Gender Achievements and Prospects in Education: The Gap Report | Part OneThe Clock Strikes MidnightAmbitious Goals, Pragmatic ActionNo Easy JourneyGlobal Issues that Affect Girls' Education

No Easy Journey

The 2005 timetable for gender parity in education was realistic and attainable. It was also ambitious and demanding. Yet, obstacles, big and small, continue to thwart efforts to get girls into school. They are not secrets: intractable poverty, insidious gender roles and cultural traditions, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict, other catastrophic emergencies and a lack of basic infrastructure deprive girls of their rightful place in the classroom.


Poverty extinguishes hope of going to school for many children. Girls are more likely than boys to lose educational opportunities due to poverty. Destitute families often cannot afford to send all their children to school. If it means choosing between sons and daughters, girls usually lose out.

Even in cases where primary education is free, hidden costs such as books, supplies, uniforms or food may prohibit sending daughters to school. In societies where married women live with their husbands’ kin, parents find little value in investing limited funds in a daughter’s education only to see another family reap the rewards.

Other costs such as lost income or household labour, also derail girls’ chances of attending school. If household money or chores are needed, girls often land in the paid child labour force or are required to fetch water, find firewood and care for younger siblings or ill family members. There is a high correlation between work and girls’ school enrolment and completion rates. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, for instance, total hours worked per week strongly predicted the rate of girls’ school attendance.


In Cambodia, poverty drives innumerable girls into the labour market. Seng Srey Mach, 15, was forced to drop out of school for two years to work in the fields when her mother became ill. She thought that her education was lost forever.

“I used to cry when I saw my friends on their way to school,” said Seng Srey, who lives with her mother in Prey Veng Province. She’s not crying anymore. An OPTIONS scholarship, run by World Education, CARE International, The Asia Foundation and Kampuchean Action for Primary Education, with support from UNICEF and the United States Department of Labor, has allowed her to attend classes at Dey Thoy School in Bung Preah Commune.

In poverty-stricken areas like Prey Veng, families frequently migrate because of alternating bouts of flood and drought. Impoverishment and instability put girls in further danger of illiteracy and exploitation. The scholarships help protect children like Seng Srey from child labour, trafficking and sexual exploitation, which swallow indigent girls. OPTIONS is bringing hope to girls in other provinces as well, including Kompong Cham, Banteay Meanchey and parts of Phnom Penh.


National poverty also makes schooling inaccessible. When countries are mired in debt and large portions of their budgets go to loan repayment, education is often the first casualty of cost cutting. Dilapidated schools are not fixed or replaced, roads are not built or maintained, books and other supplies go missing, teachers are not trained or paid adequately and school fees soar. When these conditions exist, few families can send their daughters to school and in many cases would not want to send them even if they could. Families are afraid to permit daughters to travel distances on unsafe roads or see little value in the education provided by under-funded schools.

Gender Roles and Traditions

Girls and women are often shackled by gender roles and outdated traditions, with male privilege and entitlement ensuring that when educational opportunities are limited, boys will take available classroom space.

Early marriage for girls is pervasive in many cultures. Bride prices are incentives for parents to forgo educating their daughters and instead marry them – sometimes as young as 10 – to older husbands. Many girls become mothers in early puberty. In many places, official or informal educational policies prohibit married or pregnant girls from attending school. If a girl was attending school, once she is married or pregnant her education often stops.

Pregnancy may also result from rape, involvement with ‘sugar daddies’ who provide money or gifts, or sexual liaisons with male students or teachers. Many girls are victims of sexual harassment and violence inside and outside of school. When parents are afraid that their daughters will not be safe going back and forth to school or in the school environment itself, they keep them home.

Too often, schools themselves hurt the cause of girls’ education. There are few women teachers, or if there are female instructors, the head teachers are male. Textbooks may reinforce gender stereotypes, with boys depicted as active and girls as passive. Curricula often exclude girls from mathematics, science and technology. Girls drop out when classes are not relevant, if there are no role models or if completing school fails to prepare them for meaningful employment.

Gender roles and traditions that keep girls from school contribute an additional barrier to universal education – illiterate mothers. Children whose mothers have no education are more than twice as likely to be out of school as children whose mothers have some education. In developing countries, 75 per cent of the children not in primary school have uneducated mothers.


Following decades of war, Somalia faces innumerable challenges, including low enrolment and attendance rates in primary education – 12 per cent for boys and barely 10 per cent for girls. Building from scratch, the country has an opportunity to create gender-sensitive schools and an inviting learning environment for all children.

