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Meeting the MDG of gender parity in basic education

The United Nations acknowledges that without success in achieving education goals there is little prospect of achieving the other perhaps most important Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015. A Global Campaign for Education report has some answers

Getting girls into school isn't just a matter of education -- it's a matter of life and death. Consider these facts:

  • Babies born to mothers without any formal education are at least twice as likely to suffer from malnutrition or die before the age of five than babies born to mothers who have finished primary school.
  • Even one or two years of schooling for mothers cuts child deaths by 15%.
  • Women's education does more to reduce malnutrition than anything else does, including increased food availability.
  • Education for girls is one of the most effective ways to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS.

 Still, 65 million girls around the world are being denied their right to education. That's as many as all school-age girls in North America and Europe .

At the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, world leaders agreed to get as many girls as boys into primary and secondary classrooms by 2005. Governments also promised to ensure that by 2015 all girls and boys completed primary education. The United Nations acknowledges that without success in achieving the education goals, there is little prospect of achieving the other Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for halving poverty worldwide by 2015.

Yet, according to 'A Fair Chance: Attaining Gender Equality in Basic Education by 2005', a new Global Campaign for Education (GCE) report on current trends, gender parity in education won't be achieved until 2025. Unless progress is accelerated, Africa won't get all its girls and boys into primary school until 2100.

Education can save your life

Education saves lives by giving women the confidence and power to make better choices for themselves and their children.

  • In much of South Asia , women typically eat last and eat least. During pregnancy, this can have disastrous consequences: high maternal and infant mortality and low birth weight that could cause serious health complications throughout a person's life.
  • Bangladeshi women with at least a fifth grade education are more likely to increase their food intake when they are pregnant -- not just because they know they should, but because they are better able to influence household decisions.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa , HIV/AIDS infection rates have been falling dramatically among women with at least a secondary education -- not just because they have better knowledge of how to prevent transmission but because they have the status and the confidence to assert their rights. In 17 countries in Africa and four in Latin America , better-educated girls tended to delay having sex and were more likely to insist that their partners use condoms. Since young women in Africa are up to five times more vulnerable to HIV infection than young men, denying them access to education may literally cost them their lives.

Some 88 countries need to dramatically accelerate progress for the 2005 target to be met. Clearly, a massive effort will be required to avoid outright failure. Some countries, including a few of the poorest in the world, are already making this effort and are winning. New research by the GCE analyses the factors behind their success, and asks whether they can be repeated elsewhere.

For instance, the report notes, the enrolment of girls could grow at the rate required to reach the target if all poor countries made basic education free and introduced targeted subsidies to help girls from the poorest families get into schools. And if all rich countries kept their promise to increase aid to education.

The experiences of the world's target 2005 'success stories' demonstrate that a few simple steps, pursued in a comprehensive integrated fashion, could have an enormous impact on girls' enrolment and school completion.

Building more primary and secondary schools, as well as training and hiring more teachers, especially in disadvantaged and remote areas, is the most pressing challenge. Unless there are enough schools near communities, most girls in rural areas will miss out on education. Secondly, schools must be free at least through the primary level. Fees and charges affect all poor children -- but they hit girls harder than boys. Thirdly, because private returns on girls' education are often lower than the social returns, society may need to offer extra incentives to the poorest families (such as stipends and free school meals) to offset the hidden costs of educating girls, even where no tuition fees are charged.

Finally, a rescue plan is needed to improve conditions for teaching and learning, especially in rural and slum schools. At a minimum, all schools need trained teachers who are motivated and supported to do their job well. The safety and dignity of girl pupils must be guaranteed, with sanctions in place to stop harassment and abuse.

Countries that have followed such policies and have backed them up with high-level political support have increased girls' participation in education by leaps and bounds, in spite of social and religious traditions that militate strongly against the education of girls. For instance, Bangladesh has raised girls' secondary enrolment from 13% to 56% in 10 years.

Sadly, such success stories are few and far between. Only six out of 70 developing countries for which data is available completely eliminated gender disparity in primary enrolments during the 1990s, and only 13 countries closed the gender gap in secondary education, the report states.

Political commitment to basic education in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a good example of a country whose government has bitten the political bullet by taking decisive action on gender equity. Primary education was made compulsory in the country by an act of parliament in 1990. A substantially strengthened women's movement helped galvanise government commitment to abolishing the gender gap in education. Their leverage was increased by the actions of international bodies, resulting in commitments to women's education and gender equity that were signed by the government.

