, ultimately, more likely to go to school themselves, it argues.

“Investing in educating girls now is one of the best ways of ensuring that future generations will be educated,” the report says.

Even if many countries aren’t expected to meet the 2005 target, positive trends have been identified. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the number of girls going to school between 1990 and 2000 increased 38 percent.

The percentage of female teachers—which has been found to lead to the enrollment of more girls in school—has also risen, according to the UNESCO report.

Girls’ participation in secondary school has also climbed, with some of the strongest gains made in Algeria, Malawi, Nepal, and Pakistan. In Bangladesh, the inequalities were even reversed, with more girls than boys attending secondary school.

Still, a number of obstacles continue to keep many girls from getting an education.

Girls are least likely to go to school in societies where women are restricted to the home and “discrimination against daughters from the early years of life” persists, the report says.

Another common reason girls are kept out of school is to work to support their family.

Policies can be enacted, however, that give parents a financial incentive to enroll their children in school. In Brazil, for example, families receive income subsidies if they send their children to school at least 90 percent of the academic year.

Early marriage—sometimes as young as age 7 or 8 in some West African countries—also impedes a girl’s educational chances.

And even though human-rights documents call for free and compulsory education, the report says that 101 countries still charge fees for attending school.

Government Action Urged

School can also be an unwelcome place for girls who do attend. They may have to share restroom facilities with boys, and are often expected to clean floors and fetch water rather than learn. Many girls also face the threat of sexual violence if they attend, prompting their parents to keep them home.

A lack of school meals and snacks is often a barrier to attendance. But in some countries, food rations are given to girls to take home as an incentive for their parents to send them to school.

Governments, the report concludes, must “play a leading role in promoting equal education for all,” through enacting legislation, increasing the number of school facilities, and eliminating gender stereotypes within the curriculum, among other steps. They must also have support from more nongovernmental organizations.

The Washington-based World Bank One launched one such effort, called the Fast-Track Initiative, last year. It seeks financial contributions from countries to help other countries that are working toward universal primary education, but are not expected to reach the goal by 2015.

The report also urges countries to pay special attention to the effects of armed conflict, in which girls in the developing world often are used as soldiers, spies, servants, or cooks. “Refugee education and postconflict rehabilitation,” it notes, “require special measures for girls and women, who comprise the majority of the most affected groups.”

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