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South Asia

Barriers  |  Interventions  |  Reporter’s Notebook

“Take our voices to the world. We suffered so many years without education. Tell everyone that Afghanistan is learning again.”

Woman teacher in Kabul

‘25 BY 2005’ COUNTRIES

The story of education in South Asia is a multilayered one. The region is becoming the hub of technology with the emergence of India’s computer and technological know-how. In 2001, Sri Lanka had already achieved universal education. And until the devastation wrought by the 2004 tsunami, when years of progress were destroyed within minutes, Maldives was fast approaching universal schooling. Yet in 2001, South Asia was the home to more than a third of the world’s children who were missing out on basic education. Some 42 million children from this region were not in school.

India alone had 26.8 million primary school-age children not in primary school, accounting for 23 per cent of global absentees. Pakistan was responsible for 7 per cent of the worldwide failure to educate children, contributing 7.8 million to the rolls of missing students, and Bangladesh accounted for 3 per cent of the total number, with 3.8 million not in classes.

Gender parity in education is a far-off destination in more than half of the eight countries in this region. South Asia has about 23.5 million girls out of school. Not surprisingly, UNICEF has designated six of the eight countries in South Asia as ‘25 by 2005’ countries. Only Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka had achieved gender parity in primary education in 2001, and for areas destroyed by the tsunami, both gender parity and universal education are no longer certain.

To regional leaders’ credit, the average annual rate of increase in primary education has been more than twice as high for girls as for boys during 1980 to 2001. The overall net enrolment/ attendance ratio improved an average of 0.9 per cent per year, the second largest regional increase worldwide. Yet there is a yawning gender gap, with 80 per cent of boys in school compared to 75 per cent of girls, according to UNICEF projections for 2005. In 2001, Afghanistan had the widest chasm in the region, with a gender parity index of 0.60.

The projected regional net attendance ratio, the percentage of official primary school-age children attending school, is 77.5 in 2005, requiring a grueling push if universal education is to be achieved. Broken down by gender, with a net attendance ratio of 79.7 for boys and 74.6 for girls, it is clear the road to universal education must be driven through girls’ education initiatives.


The reasons for the gender gap in South Asia reflect common themes from all regions. Poverty is the underlying cause of all obstacles faced by illiterate girls and women. Lack of food, water and sanitation; schools that are long distances from home; and household labour divided by gender all contribute to educational inequality. Poor girls are often thrown into the worst forms of child labour, the sex trade and sweatshops, making child protection a major challenge in the region.

Access to school has also been undermined by armed conflict and political upheaval. In Nepal, for instance, Maoists target teachers in the ongoing violent struggle. It is estimated that 150 teachers have been killed, with 15 district offices damaged and 187 schools closed in 2004. In some areas, schools were open only half of their scheduled days. A local non-governmental organization reported that ongoing violence has touched about 24,500 children, with many students taken away from their homes for weeks on end to be indoctrinated and recruited as child soldiers.

Discrimination abrogates human rights, particularly girls’ rights to education and social equality. In Afghanistan, Bhutan and Pakistan, classes for girls are scarce. In Afghanistan, eruptions of violence and armed struggle, as well as pervasive gender inequality, continue to keep girls from school. In the south of Bhutan, education is often denied to ethnic minorities.

The 2004 tsunami has left an indelible image, but it is one of many natural disasters that strike this region. Torrential rains, tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes and famine are no strangers in much of South Asia. These catastrophes destroy homes, schools, roads, and water and sanitation infrastructure. And while all children’s education is derailed, girls are ultimately more likely to miss out on school because of calamities.


The solutions to the manifold problems facing education in this region vary from simple to complex, requiring anything from tweaks of budgets to massive infusions of money. To prevent the abandonment of another generation of children, all options must be considered.

Lack of safe water and hygienic sanitation keeps many children away from school here as in other regions. UNICEF estimates that more than half the world’s schools do not have potable water, clean toilets or lessons in hygiene. Sometimes, a simple solution like a spigot with safe water near a school can make the difference between pervasive illiteracy and classrooms filled with energetic children. In South Asia, UNICEF installed or upgraded water and sanitation facilities in 1,200 schools in Afghanistan, 4,000 in Bangladesh, more than 10,000 in India and 1,400 in Pakistan between 2003 and 2005. In Alwar, India, 1,667 School Sanitation and Hygiene Education (SSHE) projects saw an increase in girls’ school enrolment by 78 per cent and boys’ by 38 per cent over a five-year period.

The introduction of water, sanitation and hygiene is one factor in India’s overall commitment to school quality and improving girls’ enrolment. Sarva Shiksha Abbiyan is a Government flagship designed to get all children into school, especially girls disadvantaged by caste, tribe or disability. It relies on community participation and monitoring with an emphasis on the recruitment of women and members of disadvantaged groups. The initiative evaluates every aspect of the learning spaces against gender-friendly standards, including the provision of safe water and sanitation. To ensure the enrolment and retention of girls, schools serve midday meals and offer girls scholarships for uniforms and supplies. Teacher training and recruitment are part of an overall push for quality. Advocacy is a strong component of ‘back-to-school’ campaigns for children who have dropped out, messages directed to parents about the importance of education, a zero-rejection policy for disabled children and adolescent tutorial camps for girls.

