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Eastern & Southern Africa

Barriers  |  Interventions  |  Reporter’s Notebook

“Adults make promises and don’t keep them. That’s why we don’t have change. When you don’t give a child an education… you are losing someone who makes the world different and a better place.”

Elleni Muluneh, 18, one of the founders
of Ethiopian Teenagers Forum

The picture of Eastern and Southern Africa is deceiving. Overall, gender parity in primary education is 98 per cent for the region and is on target for meeting the 2005 goal of equal numbers of boys and girls in school. But when 21 million children are out of primary school, as is the case in Eastern and Southern Africa, gender parity is hardly cause for celebration.

Gender parity in this region translates into boys and girls equally out of school. Regardless of gender, regionally 38 per cent of school-aged children were not in school in 2001. When comparing urban and rural areas, the percentages of children missing their education were 22 and 42, respectively.

The degree to which gender parity in education will be met varies from country to country. Based on primary net enrolment/ attendance ratios of 2001, there are 12 countries in the region on track to achieve gender parity in primary education by 2005 – Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

But of these 12, only 3 countries have more than 90 per cent of children in school: Mauritius (99 per cent), Seychelles (95 per cent) and South Africa (94 per cent). Four of the 12 countries have fewer than 75 per cent of their children in school: Kenya (70 per cent), Madagascar (69 per cent), Zambia (67 per cent) and United Republic of Tanzania (54 per cent).

Furthermore, seven countries – Angola, Burundi, Comoros, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Somalia – will have fewer girls than boys in primary school. In addition to their overall meagre percentages of children in school in 2001, ranging from a low of 11 per cent in Somalia to a high of 62 per cent in Angola, there is also a significant gender gap.


What is particularly noteworthy in Eastern and Southern Africa is the region’s dilemma of demand versus availability. By and large, enrolment has increased because of reforms to end school fees. Yet, there are many children who now clamour for an education, only to find out that there is no room.

Quality, retention and learning achievement have often been sacrificed in the quest to get as many children into school as possible. Gains in enrolment are sometimes countered by high dropout rates. In Rwanda, for instance, free basic education swelled classrooms. But in return, the dropout rate jumped from 14 per cent to 18 per cent in 2004. In spite of increased enrolment, particularly in Kenya, Rwanda, The United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda, all of which abolished school fees, the number of children in school region-wide remains treacherously low.

Heroic efforts to reach school-age children, especially girls, have been thwarted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Education systems have been devastated by the loss of teachers and administrators to illness and death. Schools in rural areas are especially hard hit because teachers often relocate to urban areas where they or their family members can access medical care in hospitals and health clinics. Malawi saw this firsthand as pupil-teacher ratios ballooned to 96 to 1 as a result of HIV-related illness. High absenteeism among teachers and students brought on by HIV/AIDS has contributed to the decimation of national education systems.

The epidemic’s direct toll on Africa’s children is immeasurable. Because of HIV/AIDS, they may have never seen the inside of a classroom. Orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS are kept from school to care for sick relatives, or they join the labour market to bring extra income into the household. Girls are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS and represent the fastestgrowing segment of new infections.

Countries on target to meet the gender parity goal have pockets of gender disparity in rural areas and among nomadic groups. Long distances between villages and schools and poor infrastructure, including lack of water and sanitation facilities, shut girls out of school. When girls must trudge many kilometres for water or wood, they have neither the time nor the energy for class. Fetching water becomes increasingly difficult during times of drought, a common occurrence in the region. Although Kenya has achieved gender parity, girls are more likely to be kept from school in arid and semi-arid regions because of drought.

Sexual harassment and violence in and around schools also threaten girls’ education. Parents may keep girls away because they fear for their daughters’ safety.

While on the one hand, gender bias plays a role in the protection of daughters from potential danger, it also jeopardizes their development and right to freely choose their life paths. Arranged marriages and early pregnancy are tied to poverty in part because of bride prices, payments made to a girl’s parents on her wedding day. Destitute parents are often more concerned about how much their daughter is worth than the value of her education.

Gender violence is a deadly side effect of armed conflict in which failure to attend school is one of many toxic consequences. Several countries in this region, including Angola, Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, have been scarred by violence. In a study on gender and armed conflict, 81 per cent of people interviewed in Burundi stated that they had witnessed sexual aggression against women. Besides the obvious blow to education of razed school buildings, a less talked-about issue is the safety of girls, who are often targeted during combat.

The eastern and southern Africa region has a steep climb to reach universal education by 2015. But the Millennium Development Goals did not include a stipulation that allowed world leaders to bail out if the work became too difficult. Nothing less than extra resources and bullish investments will do.


Smart investments and coordinated interventions have begun to make inroads into the problems that beset education in the region. Gender disparities in some countries are beginning to shrink. And quality is improving in many classrooms.

