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Latin America & The Caribbean

Barriers  |  Interventions  |  Reporter’s Notebook

“I haven’t really thought about what I’ll be when I grow up. If I finish everything, maybe I can be president one day!”

Liliana, 8,
Primary Intercultural and Bilingual Education, Bolivia

‘25 BY 2005’ COUNTRIES

There is much to cheer about in Latin America and the Caribbean. Steady progress over the past 15 years has put the region on track to achieve universal primary education by 2015. And, for the most part, girls’ education is not a problem.

Success looks certain for universal primary education strictly by the numbers. The primary net enrolment/attendance ratio grew an average of 0.6 per cent each year between 1980 and 2001. It needs to continue at a pace of 0.4 per cent for the region to reach the finish line. The likelihood that children under five years old today will complete primary school by 2015 is greater than or equal to 95 per cent in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay. It dips to between 90 per cent and 95 per cent for Brazil, Costa Rica and Venezuela.

While the region on the whole is keeping its promise of education for all by 2015, individual countries are in grave danger of falling short. Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, had only 54 per cent of its children in primary school in 2001. Chances are even slimmer for Haiti to enrol all school-age children by the due date since civil upheaval and the brutality of Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004 have left the country in shambles. Guatemala is also off the mark for meeting the deadline, with a total primary enrolment/attendance ratio of 85 per cent in 2001. If the country is to catch up, it will need to increase its net enrolment/attendance ratio to 1.07 per cent per year.

Gender parity in education by 2005 is on track throughout much of the region. If anything, gender disparity in schools favours girls over boys. Underlying these achievements, however, are problems of pervasive discrimination against girls and women, and educational disenfranchisement among indigenous people, especially girls.

The good news is that in 2001, only two countries – Grenada and Guatemala – had significantly fewer girls than boys in primary school, the usual measurement of the Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in education. The less favourable part of the equation is that the Bahamas, Haiti and Saint Kitts and Nevis have significantly more girls in school than boys. Those countries may miss the 2005 Goal on the other side of the disparity problem.

At the secondary level, girls are far more likely to be enrolled than boys regionally – 47 per cent versus 41 per cent. This disparity is particularly profound in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Trinidad and Tobago. UNICEF projections for secondary education show five countries – Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Suriname and Venezuela – are on course to meet the goal of gender parity in secondary education.

The region has substantial work ahead to make school, especially at the secondary level, attractive and welcoming to boys and young men. The consequences of illiteracy and undereducation for boys and men have dire consequences for society. Courageously breaking the silence, many community leaders are calling attention to the phenomenon of gender disparity among boys and the resulting spike in violence and crime. This has been particularly problematic in Jamaica, where domestic abuse, gang lawlessness and crime are on the rise.

The inequality of girls and women cannot be downplayed, because it turns out that equal work does not equate to equal pay. The income gap between women and men, while narrowing in recent years, remains wide. Among the least educated, women’s labour income was 66 per cent of men’s in 2002, up from 55 per cent in 1990. The widest gap was among the most highly educated. Lack of education hurts women economically more than men. Regionally, the income of female dropouts would have been 44 per cent higher had they finished the four more years of school necessary to complete primary education, whereas male dropouts’ income would have risen 36 per cent with that additional schooling.

As in the rest of the world, girls and women are frequently victimized simply because they are female. Gruesome murders have been reported in Guatemala and Mexico, for instance. Since 1993 in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, Mexico, almost 400 women have vanished only to have their battered bodies turn up in open fields or alongside roads. Some 70 women remain missing. And in Guatemala, since 2001, 1,600 women have been murdered. In 2004 alone, there were more than 40 women murdered each month.

In one study in Nicaragua, 21 per cent of women reported that they were victims of sexual assault. The home proves to be especially dangerous for women. A study in São Paulo, Brazil found that 13 per cent of deaths among women of reproductive age were homicides, and 60 per cent had been murdered by their intimate partner. Research in Peru found that 90 per cent of 12- to 16-year-old girls who gave birth were impregnated through rape, often incest. Clearly, education does not guarantee women’s safety.

The challenge in Latin America and the Caribbean is to translate girls’ education into female empowerment – economically, socially and politically. At the same time, an additional charge is to ameliorate gender disparity in education for boys and young men.


