The path to gender equality runs through education

UNGEI and GPE, with other partners, are helping developing countries identify gender barriers within their education systems and put in place strategies and policies to address them through their education sector plans.

March 08, 2019 by Nora Fyles, UN Girls' Education Initiative, and Jo Bourne, GPE Secretariat
4 minutes read
A teacher holds class outside at Nurul Islam Basic School for Girls, Nyala South Locality, South Darfur, Sudan
A teacher holds class outside at Nurul Islam Basic School for Girls, Nyala South Locality, South Darfur, Sudan
Credit: GPE / Kelley Lynch

Countless times we’ve heard it said that education is the great equalizer. Education is the surest investment to break down social and economic differences between people.

Further, when done right, schools can unravel the most deep-seated inequalities based on gender. In fact, from our perspective, the path to gender equality runs through education.

Fundamentally, gender equality is about choice: equipping girls and boys, women and men, with the same knowledge and opportunities to make informed decisions about their lives.

Yet here we run into a flaw in our argument, because it is not just about equal numbers of girls and boys in school or about individual opportunities. For even where girls and boys have equal access to education, we know that gender equality is not a given.

In many countries, girls are the first to drop out of school, the first to be failed by the system. In others, it is boys who consistently underperform. And the system itself - teaching and learning tools and practices, classroom culture and how education is managed – can reinforce rather than break down beliefs about what girls and boys should do and be. 

For education to fulfill its potential to create a gender-just world, both girls and boys (and all girls and boys) must equally benefit from it.  The critical question is what will it take to achieve gender equality in education, and what will it take for schools to promote gender equal societies?

The education sector plan: a critical window

One thing is clear: to tackle gender barriers in education, a business as usual approach will not work.

For wholesale systemic change to happen, education systems need to be gender-responsive by design. Just as the design of a building originates with an architect’s plan, the entry point has to be the education sector plan (ESP).

As a country’s blueprint for education reform, the ESP represents a critical opportunity to embed gender equality into the DNA of all aspects of education – from the vision of the type of schools a country hopes to establish, to the way education data are collected and analyzed, to what policies are created, and how schools and education institutions are managed.

What we are advocating for therefore is gender-responsive education sector planning (GRESP). Building on existing tools for sound education planning, UNGEI, GPE and partners developed a guide to bringing a gender lens to this work. 

For this reason, on International Women’s Day 2017, with the support of UNICEF, UNGEI and GPE published the Guidance for Developing Gender-Responsive Education Sector Plans.

As an important starting place, GRESP identifies gender barriers within education systems and ensures that strategies and policies are in place to address gender barriers through the ESP. 

In this way, gender analysis can identify the lack of gender sensitive sanitation facilities, or the existence of violent teaching and learning environments or gender stereotypes in teaching materials.

GRESP can identify the lack of gender training for teachers, or imbalances in the teaching staff, with insufficient women teaching math and science, and few if any men in early learning classes.

Beyond the classroom, GRESP also considers social norms leading to early marriage and pregnancy, gender-based violence, and the stigma around menstruation as education issues having negative education outcomes.

Stepping it up for gender equality in education means accounting for gender-related issues such as these at every level of ESP analysis, planning and budgeting.

It will also require ministries of education to collaborate with other ministries to bring a whole government approach to building gender equal systems.

GRESP: a tool, a workshop and now a movement

In the space of three years GRESP has moved from a tool to a workshop, which is now a movement. To date, ministry of education delegations, local education group and civil society organization representatives from 27 countries have attended four regional workshops in West and Central Africa, East and Southern Africa and South Asia. 

Each workshop is an intense four-day program designed to enhance delegates’ understanding of gender analysis and its role in education planning.

Through an immersion in GRESP, the workshops build the capacity of participants to apply the core principles of gender equality in their work, increase their commitment to the mission, and facilitate peer-to-peer learning through the sharing of insights and experiences across country teams.

Participants at the GRESP workshop in Nairobi in November 2018. Credit: UNGEI/Sarah Winfield
Participants at the GRESP workshop in Nairobi in November 2018
UNGEI/Sarah Winfield

GRESP workshops are designed with the practitioner in mind, so that delegates review their own ESPs, carry out a gender analysis of their own education context, and, at the end, create an action plan to guide follow up work that will make their ESP plan more gender-responsive. 

In the blog posts that follow, we’ll explore in depth the experiences, learnings and outcomes of a recent GRESP workshop through the eyes of the participants themselves.

From our perspective, witnessing the impact of the program on delegates gives us renewed hope that our mission to advance gender equality in education can and is being achieved.

Only when the systematic integration of gender in every aspect of education is made a national development priority can the transformational power of education be unlocked. GRESP is paving the way.

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