With no central government, locally-managed Community Education Committees have been formed and many are attempting to take advantage of this opportunity. The committees exist in 90 per cent of schools across the country, with women making up nearly a quarter of their membership.

United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and community-based groups have helped to develop a countrywide curriculum and textbooks for primary grades. A series of workshops with all stakeholders has crafted a ‘home-grown’ curriculum that respects cultural differences while advocating for children’s rights. For the first time, girls in Somalia are seeing images of themselves in non-traditional roles.

“Gender training is a key issue,” said Mohammed Abdirahman Jama, a 39-yearold teacher trainer. “In the past, male teachers – and even bigger boys – harassed the girl students and teachers. Now we discuss how to involve girl students and how to encourage women head teachers and community leaders….”



The devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS takes its toll disproportionately on young people, especially young women. A quarter of the almost 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS are between the ages of 15 and 24. Of the new infections in 2003, more than half were among this age group, with the vast majority being young women. Worldwide, 62 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds living with HIV/AIDS are female. In sub-Saharan Africa, young women are three times more likely than young men to be living with the disease.

The high infection rate among women is directly tied to gender roles in which women have no power to negotiate relationships. Women often do not have access to information about HIV/AIDS prevention or contraception, or, if they do, are powerless to use this information to protect themselves. Additionally, the age of infection decreases when young girls are married off to older men or are victimized by males.

The execrable toll on young people goes beyond living with HIV/AIDS. It has left countless children orphaned and vulnerable, has derailed decades of gains in development benchmarks, including life expectancy, and has diverted precious resources from social services. The pandemic has ravaged the education sector, which is losing not only crucial funds and supplies but also its most important resources – teachers and administrators. In hard-hit countries, school availability has plummeted. As education opportunities dwindle, girls are sacrificed.

Girls are regularly taken out of school to care for ailing family members or forced to work to replace lost income. The pandemic has created a generation of orphans, unprotected and left to fend for themselves. In sub-Saharan Africa, the epicenter of the orphans crisis, children aged 10 to 14 who have lost both their parents are less likely to be in school than their peers who are living with at least one parent. Studies in Kenya, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia found that those children orphaned by HIV/AIDS who are in school are less likely to be at the correct grade level for their age group.

The cruel irony is that without an education, children are deprived of the most effective means of preventing HIV/AIDS. Life skills education that includes accurate information about the virus and its transmission is directly correlated to decreases in infection rates. A 2001 UNICEF survey in Zambia found that women with secondary and higher education are more likely to delay sex, while those with no education are more likely to have sex without a condom. Educated young men are more likely to use condoms.

Armed Conflict and Other Crises

Whether an all-out internecine war, a series of deadly eruptions, an economic crisis or a natural disaster, calamities wreak havoc on education. Schools are often used as barracks by the military, shelters for refugees, triage centres for victims or sites for administering emergency services.

Girls are especially vulnerable during catastrophes because gender inequality is exacerbated and social norms break down. Women and girls often carry the heaviest burden of day-to-day family life during crises. Domestic violence surges during stress and turmoil. And throughout history, rape has been used as a weapon of war.

Education is critical during times of emergency. Along with sports, education can help children recover from trauma, assist them in piecing their lives back together and restore routine to an otherwise fractured existence. Essential services can be provided at school, including psychosocial interventions. Girls’ education is particularly crucial in that it can provide a protective environment, and enable young women to learn assertive behaviour and develop the necessary skills to cope with adversity. Schools can be a salve for all children during times of crisis.


The deep scars of fierce battles are etched on the countryside of Angola after three decades of civil war. A newfound peace has dawned. New schools, emerging from the ashes of demolished buildings, are the foundation of renewed optimism. Leandro Duarte Bandeira, an 8-year-old traumatized by the violence, looks forward to a place where he can learn peacefully.

“I remember the war, bombs falling, houses falling, children being taken off their mothers’ back and shot at,” said Leandro. “I used to have nightmares that I was being chased by the military and they were shooting at me.”

Today, Leandro dreams of school. UNICEF has teamed up with the Nelson Mandela Foundation with support from the German National Committee for UNICEF and the private sector to make his dream come true. Over the next three years, 1,500 schools will be repaired or built in Angola.

“Now I think about my perfect school,” said Leandro. “This for me would be a school with proper windows, doors, desks, electricity, a vase with flowers in my classroom, a garden, a playground and breakfast so we can study properly.”


Lack of Infrastructure

Universal education depends on an infrastructure that supports quality education. Requirements for accessible, gender-sensitive schooling go beyond the physical structure of a building or the classroom content. If schools are located far from communities or students must travel on unsafe or nonexistent roads, creative solutions to these problems must be found. Otherwise children, especially girls, will simply stay away.


