Girl, Illiterate

By Nitin Jugran Bahuguna

Unesco's Education For All Global Monitoring Report 2003 states that gender parity in education remains a distant prospect in 54 countries, including Pakistan and India. India scores a low 0.83 in the Gender Parity Index at the primary level

In Poland, school textbooks depict women as mothers and housewives in stereotypical and traditional gender roles. In Albania, Hungary, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, a majority of school textbooks do not portray women outside their home environment. And in Azerbaijan, one particular textbook implicitly condemns women who work outside the home. To quote the book: "In modern families there is a dangerous decrease in the number of children. Among the main causes are urban ways of living, the fact that women work too, and higher levels of education."

In many South and East Asian countries, where female autonomy is considered unstable or risky, early marriage is used as a means of securing the future of girls. But this is done at the cost of their educational progress. In Ethiopia, fathers are concerned that the relatively more educated girls face problems because they cannot find a husband; and that they get older, have to stay with their parents and "bring shame" upon the family.

Is it any wonder, then, that the global problem of educational inequality continues? And that this major infringement of the rights of women and girls is in itself an important barrier to social and economic development? So indicates a new report released this month, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In short, the report chastises developing countries for showing a "sharp discrimination" against girls in terms of access to schooling.

Gender parity in education remains a distant prospect in 54 countries including 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as Pakistan and India, says the latest 'Education For All Global Monitoring Report', the most comprehensive survey of education trends worldwide. The 2003 report focuses on gender equality in education -- one of the six goals of the 'Education For All' programme, endorsed by 164 countries at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000.

The Dakar Forum had set the year 2005 as a target to achieve gender parity (equal enrolment of boys and girls) in primary and secondary education. But if education indicators are anything to go by, many countries in the developing world will find it very hard indeed to meet this challenge.

South and West Asia are home to the world's lowest-literate adults -- only 55% of the population above 15 years is able to read and write against the world average of 80%. Almost half the globe's illiterates live in this region and their number is growing, mainly in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Observing that nearly two-thirds of the region's adult illiterates are women (412 million), the report says substantial gender gaps -- to the disadvantage of women -- are found in most countries. The countries likely to achieve parity in primary and secondary education by 2005 are Iran and Nepal. The report predicts that those likely to miss the bus are Bangladesh at secondary level (it has already achieved parity in primary education) and India at both levels.

According to Christopher Colclough, Director of the Global Monitoring Report, there are numerous barriers to girls' education -- these include early marriage, HIV/AIDS, and conflict and violence in schools. The need to supplement family income is one of the main reasons why children do not
attend classes, he said. Citing the most recent estimates, he says 18% of children aged 5-14 years are economically active, amounting to about 211 million children, half of whom are girls.

In addition, many more millions of children are involved in domestic labour, sometimes at great cost to their educational participation or success. "A much larger proportion of these children are girls than boys," observed Colclough. Classroom practices also influence girls' participation rates in education. The report refers to a study of countries in sub-Saharan Africa that shows that girls, in general, are more involved than boys in tasks such as cleaning floors and fetching water.

In many countries, the extremely low number of female teachers, who could serve as role models for girls, is another disadvantage. In India, "almost 90% of single-teacher schools, which account for at least 20% of all schools, are staffed by men, and 72% of two-teacher schools have no women teachers," states the report.

Tracing the growth of female enrolment in schools around the world, the report uses a Gender Parity Index (GPI), which rose from 0.89 to 0.93 in the decade to 2000. (A GPI of 1 indicates parity between the sexes). Of the 128 countries for which data for the reference year 2000 is available, 52 have already achieved gender parity or will have done so by 2005 at primary and secondary level.

Amongst the poorest performers in terms of girls' access to primary school are Chad and Yemen with a GPI of 0.63, Guinea-Bissau (0.67), Benin and Niger (0.68), Ethiopia and Central African Republic (0.69), Burkina Faso (0.71), Guinea and Mali (0.72), Liberia (0.73) and Pakistan (0.74). India, with a GPI of 0.83 at primary level, is only slightly ahead.

The 2003 UNESCO report also includes an Education For All Development Index (EDI), providing an overall view of the progress countries are making towards the four Dakar goals that can be most easily measured - universal primary education, adult literacy, quality of education (survival to grade 5) and gender parity.

This first index presents data for 94 countries for the year 2000, excluding most of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) member-states but including between 50 and 80 per cent of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States, South and West Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Of these countries, only 16 - most of them in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean - have either achieved or are close to achieving the four goals listed above, having an EDI of 0.95 or higher.

Twenty-two of the lowest EDI countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, but they also include Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

It is more than clear that a multi-pronged strategy - with gender equity as the single most important point of departure, is required to achieve gender parity in education. The goals of Education for All require enforceable legislation, equitable long-term investments, and well-managed, technically-sound education strategies. And in this context, the role of the government, NGOs and the community as a whole is equally crucial.

(Women's Feature Service, November 2003)