The difficulty of pinpointing obstacles in the region results from a tunnel vision that believes gender parity in education equates to more girls in school. It is further complicated by the denial that gender disparity affects girls and young women. There are parallel truths about education in this region. Unlike most of the world, in most countries gender disparity favours girls rather than boys. But it is also true that there are pockets where girls are being denied their right to an education, particularly within indigenous populations and in rural areas. There are multiple layers of barriers in this region that correspond to each reality.

Different factors keep boys and girls out of school. In the mainstream population, gender parity is quite good in the early grades. But each year, fewer and fewer boys remain in school. By secondary school, young women’s enrolment and attendance far outpace that of young men in most countries in the region.

Economic disparities have decelerated progress towards universal education, because the likelihood of dropping out of school is much greater in the poorest social stratum. But, unlike in other regions, poverty is perhaps a greater obstacle for boys’ school participation because young men are more likely to drop out to join the labour pool. A study conducted in Chile found that poor boys are four times more likely to enter the workforce than poor girls. In Brazil, child labour has robbed boys of an education by luring them away from books with promises of money. The regional anomaly of boys’ education being more adversely affected by poverty than girls’ reverses when poverty nosedives into abject destitution. Data from Argentina indicate that girls are more likely to drop out in times of economic crisis, which may be caused by a greater demand for their household labour as mothers supplement family income by working outside the home.

Gender disparity favouring girls is also a by-product of the school system and socialization. Traditional teaching methods and curricula tend to reinforce gender stereotypes and maintain the status quo. Girls are often socialized to be passive and compliant, and schools reinforce this. In many ways, classroom norms such as rote memorization and obedience match expected female behaviour, both reinforcing stereotypes and rewarding girls’ behaviour. Schools, particularly in later grades, may be seen as girls’ domain, not boys’.

Latin America and the Caribbean must rectify the barriers that have kept boys from remaining in school. But barriers that penalize girls and young women in spite of their academic achievement, such as underemployment, harassment, violence and lack of political and social power, must also be remedied. In addition, leaders cannot deny that serious problems also exist in girls’ education: large numbers of females are kept out of school, especially those from indigenous groups.

Although the failure to have female educational attainment equal female empowerment is universal, ethnicity, race and language as barriers to education are nowhere more apparent than in Latin America and the Caribbean. The focus on educational disparity that favours girls can overshadow the hidden crisis of illiteracy and underschooling among girls from indigenous groups. Bolivia, for instance, reports more girls in school than boys. Yet, more than half of indigenous girls drop out of school before reaching age 14.

The gender divide in education in Latin America and the Caribbean for the most part requires intensive interventions to attract boys and young men. Regional leaders are coming to grips with the problem and what it will mean for future generations if it remains unsolved. In addition to the gender-specific solutions, the region, with support from donors, must rectify the overarching blocks to education for all – poverty, poor quality and irrelevance, weak infrastructure, under-funded public schools, community disenfranchisement, political upheaval and violence in and around schools.


Perhaps the most important first step on the journey to universal education is this region’s greatest asset – early childhood care. Latin America and the Caribbean has a relatively long track record in providing formal and informal early childhood programmes, particularly preschools.

Studies have found that pre-primary education is a sturdy foundation for future intellectual, emotional and social development. It reduces the number of years needed to complete primary and secondary education, and helps narrow the gap between children from different social strata. Early childhood projects work with families regarding developmental milestones and appropriate child-rearing practices. Comprehensive early childhood initiatives have been instrumental in challenging gender stereotypes that reinforce machismo and keep women powerless in the family and society. In Peru, for instance, Iniciativa Papa, an early childhood project, strengthens the bond between fathers and tots through intensive male participation in child-rearing.

Challenging traditions is often a key strategy in the quest for universal education. At other times, embracing traditions is needed for children to enrol in and attend school. In Bolivia, for instance, where more than half of the population are indigenous and there are 32 identified native cultures, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education are focusing on bilingual and multicultural education. Girls in particular are disenfranchised from school, as reflected in the national illiteracy rate of 19 per cent for women and 7 per cent for men. In rural areas, where there is the highest concentration of indigenous people, the illiteracy rate is 38 per cent for women and 14 per cent for men. The multi-pronged strategy to educate all young people begins with integrated child development initiatives and continues with culturally-sensitive basic education. With support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and the Swedish Agency for International Development Cooperation, Bolivia has developed the Alternative Education Project, which focuses on people who have aged out of the formal education sector. Bilingual teaching methods and basic literacy are the backbone of this initiative.

