More than half of the world’s countries have failed to achieve gender parity in education for girls in primary and secondary schools, missing a key goal set out in the Education for All forum 15 years ago by an international coalition convened by the United Nations.
In a report released this month, UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency, focused on progress in the Education for All initiative—launched in 2000 when 164 countries met in Dakar, Senegal, and agreed on common education goals, including schooling access for girls.
Although 62 million girls are still denied their basic right to an education, the number of out-of-school girls has declined by 52 million in the last 15 years, according to the Paris-based organization.
The number of countries that did reach gender parity, achieving equal participation of girls and boys based on their proportion in the relevant age groups, has risen in both primary and secondary education from 36 to 62 since 2000, the report said. No country in sub-Saharan Africa, however, is expected to meet that goal by this year’s deadline.
And without tackling gender-based access issues, countries will remain far from the goal of educational equity, the report said.
“Until all girls and women exercise their right to education and literacy, progress in achieving [Education for All] will be stymied, and a dynamic source of development and empowerment will be squandered,” the report said. “Fifteen years later, the road to achieving gender parity and reducing all forms of gender inequalities in education continues to be long and twisting.”
Even if schools technically permit girls to attend, structural and cultural barriers often prevent them from obtaining an education, the report said. Child marriage is a persistent barrier to girls’ education. UNESCO data show that in 2012, almost 1 in 5 women married were between 15 and 19 years old.The report also stressed that “the lack of progress in literacy among adult women is especially stark.”
In 2015, an estimated 481 million women aged 15 and over lack basic literacy skills, 64 percent of the total number of adults in the world who are illiterate, a percentage virtually unchanged since 2000.
The report recommends that governments recruit, train, and support teachers to address gender inequality. By changing norms, girls will feel more empowered to stay in school and to continue through higher levels of education, it says.
“In the learning environment, the content, processes, and context of education must be free of gender bias, and encourage and support equality and respect,” the report said. “This includes teachers’ behaviors and attitudes, curriculum, and textbooks, and student interactions.”
The report also calls for school fees to be abolished, and costs for textbooks, uniforms, and transport to be covered by government and non-governmental organizations. In some countries, families who can’t afford to send all their children to school opt to send their sons, and keep daughters at home to help with household duties, advocates have said. Other barriers include long travel distances to school and the lack of water and sanitation facilities, the report said.
“Educating a girl educates a nation. It unleashes a ripple effect that changes the world unmistakably for the better,” Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, said in a statement. “We have recently set ourselves a new ambitious agenda to achieve a sustainable future. Success in this endeavor is simply not possible without educated, empowered girls, young women and mothers.”
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Staff writer Evie Blad contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Most Nations Fall Short in Equal Access to Schooling for Girls