With so many children lost to labour, initiatives that bring school to working children are rescuing some girls and boys from illiteracy. In Bangladesh, with an estimated 7.9 million working children between 5 and 17 years old, non-formal education is an effective education tool. The Basic Education for Urban Working Children teaches reading, writing, mathematics and life skills to 200,000 school-age children, 60 per cent girls. Begun in 2004 in six cities with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and several UNICEF National Committees, the intensive programme is conducted over 40 months, giving students the equivalent of grade 5 in Bangla and grade 3 in mathematics. Its aim is to give children skills to escape oppressive labour and to raise general awareness about child labour issues.

Working hand-in-hand with the movement to get working children into school is Skukno Ful Rangeen Ful, the highest-rated programme on state-owned television in Bangladesh. The weekly show is a dramatization about a teacher, students at a Hard-to-Reach Learning Centre, a young girl and her family. Each episode ends with a quiz based on the issues faced by the characters in the show.

Systematic and institutionalized gender discrimination continues to plague Afghanistan. Three aspects of the same dynamic are security and safety issues, intimidation and coercion against girls’ education, and cyclical burning of girls’ schools. Misinterpretation of the Koran has kept girls from school and women trapped in illiteracy in parts of the nation, especially in some southern provinces where fewer than 10 per cent of girls attend school.

Pervasive gender discrimination is countered through accelerated learning classes and nonformal schools for 150,000 girls; teacher training, particularly the training of women; and alliances among clergy and girls’ education advocates. In 2004, some 5,500 religious leaders were trained in women’s and girls’ rights and the importance of education. They are promoting girls’ education by informing community leaders, often men, about the merits of sending girls to school. While girls’ enrolment and attendance still lag in Afghanistan, promising signs abound. In late September, girls and women were realizing that their places were not only in school, but also in government, where women are now guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament.

Afghanistan has also helped set the standard for ‘back-to-school’ initiatives after the United Statesled war that ended Taliban rule. When the school year opened after the winter break in March 2005, more than 4 million children were expected to return. After years of oppressive decrees, 1.2 million girls – up from zero – streamed into government schools during 2003. New textbooks relevant to the new Afghanistan have been printed as a result of a partnership among the government, UNICEF and Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.

In spite of concerted efforts and commitments in Nepal, some interventions are no match for pernicious obstacles such as armed conflict and catastrophes. With Maoist rebels targeting schools, teachers and students, heroic efforts to get children into school have fallen short of expected results. The ‘Welcome to School’ initiative continues to reach out to schoolchildren through advocacy, quality education resource packets, teacher training and ‘Education Watch’ groups. Despite major setbacks, the gender gap is narrowing. Generally, back-to-school drives have been successful during crises and have brought a semblance of normalcy to children. But Nepal demonstrates that sometimes the only truly effective intervention for school enrolment is peace.

There is little debate about the role of female literacy and universal education in sustainable development. There is no question that economic stagnation and inequality are inexorably linked to illiteracy. But it’s difficult to find a greater incentive to invest in girls’ education than watching a child’s excitement when she enters school for the first time.

Reporter’s Notebook

Nepal, 2004 – This may be the first time I started to think about educating girls because of their own personal development rather than looking at the larger issues of development. We were here to film a 90-second video on girls’ education as part of the Fox Kids campaign. Everyone is very excited as we arrive with the crew. This video will focus on Kamala and her family. I remember that the girl was very shy. I spent time talking with Kamala’s father about why she should be educated. He doesn’t talk about better marriage prospects or contributing to the family income or getting skills. He very much talks about the benefits for Kamala. ‘You know, she enjoys school,’ he says. ‘She likes her school and spending time with friends. She’s getting brighter. And she is bright.’ I don’t recall him ever once talking about advancement or development. Instead, he’s happy that she is doing well, making friends, learning to read and write. Because he knows that she had been confined to the house, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the younger children.

India, January 2005 – I arrive with a film crew to work on a piece about girls’ education and sport for ESPN. This time we’re at a girls’ residential school in Sitamarahi. This school is featured in the The State of the World’s Children 2004 with an article about karate, which is taught here. Most of the girls at the school are here because they don’t have family support: They have no family circles, they have fallen out with their families, a couple of girls refused to marry their designated husband. Some are here because their families can’t afford to have them at home. For them, school is about being able to stand on their own two feet. They can’t depend on anyone else. For these girls, learning to read and write and getting basic numeracy skills is about doing for themselves. And the karate is about being able to protect themselves. But it is also about having a hobby. Education is really about them.

Unfortunately, we sometimes only look at the impersonal numbers, how education affects future employment or the economy. But these are kids. Of course, part of the culture, the idea of education depends a lot on the ideal of education as a pathway to becoming an engineer, a doctor or an accountant. I hear kids say that they want an education to get a good job. But these children also have those dreams of becoming professional football players.

General observations – In 2002, India passed a constitutional amendment on compulsory education requiring all children between 6 and 14 to finish five years of primary school. But many children are far removed from ever going to school. Poverty and inequality are so extreme. People must accept that their children will be sitting in class with a child from a different social class. We have to broach this topic very carefully. This is an extremely sensitive area for people and for the government.

Efforts to get girls into school are mostly concentrated in the rural areas. The cities are too hard. Take a drive through New Delhi, and you can’t imagine how to bring some children into school. They are too far out of the system. They would not know how to find school. In some ways they are invisible to the system and in other ways they are very visible. You can’t miss them. They are destitute. They sleep on the sidewalks. They have hardly any clothing. They stop the traffic and ask for money. It’s just such a long way for them to travel to get into the system.