During the week, three sisters from Bhutan – Chandra, 9, Tika, 8, and Lela, 7 – live six hours away from their family in a hut built of mud and sticks. The girls stay there to attend the closest school to their community. They walk back to their village, Pakhey, on Saturdays to see their parents and return to their temporary dwelling on Sunday with food for the week.

“I like studying,” said Chandra, “but I don’t like staying here, away from mother and father. I want to study and live with my parents.”

The Bhutanese Government is working to put an end to the girls’ long journey. The government is constructing 137 new community schools by the end of 2005 to ensure that parents will not have to choose between their children’s education and their safety. One of those schools will be built near the sisters’ village and the girls will once again live at home as a family.


There are many non-curriculum considerations that support girls’ education, and failing to provide them makes education inaccessible, especially for girls. Schools need safe water and separate, clean sanitation facilities. Too often, schools have polluted water supplies and filthy, broken latrines. In many cases there are no water or sanitation facilities at all. Health education curricula are undermined if children are unable to practise what they learn about drinking safe water or washing their hands. If parents think that schools are hazardous places, they will keep their children home. Many times girls who put up with deplorable conditions drop out once they begin to menstruate.

Improving water and sanitation in schools will not only shift gender parity in education into high gear, it will also improve the odds of meeting the healthrelated Millennium Development Goals. Getting children to wash their hands could reduce diarrhoeal disease among children by 40 per cent to 50 per cent and respiratory illnesses by 30 per cent, according to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Demand for education has outpaced availability of schools in some regions. Advocacy campaigns have been overwhelmingly successful – sometimes too successful. Families and children recognize that education is a human right, and they want to stake claim to it. But there may not be enough schools. What results are overcrowded classrooms, untrained or overworked teachers, and children who crave an education only to find out that the closest school is too far away. Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia saw huge jumps in primary school enrolment when they eliminated school fees, resulting in packed classrooms and overtaxed teachers. The Malawi Government estimated that it was 18,000 teachers short of reaching its goal of a teacherstudent ratio of 1 to 60.

Quality education is lost when children are jammed into classrooms with insufficient textbooks and untrained teachers. If the curriculum or the teaching methods are poor, schools will neither engage children nor prepare them for the job market. If the classroom replicates gender inequality, girls are shortchanged and remain powerless within families and society.


Responding to the influx of students after Kenya eliminated school fees, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology implemented a pilot programme of child-centred and participatory learning in nine districts. It did this by ensuring optimum physical structures, that had safe water, adequate sanitation, clean, wellventilated and lit classrooms, and stimulating, active and child-centred spaces; relevant and appropriate curriculum; and ongoing teacher training and assessment.

By using locally available resources and low cost teaching aids, the average Kenyan Standard One classroom was transformed into a stimulating oasis for about KES 2,000 (about US $27). The new child-friendly schools are receiving rave reviews.

For Ayub Yusuf, 25, teaching has taken on a new excitement. “The training on child-friendly, gender-responsive and stimulating classrooms made me realize that I could do a lot to make learning fun,” he said.

Elisheba Khayeri, the head teacher at Ayany Primary School in Nairobi, underscores the new enthusiasm that flourishes in these schools. “The teachers have become so positive in their outlook to work,” she said. “They are friendly to the children and are working closely among themselves more than ever before.”

And the District Commissioner notices a refreshing din as he travels throughout the school. “The teacher is no longer the voice we hear in the classroom, we now hear the voices of children, too. There is a lot of movement in the classrooms. Children are no longer confined to desks. The teachers and pupils are engaged in dialogue and consultation. The role of the teacher has changed a lot. It looks like they are also learning from the pupils and there is a friendly atmosphere in the classroom.”


A Confluence of Circumstances

Every barrier to girls’ education is challenging in and of itself. But none of these obstacles exists alone. Poverty and discrimination are underlying causes of gender disparity in education wherever it exists. If girls are more likely than boys to be out of school for whatever reason, poverty and oppression will factor in. Even in regions where overall gender disparities affect boys more than girls, such as in Latin America and the Caribbean, girls are less likely to be educated in groups affected by poverty and bigotry, such as ethnic minorities, indigenous populations and those living in rural communities.

The fact that there is no single cause for girls being denied their right to education underscores the importance of intersectoral approaches in the struggle to meet the education Millennium Development Goals. It further highlights the need for national interventions over narrowly focused projects, because poverty and discrimination are pervasive and need to be systematically tackled.

The journey to gender parity and universal education will continue to be slow and perilous unless the interweaving tentacles of poverty, discrimination, inequality, violence and disease are unraveled and dismantled.