How can we achieve gender equality in and through education?

Achieving gender equality in and through education is not just a question of increasing the amount of education available to girls and hoping it will redress social injustice. We need to initiate holistic reforms at a systems level that deliver deep institutional change to achieve SDG 4 for all.

September 25, 2019 by Jane Davies, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat
7 minutes read
Children during class. Madagascar.
GPE/Carine Durand

This blog is the last in a six-part series on the KIX discussion papers commissioned by the GPE Secretariat to inform the design and implementation of the GPE Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX). The article also highlights relevant thematic outcomes in the 2019 Results Report and from GPE’s ongoing country level evaluations.

Achieving gender equality in and through education is at the heart of the human rights agenda, and the key to achieving the transformational 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As a route to fulfilling the promise of all SDGs, global trends are increasingly recognizing the need for investing in girls’ education, especially for adolescent girls, in particular those living in crisis and conflict situations.

While significant gains have been made in recent years towards closing the gender gap in access and learning, significant disparities remain in education opportunity and outcomes across countries, regions and groups.

These disparities intersect with other dimensions of disadvantage, such as poverty, ethnicity, disability and geographical location, to create education marginalization, unequal health outcomes, vulnerability to school-related gender-based violence, and limited pathways to empowerment in life beyond schooling.  

Disparities are further exacerbated in conflict-affected areas, where girls are two and a half times less likely to be in school than boys.

This is why gender equality is a priority area for GPE. The new Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) provides a powerful vehicle to advance gender equality in and through education. While gender equality is a KIX focus area, it is also a cross-cutting theme across the KIX portfolio.

GPE supports gender responsive education sector planning

Many GPE developing country partners are taking steps to promote gender equality in their education sector plans, particularly through increased education opportunities for girls.

GPE’s Portfolio Review 2018 shows that gender equality is the most prominent equity theme in active implementation grants: in 2018, US$60 million was allocated to activities focused on promoting gender equality.1

The integration of sex-disaggregated indicators in monitoring and evaluation frameworks, or the introduction of a gender-based approach in statistical data collection, further support reporting on these advancements.

Key to transformational change is ensuring that gender equality is hard-wired into a country’s education blueprint, the national education sector plan. GPE’s partnership with the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) has advanced this agenda through a series of regional learning workshops on gender-responsive education sector planning, together with support from partners including Plan International, UNESCO-IIEP, FAWE, African Union/CIEFFA and ANCEFA.

Reaching 26 countries so far, the approach has recently been adopted for further expansion by G7 leaders under the French presidency through the Gender at the Center Initiative, with technical support of GPE and other partners.

GPE’s policy and results frameworks guide and track progress towards gender equality

GPE’s Gender Equality Policy and Strategy 2016-2020 highlights the centrality of gender responsiveness throughout the work of GPE.

To measure progress, GPE’s Results Framework has two indicators specific to gender parity in completion at primary and lower secondary levels and out-of-school rates of primary and lower-secondary school aged children. A third indicator assesses how education sector plans address equity issues more broadly, including gender equality.  Wherever relevant, indicators are also sex-disaggregated.

GPE’s Results Report 2019 highlights that significant progress is being made, though much work remains to be done to close persistent gender disparity gaps. The report notes that parity between girls and boys completing school is improving but still elusive at the lower secondary level.

synthesis of GPE’s ongoing country-level evaluations finds that most countries improved foundational measures to further gender equality in education access, and reported positive changes in gender parity for primary enrollment and out-of-school rates. Improvements in quality and system level dimensions, however, were less evident in the analysis.

Available public goods to improve gender equality and gaps

Besides the GPE-UNGEI’s Guidance for developing gender-responsive education sector planning (GRESP),  a number of other existing global goods are helping strengthen gender equality in and through education.

These include global policy frameworks such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), as well as regional strategies, such as the Gender Equality Strategy for Continental Education in Africa, and among the Commonwealth and G7 countries.

While there is an increased amount of research available on gender inequalities in access, participation and learning in schools, less attention has been paid to effective interventions at systems level. Furthermore, the research has remained focused on an academic rather than a policy audience.

