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Middle East & North Africa

Barriers  |  Interventions  |  Reporter’s Notebook

“Men come to the edge of the school and yell at us…. They think we should be married.”

Jackline, 18, student at Yambio Girls’ Secondary School, southern Sudan

‘25 BY 2005’ COUNTRIES

The Middle East and North Africa region confounds generalities. The region had the highest average annual rate of increase in net enrolment/attendance ratios among all regions between 1980 and 2001, with 1.4 per cent a year. About half of the region’s countries are on track to meet the goal of universal education by 2015. Still, some 8.8 million children are out of primary school, and closing the gender gap remains elusive.

UNICEF projections indicate that in 2005, there will be 94 girls in school region-wide for every 100 boys in the region. Tunisia has an impressive record, having achieved gender parity in both primary and secondary education as of 2001. And Bahrain goes against the regional trend with more girls than boys in primary school. On the opposite end, Djibouti, Sudan and Yemen are far from having equal numbers of girls and boys in primary school, with gender parity indices of 0.77, 0.83 and 0.60 in 2001, respectively.

Yemen is illustrative of how poverty, high fertility rates and mounting external debt are detrimental to fulfilling the right to quality education. The Government has allocated more than 20 per cent of its budget to education, and Yemen has received extra financial support from the international community through the Education For All Fast-Track Initiative. Yet its projected 2005 primary net attendance ratio is 64, up from its net enrolment/ attendance ratio of 55 in 2001. The 2005 net attendance rate for girls is expected to be a mere 49 per cent. And two out of three women are illiterate.

Gender parity declines even further for secondaryschool- age young people in this region. Of the three countries where secondary enrolment was analysed, Egypt has 90 girls per 100 boys in secondary schools, Iraq has 67 girls for every 100 boys, and Yemen has 41 girls per 100 boys.

Failure to reach gender parity in education is part of the region’s overall challenge to dismantle gender discrimination and the economic and political disadvantages endured by girls and women. The spirit of the gender parity Millennium Development Goal – women’s equality – will not be realized if girls and women remain fettered by inequality and social injustice.


In the Middle East and North Africa, gender disparity in education reflects common issues facing most developing countries – poverty, conflict, discrimination and geography where rural populations are more likely to be out of school. These factors sustain female illiteracy, exclusion and disempowerment and perpetuate the cycle of despair.

In parts of the Middle East and North Africa, poverty is pervasive. When compounded by discrimination and strict gender roles, poverty keeps girls unschooled and dependent. They are unable to escape the demands placed upon them by a society that neither values nor respects them. Frequently girls are kept home to do household chores and care for younger siblings, or they are thrust into the labour market to contribute to household income. When girls are permitted to go to school, often they are forced to drop out when they reach puberty. This is especially the case when schools lack separate sanitation facilities for boys and girls, are located far from their villages or are riddled with sexual harassment and violence. Puberty is a marker for girls, a demarcation in societies that prescribe early marriage, and often ends their education.

Early marriage tightens the vise of illiteracy. Too often, daughters are seen as a source of income because families receive a bride price for their girls. A linguistic illustration of the importance of marrying off daughters comes from the Dinka, a herding community in southern Sudan. There, the word for girl is nyanawong, which literally means ‘daughter for cows’.

As in most parts of the world, children in rural areas are less likely to be in school than their age mates in cities. This is further compounded by the distribution of wealth, where rural families are more likely to be poorer than their urban counterparts. Primary school-age children from the poorest 20 per cent of households in this region are 4.5 times more likely to be kept out of school than those in the richest 20 per cent.30 This is especially true in rural areas where schools are far from home or do not have female teachers. There, boarding schools often are the only option, an impossible choice for impoverished families. Lack of village schools is a giant barrier for girls because travelling or living far from home is often dangerous.

Ongoing armed conflict continues to undermine the region’s efforts to get girls in school. Iraq and Sudan have been wracked with violence, displacement and death, disrupting any semblance of normalcy. Children have been hard hit by these acts of violence. Reading, writing and mathematics are the least of their concerns. Yet, education is precisely what children need during times of upheaval. School not only is a means of restoring routine but also is a salve for the inevitable psychosocial wounds of war. Peace education is one of the few hopes if the world is to end violence. Yet, when schooling has been needed most, it has been ravaged. Nowhere is that clearer than in this region.


