Girls’ education in Ghana: Fighting barriers beyond gender parity

Girls’ access to education around the world is improving steadily. However, in the experience of the national education coalition GNECC in Ghana, access is only the first step towards transforming gender structures in the formal education system of Ghana.

October 07, 2021 by Clara Lindhard Neltoft, Education Out Loud
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5 minutes read
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Girls in school in Ghana. Credit: Oxfam Ibis
Girls in school in Ghana.
Credit: Oxfam Ibis

This blog was also posted on the Education Out Loud website.

According to the extensive data on gender parity collected by Equal Measures 2030, in 2019 Ghana was the 7th place for all sub-Saharan Africa on gender parity in education, with a score of 61%.

Ghana has seen a rapid transformation and great improvement in girls’ access to education during the last decades. However, despite having reached almost complete gender parity in enrollment in primary and secondary education in 2019, girls are still underrepresented in some subjects, and many still do not complete their education.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest scoring region when it comes to gender parity in education with an overall score of 54% against a global average of 75%. Not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but worldwide, we are still faced with numerous barriers to girls’ education stretching far beyond mere access.

“We have reached goals for enrollment – now we are struggling with retention and quality outcome. We see a huge negative change in gender parity moving from secondary to tertiary enrollment. Something happens in between – there is a disconnect somewhere,” explains Dinah Adiko, Gender and Inclusion specialist, and Technical Committee member of Ghana National Education Campaign Coalition (GNECC), one of the many national education coalitions supported by Education Out Loud.

Repeating problematic gender norms in the education system

According to UNESCO’s 2020 Gender Report, girls’ enrollment in school has increased steadily over time. However, there is still great gender disparity in higher levels of education and, for example, in subjects related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – and Ghana is no exception.

As we move closer to a world with overall gender parity in enrollment at many levels of education systems, the absence of girls in some subjects is striking. For GNECC, this is proof that ensuring formal access to education is only the first step in breaking down gender norms and barriers in the education system:

“In the process of encouraging girls to go to school, the system thought: ‘let’s make the schools attractive in the lines of things that girls did at that time. Let’s introduce them to home economics, nursing, and cooking.’ We took traditional gender roles and moved them into the formal education system. And now we wonder where the girls are in STEM. We got it wrong and it is now our responsibility to fix that.”

Dinah Adiko

Looking beyond enrollment statistics, GNECC also examines classroom practices to understand the challenges that girls experience in school.

“Teaching and learning materials and resources are heavily biased. They carry a lot of social norms and expectations of girls and boys respectively. In curriculum, we are depicting pictures where professionals like politicians, lawyers and managers, are very dominantly male. If you then look at people who perform caregiving roles, school materials strongly depict females performing domesticated roles. The message is recycled and reinforced to the point where girls begin to see themselves in this light and reinforce the limitations that society has put on them,” says Dinah Adiko.

Changing mindsets by popularizing education for all girls

Ghana has managed to rapidly increase girls’ enrollment and primary and secondary school over the last decades. The Ghanaian government led a nationwide media campaign in the 1980s and 1990s targeting communities and advocating for them to send their girls to school. This campaign kickstarted the increase in enrollment.

“It became so compelling that even without understanding why girls should go to school, it became the new norm. It was fashionable to send your girls to school,” says Dinah Adiko with a smile.

In May 2021, GNECC participated in a Girls’ Education Roundtable organized by the British High Commission in the lead up to the Global Education Summit. During the discussion, GNECC advocated for more attention to girls with special needs within the public school space in Ghana.

Girls with special needs find themselves in an intersection of disadvantage and challenges, so focusing on them is key to ensure that the Ghanaian education system can create the best circumstances for all girls to feel safe and confident in school, and continue their education.

GNECC implements a number of projects aiming to make school spaces safer for girls. For example, it is GNECC’ experience that most infrastructure within public school space is not inclusive enough for girls who are menstruating or for girls with disabilities or other special needs. By establishing such facilities and working with communities, GNECC experiences how attitudes change:

“Many of our efforts made it clear to the parents, teachers, and even the boys, that menstruation, for example, is a normal thing. Eventually they began to support the girls instead of mocking them. Advocacy really helps us impact and influence behavior and perceptions,” says Isaac Awua-Boateng, National Coordinator of GNECC.

GNECC also works to end violence against girls in school which results in girls feeling unsafe and dropping out. By creating peer support networks, GNECC has witnessed a substantial change and decrease in violence against girls in the communities and areas they work in.

How do we change the structures?

The government of Ghana is strongly aware of remaining issues surrounding gender disparity and conditions that affect girls and boys at school. Despite this awareness and the adoption of the Ghana Education Strategy Plan for 2018-2030, where gender equality is given significant attention, there are still struggles with implementation and commitment of all actors to realize the plan’s ambitions.

“Our country is on a journey where we gradually build up gender parity and address the challenges for girls in the education system. This is where civil society and GNECC comes in. GNECC pressures the government to respond, provide opportunities and solutions, and ensure improvement for and girls’ education in Ghana,” says Dinah Adiko.

“If you want to break the glass ceiling, don’t just crack it – break it open.”

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