There is limited - and in some cases contradictory - evidence-based analysis that looks at packages of interventions to improve education systems and ‘what works’ in particular contexts, including in countries affected by fragility and conflict.

Networking, convening and coordinating mechanisms include UNGEI, FAWE, GENIE, the UNESCO-led regional coordination group for gender and inclusive education in West and Central Africa, and the African Union International Centre for Girls’ and Women’s Education in Africa (AU/CIEFFA). However, there are limited convening opportunities or policy-makers, practitioners and research communities to share experiences of how gender equality in education may be hampered or facilitated in their own contexts.

There is a substantial gap in opportunities for capacity building and peer learning at global and national levels, and there is a limited number of staff with gender expertise, with limited opportunities for peer learning and experience-sharing in regional and multi-country forums and workshops.

While existing innovations tend to address the disparity of access and quality of girls’ education, we need a better understanding of how specific innovations have led to institutional change, and what contextual and other factors have contributed to - or hindered - successful uptake into government systems to deliver sustainable solutions for addressing gender and connected inequalities.

KIX focuses on systems level change

The KIX discussion paper on achieving gender equality in and through education maps challenges and existing global public goods, and highlights gaps and opportunities. It details three main opportunities that KIX can address to deliver change for education systems:

The existing evidence base is limited, especially with regards to contextual specificities. While large programs have been constructed on ‘what works’, these are based on small studies in a handful of countries and focused on primary education. The evidence base for policy at the national level can be strengthened through global and regional investments in understanding which packages of interventions for gender equality in education most effectively support the development of gender-responsive education systems.

Potential activities in this area include multi-country studies with comparative data allowing for investigation of the relationship of interventions and systems across a range of different regional contexts, including a focus on settings affected by fragility and conflict.

Informed by strong evidence, capacity building to strengthen gender responsive sector analysis, planning, budgeting and implementation could accelerate progress especially in high-need contexts.

Avenues could be explored for developing global and regional platforms that promote leadership on gender, provide opportunities for critical reflection on gender-related research and evidence, and build demand for further analysis.

Opportunities for supporting developing country partners to monitor implementation of their plans and strengthen accountability to deliver on their gender equality commitments could be explored.

Investments could also include the development of tools and metrics for assessing institutional capacity for gender equality and measuring gender results.

We need further investigation into existing innovations and their links to system-level reform. Often innovations may be useful and produce benefits for specific beneficiaries in niche contexts, but they may remain as stand-alone interventions that are not scaled up or institutionalized into the system.

This investment stream would seek to identify promising innovations and examine their suitability for scale-up and institutionalization. In cases where scale-up into the broader system has been successful, the key factors underpinning success would also be examined.

As the proposals for the KIX global call are submitted by October 1st - and the regional grant proposals in April/May 2020 – we look forward to seeing how KIX investments provide opportunities for tangible capacity development, research support, and innovative practices to help countries achieve greater gender equality in their education systems for a more gender-just world.

Additionally, the KIX Regional Hubs will provide an opportunity for countries to learn from their peers on innovative approaches to delivering on their gender equality commitments and ensuring that all children - girls and boys alike - are able to realize their rights to a quality education and enjoy equally the benefits that education brings.

  1. Generating knowledge and strengthening data and research
  2. Building capacity through systematic knowledge exchange, training and peer learning
  3. Innovating to change systems

This blog draws from the KIX paper “Achieving gender equality in and through education”, written by Prof. Elaine Unterhalter, Professor of Education and Development at Institute of Education, University College London.

Read the other blogs in this series:

  1. What GPE does to strengthen early childhood care and education
  2. Strengthening data systems through investing in knowledge and innovation
  3. How to improve education quality? Make learning assessment systems better
  4. What we need to know and do to make education fairer and more inclusive
  5. The learning crisis is a teaching crisis
  1. Other activities which mainstream gender, such as gender-responsive teacher education, or separate toilet facilities for girls and boys, may not be reported in this figure.
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