Poverty, gender discrimination, rural versus urban disparities and conflict are the wounds that bind the developing world. Like other regions, the Middle East and North Africa must face these obstacles head on, daring to be bold in the face of overwhelming odds. The leaps in its average annual rate of increase are indicative that the region has accepted the challenge. And while the region is on track to meet the goal of universal education by 2015, several countries require massive efforts to achieve full school enrolment.

Nothing short of system-wide overhauls will jump-start girls’ education in Djibouti. The infrastructure is in tatters, much of the population follows the rainfall to eke out subsistence, and poverty is deadly. The country is one of the poorest countries in the world, placing 150th out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index. Unemployment hovers around 60 per cent, which offers little hope for children to get a job when and if they finish school. Joblessness deters parents from sending their children, especially girls, to school because education is deemed worthless for future economic gains.

The World Food Programme has stepped up to support girls’ education in Djibouti, providing two meals a day in 55 schools. Girls who come to school for 21 days each month receive a 5-litre can of oil, some of which can be used at home and the rest sold. There are plans to find host families for secondary-school girls in return for food. In another 27 schools, the World Food Programme has helped to create school gardens, which provide children with edible vegetables and money to purchase school items, and teach them income-generating skills.

The Mosaic Foundation, a charitable and educational organization created by the wives of Arab ambassadors in Washington, D.C., launched a pilot programme for girls’ education in 2000 called AMAL – Arabic for hope and an English acronym for Approaches and Methods for Advanced Learning. Djibouti, along with Egypt and Yemen, is a recipient of support from the foundation. In one village, Koutabouye, AMAL is installing latrines in the school, helping to eliminate one of the major impediments to girls’ enrolment. AMAL is also training teachers, school directors and civil society on public school management.

In Egypt, nearly 2,000 girl-friendly schools are supported by the private sector, the government and the European Union.

In Sudan, much work remains to be done considering that the country is projected to have a primary net attendance ratio of just 56.4 by the end of 2005. But even these bleak national statistics fail to accurately portray the tragedy facing girls in southern Sudan, an area where only 1 per cent of girls complete primary school and close to 90 per cent of all women are illiterate.

Some 250 Community Girls’ Schools have been set up in southern Sudan, a crucial development if the area is to beat the odds against female literacy. Based in part on a successful model from Bangladesh, the learning spaces are shelters from the storm for girls who attend. The schools have flexible schedules and offer protection from outsiders who badger girls to give up their education and instead embrace their roles as young brides. The girls are in class with the same teacher over several years, allowing for the students to bond with the adult. In one town, the gender gap closed by more than 20 per cent between 2003 and 2004. No longer fearful of being abducted by the militia or being forced to take up arms, girls as well as boys are instead filling classrooms.

In Yemen, without systematic intervention, more than half of today’s girls are destined for illiteracy. Many families, particularly devout Muslims, will not send their daughters to school unless they are taught by female teachers. UNICEF recruits and trains women teachers so girls can attend classes. Along with the World Bank, it provides students with textbooks and supplies, because too often the high cost of schooling is the greatest obstacle for poor children. With the help of traditional leaders, the Government is getting the word out about the importance of girls’ education for the economic development of the family and the nation.

The Middle East and North Africa region has made tremendous strides in educating its citizenry. But to embrace the true spirit and breadth of education’s role in development, the next leg of the journey requires leaps.

Reporter’s Notebook

Pul-Ajil, Southern Sudan – At the Community Girls’ School, one of the students wanders off and lies under a tree – though she appeared to be fine just a few minutes earlier, she is shaking and looks miserable. “Probably malaria,” says a teacher. He laughs when I ask if she should go to a doctor. “She’ll walk to the clinic, if she really has to,” he says. The nearest clinic is 10 kilometres away – a two-hour walk.

Yambio, Southern Sudan – The churches are an enormous presence here. As we approach an outdoor service on Maundy Thursday, the dirt road is clogged with people cheering the Easter procession, led by a truck equipped with loudspeakers. Girls’ education messages are often preached from the pulpit.

Rumbek, Southern Sudan – At the primary school here, there are 320 girls in grade 1 but just seven in grade 8. One girl uses a crutch to walk, and I ask a fieldworker about the challenges facing disabled children. He points out that if the girl hadn’t been disabled, most likely from polio, she would probably be married already and would never have had the chance to go to school.

During school visits, I am often forced to explain that I haven’t brought anything with me and don’t have any power to provide school supplies. But the idea of writing articles and telling people about conditions seems to be accepted as an equally important task. On my first day in southern Sudan, a local life-skills instructor puts her hands on my shoulders and says, “I understand you’re not here to bring us things. But will you promise to be our voice?”