The Clock Strikes Midnight
On 1 January 2006, the world will wake up to a deadline missed. The Millennium Development Goal – gender parity in primary and secondary education by 2005 – will remain unmet. What is particularly disheartening is that this was a realistic deadline and a reachable goal. The tragedy of this failure is that an unthinkable number of children, the majority of whom are girls, have been abandoned to a bleak future.
The road to gender equality in education has had its successes, but the journey with its twists and turns is far from over. The fact that the total number of school-age children who are missing from school is projected to fall below 100 million for the first time since data have been recorded is a small victory. In 81 developing countries, participation in education will rise to 86 per cent in 2005, up from 82 per cent in 2001. But these accomplishments are baby steps compared to what could have – and should have – been achieved.
Rationalizations and Regrets
Many reasons are given for missing this deadline. Bolstering security took precedence over, and precious resources from, girls’ education. The hurdles for getting girls into school – poverty, gender roles and cultural traditions, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict and other emergencies, lack of accountability and inadequate management – are too high and cannot be readily scaled. However, each argument can be countered with an example of a country that succeeded despite the barrier. Kenya and Uganda, for instance, have closed the gender gap in education despite intractable poverty and the scourge of HIV/AIDS. Afghanistan’s primary school enrolment rates have increased dramatically since 2002 despite ongoing conflict.
The Gender Achievements and Prospects in Education (GAP) report is not meant to chastise or shame world leaders for not meeting their commitment to girls’ education. But failure to acknowledge that the first deadline for the Millennium Development Goals was missed would undermine credibility and derail any chance of meeting future timetables. Additionally, letting the missed deadline go by unmentioned would contribute to goal fatigue – the cynical appearance of setting meaningless ‘feel-good’ targets that are just window dressing, rather than genuine commitments.
What is GAP?
The GAP report, a multimedia project, is more than a wake-up call. Building on what people who work in development and education know and understand, it is designed to assess progress towards universal primary education, highlight innovations, identify obstacles, generate discussion and provide guidance. GAP begins at the point of agreed upon and established assessments and ends with a concrete action plan. It includes this report and a website (www.ungei.org/gap), which can be used together or separately, with each contributing to the total picture of the state of girls’ education at the end of 2005.
The GAP multimedia project is the result of extensive reporting in the field; ongoing dialogue among people committed to girls’ education; interviews with economists, educators, development specialists, field workers, community leaders, parents and children; statistical analyses; and a review of the literature. The website includes a LISTSERV to keep the discussion and progress moving long after 2005 comes to a close.
The report is unique in that it tries to provide something for everyone who is invested in seeing a world where all children receive their right to quality education. It is divided into four parts that can be read separately or as part of the overall action packet on gender parity in education. It includes a narrative about the state of girls’ education, stories from the field, candid assessments and observations from reporters, interviews with renowned experts, report cards on each region and the latest statistics from UNICEF’s ‘25 by 2005’ acceleration initiative in girls’ education.
As governments, development agencies and donors attempt to ascertain what went wrong and what went right in their work to narrow the education gender gap, there are certain realities that are indisputable.
None of the Millennium Development Goals will likely be met unless there is significant progress in girls’ education. Educating girls is a surefire way to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutritional status and health, reduce poverty and wipe out HIV/AIDS and other diseases. All other development goals hinge on meeting the goals of gender parity and universal quality education.
Illiteracy is a catastrophe for any child, but particularly devastating for girls. Girls who are denied education are more vulnerable to poverty, hunger, violence, abuse, exploitation, trafficking, HIV/AIDS and other diseases and maternal mortality. If they become mothers, there is a greater chance that they will bequeath illiteracy and poverty to the next generation.
Educating girls has cascading benefits. Educated women are less likely to die in childbirth; more likely to have healthy babies; more likely to send their children to school; are better able to protect their children and themselves from HIV/AIDS, trafficking and sexual exploitation; and are more likely to contribute fully to political, social and economic development.
Educating girls benefits both boys and girls. The most effective way to ensure quality education for all children is to eliminate the barriers for girls: schools that are long distances from home, school fees and other hidden costs, lack of safe water and sanitation, discrimination and the threat of violence.
Gender parity in education will lead to gender equality in society. Educating girls is a means to an end. Quality education is the gateway to equal access to information, opportunity, self-determination, and political and social empowerment.
The clock strikes midnight and opportunities have been missed. The time for promises and declarations is over. Today, global leaders stand at the crossroads. Choosing the right path will lead to the dawning of an era of hope and equality.