In 1992, Bangladesh 's prime minister launched the National Campaign for Social Mobilisation for Basic Education. Fees for rural girls were abolished, free uniforms distributed to girls (later discontinued) and food-for-education and stipend schemes piloted. Government spending on primary education began a significant upward trend.

The social mobilisation campaign used multimedia techniques to spread its message, including a cartoon series called 'Meena' highlighting the importance of education for poor girls. In the mid-1990s, satellite schools were started for Class 1 and 2, fee-free education for girls was extended to Class 10, the Female Secondary Stipend Programme was extended and a number of other incentives offered to girls and poor children in primary school.

Bangladesh has consistently allocated more than 46% of its education budget to primary and mass education, since 1990, and the current share of education in the total budget is nearly 16%. Other factors encouraging girls to attend school include the availability of micro-finance and expanding job opportunities.

This high-level support for girls' education has been paralleled in the NGO sector. Combined government and NGO efforts to promote access and equity in education have resulted in extraordinary gains in girl's enrolment in both primary and secondary schools, over the past decade.

A nine-step primer for action
A generalised expansion of primary education alone is not sufficient to achieve the education MDG, says the report. Action must also be taken to address gender-specific discrimination and disadvantages that confront girls every step of the way, from the time they enrol to the time they graduate. Each country must urgently develop a comprehensive strategy for gender equality in education. Governments therefore need to translate the 2005 and 2015 goals into clear operational targets, and put these targets at the heart of their education sector and poverty reduction plans.

Even though 2005 is less than two years away, no country is so far off track that it cannot eliminate gender gaps in rural and urban primary and secondary school intakerates by 2005. The next challenge is to ensure that completionrates between boys and girls are equalised by 2010. By far the largest gender gaps are seen in rural areas. It is therefore important to have separate rural and urban intake and completion targets. Targets for achieving gender parity in learning achievements must also be set.

Eliminating gender gaps in rural and urban primary school intake is a minimum threshold that must be achieved by 2005. If this time line is allowed to slip it will become impossible to achieve universal primary education (UPE) by 2015. And, as the United Nations Development Programme warns, if we fail to achieve UPE by 2015, the already uncertain prospect of attaining the other MDGs will fade further.

The timetable is demanding, but progress will accelerate only if governments and donors together:

1) End the education queue
There are only a few developing countries where affluent males have not already achieved universal primary education (UPE). There are only a few developing countries in which poor, rural girls are even close to achieving the same.

In India , for example, nearly a third of rural girls have never been to school. In Ethiopia , the figure climbs to almost two-thirds. Gender gaps are often greatest in countries where overall net enrolments are low. By failing to increase access so that there are enough free schools to accommodate all boys and girls, governments create an education queue in which the poorest and least privileged groups, including girls, are almost certain to figure last.

The following steps are needed in order to get rid of this queue:

  • Build enough schools and hire enough teachers to guarantee that all communities are served by a school within safe walking distance for girls.
  • Remove school fees, which practically guarantee the continuing exclusion of poor rural girls. When parents can only afford to keep one child in school, daughters usually lose out. In Uganda , following the introduction of free primary education, the number of girls enrolled increased from 1.4 million in 1996 to 3 million in 1999; girls' share in total enrolment has steadily grown.
  • Expand 'bridging' schemes developed by NGOs to draw hard-to-reach children into the school system.
  • In order to avoid recreating queues at the secondary level, governments must plan to rapidly extend free and universal access to secondary schools. Currently, only one in five girls in Africa , and two in five girls in South and West Asia , get a chance to go to secondary school.
2) Offer extra help to poor families to keep girls in school
Extra assistance, such as a free school meals or stipends linked to regular attendance, helps poor families keep girls in school longer. It is also an inexpensive and effective way to redistribute resources towards poor communities, since a relatively small up-front investment by governments enables poor girls to acquire a lifelong asset that allows them to escape the poverty trap. Stipends for secondary school girls have been particularly effective; they not only increase secondary enrolment but also create strong incentives for girls to enter and complete primary schooling.

In Bangladesh , districts where secondary school bursaries were introduced experienced a sharp decrease in child marriage, as well as soaring girls' enrolment.

3) Launch a rescue plan for schools in poor communities
Parents withdraw girls from school if they perceive that their daughters are not learning anything. Worse, that they are vulnerable to abuse, attack and humiliation at school. Yet, many schools in poor rural areas (and urban slums) lack even the basics needed to function. They frequently have far fewer resources, offer fewer hours of instruction and attain far worse results than schools in more affluent areas. For instance, a 2003 survey conducted in government schools in New Delhi, the capital of India, found that 49% of them lacked girls' toilets and that this was a major deterrent to girls attending school.

