Making gender equality a reality in education: what will it take?
In focus: Girls' education and gender equality
To get more accurate and usable information on the multiple barriers that girls face in education, several projects are under way to measure discriminatory practices and norms and use that information to build education systems that don't hold any children back.
March 06, 2019 by Elaine Unterhalter, Professor of Education and International Development, Nicole Bella, Global Education Monitoring Report and Jane Davies, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat|
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Girls listen in as they sit outside at Muzu Primary School in Lilongwe Rural West, Malawi
CREDIT: GPE/Govati Nyirenda

Achieving gender equality is at the heart of the SDG agenda, and a core principle of GPE 2020, the strategy of the Global Partnership for Education up to 2020. SDG 5 (gender equality) explicitly targets key areas of inequality, and SDG 4 (education) outlines a number of gender equality related-targets. The General Recommendation 36 by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women brings these two sets of targets together, setting out the ambition to achieve gender equality not only in but also through education.

But what does gender equality in and through education look like? How would it be measured? These are questions we and other organizations are grappling with. Let’s review a concrete example.

More girls in school in Malawi, but low completion

Malawi was one of the first countries in Africa to introduce free primary education in 1994. This move led to an enormous expansion of opportunities for all children, most notably the poorest. The policy is credited with a reduction in some marked gender inequalities associated with girls dropping out of primary school and lacking support to enroll at the secondary level.  

Statistics now show more girls than boys enrolling in primary school. The Malawi Education Sector Plan has been praised for highlighting issues concerning girls’ access, progression and achievement.

But commentators also note that many girls, particularly from the poorest socio-economic groups, drop out of the higher grades in primary school and do not progress to secondary school.

Only 66 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in secondary education actually complete and graduate. The reasons for drop out are complex, associated with family income and high levels of domestic responsibility.

It’s clear that statistics for gender parity in enrollment or completion do not tell us enough about the inequalities that girls face and that must be addressed.

Discriminatory gender norms remain strong

For example, researchers note authoritarian and often highly gender discriminatory school cultures, with teachers using discipline and ad-hoc guidelines that reflect and reinforce discriminatory gender norms in the society.

Similarly, while National Statistical Office figures indicate that the number of child marriages is decreasing, possibly as a result of the recent Marriage Act (which strengthens legislation to reduce marriage under the age of 18), the practice of child marriage still remains pervasive.

In 2015, almost a quarter (23.5%) of girls and women aged 15-19 years were married in Malawi, and 42% of women aged 20-24 reported they were married before the age of 18. Child marriage is often associated with conservative social, gender and religious norms, which give little scope for the autonomy and decision-making power of adolescent girls.

All of this indicates that a coherent education sector plan should take into account many aspects of gender inequality that may appear beyond the remit of the ministry of education, and require coordinated efforts between different ministries, civil society groups and communities to bring about change.

What information, resources and approaches to measuring gender inequality and equality in education can those involved in education planning draw on?

If gender parity figures do not give us the full picture, what else should we be looking at? Areas in which richer information is needed include, for example, entrenched discriminatory gender and social norms that limit girls’ and women’s right to education, families’ approach in households to organizing work and managing budgets with regard to girls and boys, teachers’ attitudes and dispositions, which may pre-date any formal education they received, issues of school-based gender violence, sexual harassment and coercion, and lack of reproductive rights, which are associated with teenage pregnancy and early marriage.

One project looking into measurement of these broader facets of gender inequality which affect education outcomes is the AGEE (Accountability for Gender Equality in Education) project, an innovative collaboration between academics at universities in the UK, Malawi and South Africa.

The project recognizes how important it is to improve the measuring and monitoring of gender equality in education and to develop a range of tools to document practices that may appear unmeasurable. These, if described, even by proxy measures, may allow for richer insights and better coordination of research to inform sector planning.

The project team is working with UNESCO and other organizations, and through these consultations and discussions has developed two indicator frameworks that look beyond parity in numbers and try to measure gender equality more broadly, both in and through education, for use at the national and international levels.

A 3rd grade class at Muzu Primary School in Lilongwe Rural West, Malawi
A 3rd grade class at Muzu Primary School in Lilongwe Rural West, Malawi
CREDIT: GPE/Govati Nyirenda

At the national level, it is consulting with key partners in Malawi and South Africa on a dashboard of measures that speak to local conditions. In current drafts, the national dashboard comprises information on:

  • gender and resources - financial, infrastructural, staff, ideas about planning
  • constraints to converting resources into opportunities; for example difficulties in implementing policies, distributing finance or understanding gender and other inequalities
  • attitudes of teachers, parents and students to gender inequality and gender equality that affect schooling
  • gender outcomes of education (progression, learning outcomes) and beyond education, for example political and cultural participation and connections with health, employment, earning and leisure.

National statistical offices in Malawi and South Africa, academics and activist organizations are reviewing the dashboard and seeing how it can be used to draw out key gender issues to inform more gender-responsive education sector planning.

At the international level, in partnership with a team at the Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR), a framework has been developed to monitor gender equality across countries. This uses the national level dashboard, but also draws on data that is already routinely collected across countries.

A range of multilateral and bilateral organizations (eg. UNESCO, UNGEI, UN Women, FAWE, GPE, DFID), key NGOs, academics and activists are being consulted to refine this cross-national measurement framework and consider its links to national processes.

The GEMR’s framework uses a three-pronged rights-based approach to gender equality:  assembling information on the right to education, rights in education and rights through education. Six domains are monitored:

  • educational opportunities (gender parity indices across all level of education and different educational aspects)
  • gender norms, values, attitudes and practices
  • institutions outside education or legislation forbidding gender-based discrimination
  • laws and policies guaranteeing the right to education for girls and women, and gender-responsive planning and budgeting within the education systems 
  • education system institutions and the extent to which they are gender sensitive and responsive (resource distribution -finance and teaching profession; teaching and learning practices and learning environments)
  • Outcomes of education (e.g. access to labor market, sexual and reproductive health rights and decisions, political participation, etc.).
Both the AGEE and the GEMR frameworks are aiming to help build education systems that take account of broader gendered barriers holding children back, especially girls, that identify strategies to address them, and then measure progress towards closing these critical gender gaps.

Similarly, GPE in partnership with UNGEI have been supporting developing country partners to apply a gender lens to education sector planning to advance this aim. Based on the Guidance for developing gender-responsive education sector plans prepared by UNGEI and GPE, with support from UNICEF, Plan International, UNESCO IIEP/Pole de Dakar, AU/CIEFFA, FAWE and ANCEFA, four regional workshops, reaching 25 countries so far, have helped governments, development partners and civil society representatives to take a deeper look at how gender equality needs to be considered at each stage of the planning cycle, including preparatory sector analysis.

This work will help improve how gender equality results are framed, monitored and reflected in education sector plans, strengthen accountability for gender equality results, and ultimately help achieve gender equality both in and through education – a positive transformation from which all girls, boys and our societies will benefit.

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Comments

A very welcome innovation but pitched at a very high level. How do we reach the people at the level where the problem is? Who in Malawi is working on the project, for example? I am nonetheless glad to see UNESCO involved in girls' education.

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