Overview: Gender parity and equality: a web of disadvantage to overcome
Gender parity in education is a human right, a foundation for equal opportunity and a source of economic growth, employment creation and productivity. Countries that tolerate high levels of gender inequality pay a high price for undermining the human potential of girls and women, diminishing their creativity and narrowing their horizons. Although there has been progress towards gender parity, many poor countries will not achieve the target without radical shifts of policy and priorities in education planning.
Progress towards gender parity at the primary school level continues to gather pace. The regions that started the decade with the largest gender gaps – the Arab States, South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – have all made progress. Yet the distance still to be travelled should not be underestimated. Fifty-two countries have data in which the ratio of girls to boys in primary school, as measured by the gender parity index (GPI), is 0.95 or less, and in twenty-six it is 0.90 or less. In Afghanistan there are 66 girls enrolled for every 100 boys and in Somalia only 55 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys. Had the world achieved gender parity at the primary school level in 2008, another 3.6 million girls would have been in school.
Progress towards gender parity at the secondary level has been highly variable. South and West Asia has combined a large increase in female enrolment with a marked move towards greater parity, whereas sub-Saharan Africa has seen a marked increase in female secondary school enrolment – albeit from a low base – with no improvement in parity. In 2008, twenty-four of the countries with relevant data in sub-Saharan Africa and three in South Asia had GPIs in secondary school enrolment of 0.90 or less, and ten had 0.70 or less. In Chad, there were twice as many boys in secondary school as girls, and Pakistan had just three girls in school for every four boys. In the Arab States, progress towards gender parity in secondary school has lagged behind progress at the primary school level. Prospects for attaining gender parity in secondary education remain limited for many countries, though stronger political commitment backed by practical policies could make a difference.
Tracking gender imbalances back through the education system to their point of origin can help inform policies. In many countries, disparities start with intake into the first grade of primary school. Three quarters of the countries that have not achieved gender parity at the primary level enrol more boys than girls at the start of the primary cycle. In Mali, the gross intake rate at grade 1 is 102% for boys and 89% for girls. Unless such imbalances change during primary school (through lower dropout rates for girls), the result is a permanent gender bias in the primary system, which in turn feeds into secondary education.
Once children are in school, progression patterns vary. In Burkina Faso, about 70% of boys and girls entering school reach the last grade, and in Ethiopia girls are slightly more likely to reach the last grade. So in these countries the policy focus has to be on removing the barriers to gender parity in the initial intake. In Guinea, by contrast, survival rates for girls in school are far lower than for boys. Where there are gender disparities in dropout rates, governments need to create incentives, such as cash transfers or school feeding programmes, for parents to keep children in school.
Gender disparities in secondary education are in most cases traceable back to primary school. In most countries, girls who have completed primary education have the same chance as boys of making the transition to secondary education, though once in secondary school girls are usually more likely to drop out. In Bangladesh, there is a small gender disparity in favour of girls at the point of transition from primary to secondary school. However, the secondary completion rate for boys is 23% compared with 15% for girls.
Disadvantages associated with wealth, location, language and other factors magnify gender disparities. While gaps in school attendance between wealthy girls and boys are often small, girls from households that are poor, rural or from an ethnic minority are typically left far behind. In Pakistan, women aged 17 to 22 average five years of schooling, but for poor women from rural areas the figure declines to just one year while wealthy urban women receive on average nine years of education.
Women continue to face high levels of disadvantage in pay and employment opportunities, diminishing the returns they can generate from education. At the same time, education can play a role in breaking down labour market disadvantages. Policies ranging from offering financial incentives for girls' education to developing girl-friendly school environments, improving access to technical and vocational programmes, and providing non-formal education can overcome the gender disadvantages that limit the development of women's skills.