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Gender equity beyond primary education

©David Field
Judith Bruce is a Senior Associate and Policy Analyst with the Population Council's Poverty, Gender, and Youth program.

The 2010 edition of UNICEF’s ‘Progress for Children’ shows that despite advancement towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), many of the poorest and most disadvantaged children are still missing out. UNICEF invited several experts to offer their insights on what can be done to realize the MDGs for all.

NEW YORK, USA, 20 September 2010 - If girls and women in the developing world are to escape the cycle of poverty, the actions and investments that have helped more girls go to school need to be expanded beyond the primary level.

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‘Progress for Children: Achieving the MDGs with Equity’ reports on important gains over the last decade towards gender parity in education, especially at the primary level. Still, millions of adolescent girls in the developing world remain out of secondary school, effectively excluded from the benefits of progress towards the MDGs.

Judith Bruce, Senior Associate and Policy Analyst with the Population Council in New York, believes that a focus on adolescent girls is essential.

“We have to make a far greater commitment to investing resources in girls directly. I hope that we will see a revolutionary change in where budgets are spent,” she says.

Challenges facing adolescent girls

Ms. Bruce describes the period from primary through secondary school as a train journey that many children do not finish.

“We kind of leave them at [age] five often. We get them on the train for school, and we imagine that they’ll get off the train somewhere between 14 and 16 complete,” she says. “We know that the children we’re most interested in get off that train a lot earlier.”

Adolescence is a crucial turning point for girls and boys in any society. In the developing world, the challenges that adolescent girls face are compounded by poverty, lack of opportunities, and cultural norms and expectations.

Key to ending intergenerational poverty

“If we’re going to reverse poverty, we’re going to have to invest in these girls; otherwise we have – in effect – planned poverty,” Ms. Bruce says.

Data and analysis from ‘Progress for Children: Achieving the MDGs with Equity’ show a negative cycle for girls involving lack of education, early marriage and child-bearing, and a risk of maternal mortality.

For example, South Asia, the region where girls are least likely to attend secondary school, also has the highest level of child marriage. Nearly 50 per cent of women ages 20 to 24 were married before they turned 18.

Sub-Saharan Africa also has a high rate of child marriage among girls. Girls who marry young tend to be poorer and less educated, and are more likely to be misinformed about HIV and AIDS. Young women in the region are two to four times more likely to be infected with HIV.

Adolescents who marry and become mothers are more prone to complications during labour and delivery that can lead to death. Their babies may in turn face a high risk of mortality, poor health and undernutrition.

‘A new emphasis’

Ms. Bruce believes that an important first step is for programmes to identify different groups of girls living in poverty – domestic workers, migrants, child brides, and girls in communities with high HIV prevalence – and focus on their specific needs.

She contends that girls who are really at risk can still be overlooked, even by efforts that are intended to help.

“In the past, many of the strategies have taken the exceptional girl out of her environment,” she says. “The girl who struggles through and does well in primary school is given a scholarship and taken away.”

Instead, the question should be: “How can we make this place better for the typical girl facing the typical circumstances of disadvantage? And that,” Ms. Bruce notes, “is a new emphasis and an important one.”


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