Throughout the region, child-friendly schools have been developed to counter the colossal barriers facing universal education. In countries with large indigenous populations, bilingual and multicultural education is part of the process, but there are also other essential components for making schools welcoming and safe. A stellar example is the Child-Friendly and Healthy School Initiative in Nicaragua, a multisectoral approach that reaches out to children who have been excluded with quality education, student and family participation and social mobilization.

Recognizing that girls’ education has not yet evolved into equality, Nicaragua is recognizing schools as places to confront social issues such as machismo, domestic violence and single-parent households. Girls and boys participate together in classes and in extracurricular activities to help anchor gender equality. Gobiernos Estudiantiles (‘student governments’) have evolved, where girls and boys learn about their right to be educated, to be protected from corporal punishment and to be heard. A student-led project is the child-to-child census, which has identified children who are not in school.

Through coordination between the Instituto Para el Desarrollo de Democracia and the Nicaragua Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports, schools are being transformed through a bottom-up approach. Initially change is taking place at the school level and is spreading among municipalities across the country. Communities determine how their schools can be more inclusive and accessible. Some schools put a greater emphasis on providing meals and are creating kitchens to enhance World Food Programme initiatives. Other schools are focusing on improving water and sanitation, because safe water and good sanitation are lacking. Still others are concentrating on birth registration drives, outreach to children with disabilities or school transportation. The goal is for all schools to be child-friendly, with individual communities focusing on the missing ingredients.

As a region, Latin America and the Caribbean is close to reaching the education Millennium Development Goals, but countries are not resting on their laurels. In countries where the finish line is just around the corner, governments and donors are making the last gruelling push. In those nations where the end goal is way off in the distance, success will depend on going that extra mile.

Reporter’s Notebook

Limay, Nicaragua – In my next life, as a young student, I will be attending an ‘escuela amiga y saludable’. My first choice would be Escuela Victoria Rayo in Esteli Province, and I want Alex Bismar to be my teacher.

The two-room school is inviting, colourful and decorated with artwork, teaching materials and an array of butterflies that flutter by. Alex, the unpretentious head teacher, has worked here for six years and was part of the transition as the school joined the child-friendly initiative two years ago. He remembers how forgotten and isolated he and his two colleagues felt before and how their interest in the children was so different then. “Before, I didn’t really focus on the children. I was more interested in following through the curriculum.”

The salaries are low and the new approach demanding, with inordinate amounts of time spent on preparing lesson plans and materials.

I ask Alex what motivates the teachers and he says that it’s more gratifying to see the children participate and excel. He boasts about his former students who have moved on to secondary school, some winning awards.

The school seems egalitarian. Boys and girls clean classrooms and kitchens together and play on the co-ed football teams. They learn that conflicts can be resolved without resorting to violence. They learn about their rights.

In a country where domestic violence is common and corporal punishment of children widespread, it takes guts for a third-grader to stand up to an adult and say, “You don’t have the right to beat me.” It takes guts for a teacher to give kids the knowledge and spunk to do so.

Pacren, Guatemala – Less than a month before Hurricane Stan wiped out villages, I met Maria, a 14-year-old girl, living in this now-devastated area. A shy girl, not accustomed to speaking with foreigners, she was optimistic about her future despite her family’s poverty. She had high hopes of becoming a teacher or a nurse and moving to the capital. She knew it wouldn’t be easy to continue her studies, but her parents’ promise to help kept her hope alive.

Maria had a fair chance to succeed. The Ministry of Education and UNICEF had just launched Becatón, a campaign that appeals to Guatemala’s wealthy for solidarity with girls like Maria. ‘Beca’, a scholarship equivalent to US$50, is enough for one year of schooling. The campaign was off to a good start. Then the hurricane struck. Will there be enough solidarity to go around or will the Becatón become another casualty of Stan?

UNICEF colleagues in Guatemala have assured me that Becatón will remain in the limelight and will be adapted to the catastrophe. As a start, children in the affected areas will be first to receive the scholarships.

I have no news about Maria. The road that led to the bottom of the hill where she lives, and where her school stood, has been washed away. I wonder if the collapsing mountain engulfed some of the buildings in its path. My thoughts are with Maria. I hope she will be one of the first to receive a beca when school starts again.