All schools need trained, motivated teachers who turn up every day to teach. And enough books and desks to go around. Construction of safe, private toilet facilities for girls should be mandatory.

Strong sanctions against sexual abuse and the harassment of girl students must be enacted and enforced. First priority should be improving the status, pay and support of teachers, especially those posted in rural or 'difficult' areas.

4) Encourage a range of education provisions
The scale and urgency of action necessary to meet the 2005 target makes it essential to strongly encourage NGOs to play a complementary role in developing sustainable education provision. More should be done to expand and mainstream the provision of basic education by NGOs, especially to hard-to-reach groups. These schools need to develop clear 'pathways' and linkages with the formal system so that the non-formal sector does not become a 'ghetto' for girls and poor students. Greater flexibility is needed so that an eventual transfer to state schools is facilitated and encouraged.

5) Engage with civil society
Experience shows that a top-down approach to girls' education is not only ineffective, it may create resistance and resentment that will ultimately be counter-productive -- a leading cause of 'implementation failure' in girls' education. The participation of communities, teachers and women's groups in the policy-making process is crucial to developing appropriate, well-informed responses to local complexities, and generating the broad-based support needed to implement them successfully.

6) Break the glass ceiling
Given the unemployment crisis in most countries, school-leavers stand little chance of finding jobs in the 'formal sector' unless they have done well in their secondary school-leaving examinations. Moreover, many of the health and productivity benefits of educating girls are not fully unlocked until secondary education is attained. This highlights the importance of balanced investment by donors and governments in increasing girls' access, completion and achievements at the secondary level.

In many countries, gender inequalities are most serious at universities and other higher education institutions. It is often forgotten that the gender parity goal includes equity at the tertiary level by 2015. Expanding the output of female graduates from these institutions is essential in order to ensure that women begin to occupy the full range of professional and management jobs, and, in doing so, break down dominant patriarchal views about gender and employment. Increasing the number of educated and qualified women can act as a powerful and positive influence on girls.

7) Counter the impact of HIV/AIDS
The AIDS epidemic has very serious implications for the attainment of gender equality in basic education, especially in sub-Saharan Africa . Girls are likely to be particularly badly affected by the impact since they will be expected to look after sick parents and other family members, as well as take over some of the household activities. Girl orphans are also thought to be more vulnerable than boys and are therefore very likely to drop out of school.

Given that AIDS-related mortality is expected to be highest among young female adults, this has possible far-reaching implications for female teachers, and any attempt to increase the number of female teaching staff. It is essential, therefore, that in high HIV prevalence countries, comprehensive strategies are developed by education ministries to both prevent and mitigate the impact of the epidemic on students and teachers, particularly females.

8) Invest more in girls
Countries that have achieved success in girls' schooling are the ones that have dramatically increased their own spending on basic education to as much as 20% of their budget, or 3% of their GDP. Yet, even at this high level of government commitment, low-income countries will need a substantial increase in aid and debt relief. To meet the 2005 and 2015 education goals, rich countries would need to provide $5.6 billion per year. That's less than three days of global military spending, and about the same as what American parents spend on Barbie dolls for their daughters.

Since 2000, the international community, which has promised to co-finance the Millennium Development Goal effort, has repeatedly failed to find adequate funds for poor countries that are ready to implement national plans to achieve education for all.

The nine countries in this study alone face a financing gap of around US$ 1 billion per year. Until this gap is closed, the gender gap cannot be closed either.

9) A global initiative to meet education goals
Aid not only needs to be increased, it needs to be intelligently targeted towards countries that face the greatest numerical and financial challenges in attaining the 2005 and 2015 goals, and whose governments show real and demonstrated commitment to redressing gender inequalities. Firm, long-term financial aid is required to enable governments to commit external resources to meet salary costs and other recurrent expenditures.

The Global Campaign for Education is calling for the implementation of a global financing framework for basic education, in order to channel more aid to countries that are most in need of additional resources and have good policies in place to meet the 2005 and 2015 education goals. The fast track initiative (FTI), endorsed last year by G7 leaders, the World Bank, UNESCO and Unicef, provides a starting point. The FTI could be enormously helpful in accelerating progress towards the 2005 and 2015 targets, by guaranteeing the long-term predictable financing that governments need to provide free and universal access, and to achieve minimum quality levels in all schools. However, the FTI's impact on the 2005 goal will be limited unless it includes funding for subsidy programmes to get girls into school. Donors must also agree a timetable for expanding FTI entry to more countries, including those with the most out-of-school girls and largest gender gaps.

InfoChange News & Features, October 2004