In Ethiopia, for instance, girls’ primary net enrolment/attendance ratio went from 28 per cent in 2001 to a projected 32 per cent net attendance ratio in 2005, and the gender parity index is projected to increase from 0.85 to 0.87 during the same period. In Eritrea, where 28 per cent of teachers are untrained, the Asmara Teacher Training Institute trained 105 teachers. They went on to conduct workshops on gender-fair teaching to an additional 4,500 teachers in a countrywide initiative.

Before successful interventions can be crafted, the root causes of children’s absences must be identified. Uganda has been conducting school mapping, a strategy developed by the Girls’ Education Movement (GEM). Children fan out through the countryside to identify the number of girls in each community, those who are not in school and the obstacles that keep them away. The exercise not only identifies the barriers, it also generates solutions, ranging from boys volunteering to walk girls on treacherous roads to building and maintaining clean latrines.

Variations of the mapping exercise have popped up in other countries. A particularly telling investigation was conducted by young people as part of the child-to-child survey. Under the auspices of Global Movement for Children, members of the Ethiopian Teenagers’ Forum took to the streets to find out why their peers were not in school. The teens found that the greatest barriers for children in Ethiopia were school fees and HIV/AIDS, because money was scarce and children were forced to help support their families.

Countries that have boosted enrolment and attendance have done so because of bold leadership. Some countries abolished primary school tuition and now classrooms are brimming with children eager to learn. The quality of education is questionable in overcrowded classes and the dropout rates are high. Critics may ask what good is school without adequate teachers, books, supplies and space. But it is an ambitious and necessary first step.

Zambia initiated free primary education in 2002. Girls’ primary net enrolment/attendance ratio increased from 66 per cent in 2001 to a projected net attendance ratio of 69 per cent in 2005. Between 2001 and 2004 dropout rates for girls went from 4 per cent to 3 per cent. Progress may seem slow, but small percentage points translate into massive changes in the lives of girls newly enrolled in school. A partnership among the education, water and sanitation and health sectors is furthering efforts to get girls into school, improve their overall health and strengthen AIDS-prevention education. Schools have become more child-friendly, with safe water sources and sanitation facilities constructed in over 80 per cent of schools in the eastern and southern provinces. Potable water is now located less than 500 metres from the schools.

Malawi utilizes vocational training to help girls who have dropped out of school. Often young women sacrifice their education in order to support families that have been ruptured by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Vocational training helps young people acquire the skills that will prepare them for the job market and as Malawi officials also discovered, it is a critical tool in HIV/AIDS prevention. Women without an education or skills are more vulnerable to HIV. UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund and the Malawi Government have teamed up to provide a one-stop oasis that provides vocational training, HIV/AIDS awareness, life skills and access to reproductive health information.

The United Republic of Tanzania is also reaching out to children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. A long-standing programme provides a second chance for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, especially girls, augmenting the nation’s push for universal education. Complementary Basic Education in Tanzania focuses on nutrition, hygiene, HIV/AIDS prevention and basic literacy, mostly for girls who have either dropped out of school or never attended.

Innovative responses and pragmatic choices are shaping interventions within the region. For the sake of children, achieving gender parity must no longer be a cosmetic exercise but rather a meaningful effort.

Reporter’s Notebook

Turkana, Kenya – At many schools here, massive murals on hygiene exhort students and teachers to wash their hands. But the schools often lack access to water – making the murals seem like a cruel joke.

Meticulous records were a point of pride at every school we visited, reminding me of how the dry injunction to ‘collect disaggregated data on girls’ education’ can translate into powerful advocacy tools. Often prominently displayed, school enrolment and attendance records make the extent of the problem painfully clear – in the higher grades, the number of female students usually drops dramatically.

Lodwar, Kenya – At Loyo Primary School, boys who look around 15 or 16 crowd in with 6- and 7-year-olds. I am impressed by how little notice the younger students seem to take of the older children – their presence doesn’t seem to be an oddity – but surprised by the lack of older girls.

At Lodwar Mixed Primary School, a boarding school, the girls are eager to show us how they sleep, four to a single bed, one girl’s face to another’s feet.

The first impression I had on my trip, and the one that stays with me the longest: I’ve never seen such attentive, well-behaved children. They listen to their teachers as if their lives depend on it.

Kakuma, Kenya – The women at Bahr el Naam primary school in Kakuma Refugee Camp look perfectly focused on their work. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances they have fled. But behind them on the wall, past generations of students have stenciled the names of their native regions onto the bricks, and towards one corner nearly every brick reads ‘Darfur.’

Kibera, Nairobi – In Kibera, one of the largest slums in sub-Saharan Africa, ‘flying toilets’ – a diplomatic way of saying that human excrement is thrown in the streets – are common. School disruptions include shaking floors (from the train tracks just outside) and the occasional dissolving wall (mud and sticks can’t stand up to a heavy Nairobi rain).

In the classrooms, children’s uniforms are perfectly laundered and pressed.