Ambitious Goals, Pragmatic Action
A country would never consider sending its national football team to the World Cup if half the team were unprepared. Yet, many countries attempt to tackle their greatest development challenges with half their populations ill equipped to contribute to society. Failure to achieve gender parity and universal education has tragic results, the least of which is underdevelopment.
Gender parity in education is the backbone of the Millennium Development Goals, coming due a full 10 years before the other Goals. Decades of research have shown that investments in girls’ education yield great dividends, what development experts call the ‘multiplier effect’. An erudite citizenry is an asset for every country. Education has similar income-producing benefits for boys and girls, men and women. Generally, the more education one has, the greater the individual income potential. But educating girls goes beyond individual status and achievement. The benefits trickle down to the next generation, with improved health and survival rates for infants and children, reduced rates of fertility, higher rates of schooling for the next generation and greater spheres of influence within the family, community and political arena. When an entire generation of girls is educated, the trickle turns into a gush of possibility.
World Leaders Identify Girls’ Education
as a Development Tool
The global struggle for universal education is nearly 60 years old, and those involved over the decades can often recount the milestones by heart. Universal education was recognized as a right in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and again in 1989 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In March 1990 at Jomtien, Thailand, the World Education For All Conference reiterated that every child has a right to complete primary education.
Girls’ education was identified as a development tool in September 1990 at the World Summit for Children, when the global community agreed to the Goals for Children and Development in the 1990s, including “universal access to basic education and achievement of primary education by at least 80 per cent of primary schoolage children through formal schooling or non-formal education of comparable learning standard, with emphasis on reducing the current disparities between boys and girls.”
A decade later, at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, six goals were endorsed – two-thirds pertaining to gender parity and equality in education. The next year, the Millennium Summit gave birth to the Millennium Development Goals, which also focused on girls’ education as being crucial for development.
The push for gender parity in education has produced three UN flagships for girls’ education: Education for All, headed by UNESCO; the Girls’ education is good social policy. Fast-Track Initiative, under the auspices of the World Bank; and the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, coordinated by UNICEF. Each lead agency, active in all the enterprises, coordinates various partners including development agencies, donor nations and non-governmental and community-based organizations.
Can Regions Get on Track and
Reach the Next Educational Goal?
Girls’ education is good social policy. Yet, three regions – Middle East/North Africa, South Asia and West and Central Africa – will fail to meet the gender parity goal in primary education by 2005. In addition, some of the 125 countries on course for meeting gender parity have such low total enrolment that gender parity translates into boys and girls equally out of school, rather than a jump in girls’ enrolment.
If countries meet the next deadline of universal education by 2015, they will have fulfilled two goals – gender parity and education for all. The question is, can the next goal be met if the initial deadline was missed? The answer to this question lies in assessing what has been done and what still must be done.
Analysis of household survey data from 1980 to 2001 found a high average annual rate of increase in the net enrolment/attendance ratio of 1.4 per cent per year for the Middle East and North Africa, and a low average annual rate of increase of 0.35 per cent for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Regions with relatively high starting points for gender parity made the least gains in average annual rate of increase, underscoring the difficulty of achieving those last few percentage points. Regions with the lowest level of school participation can achieve high average annual rates of increase despite looming poverty and disasters.
The projected average annual rate of increase required to meet the goal of universal primary education by 2015 is 1.3 per cent over the next 10 years – about the rate achieved in the Middle East and North Africa over the past two decades. Three regions – West and Central Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, and South Asia – would need to achieve higher average annual rates of increase to meet the goal: 3.2 per cent, 2.8 per cent and 1.9 per cent, respectively.
There is cautious optimism about the chances of the Middle East/North Africa, East Asia/Pacific, and Latin America/Caribbean regions meeting the 2015 deadline. And while Central Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States must redouble their efforts, it is certainly possible for that region to reach universal education by 2015.
Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will need a significant boost in their average annual rates of increase in order to reach the 2015 goals. Some 37 countries, most in sub-Saharan Africa, will need to have an average annual rate of increase of over 2 per cent in order to reach the goal. Some 800 million illiterate adults living in the world today are grave testimony to what lies ahead if these regions fail to achieve this goal.
The lesson from other regions is that Herculean efforts do pay off. The true test of the world’s intention is if it will expend the resources required to meet these commitments.