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International Gender Issues

Access to Schooling, What Is Learned in School, Public Policies on Gender and Equity

Many benefits accrue to investments in women's schooling, which range from social payoffs (such as lower fertility rates, improved children and women's health, greater life expectancy for women and men, and higher schooling attainment by new generations) to individual improvements (such as older age at marriage, reduced teen pregnancy, greater participation and productivity into the labor force, and a greater sense of independence in economic and political decisions). For education to have a positive effect, particularly in wages, it appears that women must reach a threshold of attainment between four years of primary-level schooling and completion of primary schooling.

Access to Schooling

Women's access to schooling is far from equal to that of men, with considerable variation among developing regions. Official statistics for enrollment tend to underestimate the dimension of this problem; nonetheless they indicate that there are between 120 million and 150 million children ages six to eleven out of school. This group is mostly poor, and about two-thirds are girls. In South Asia, the Arab region, and sub-Saharan Africa, about 600 million boys and girls attend school, but 42 million fewer girls than boys are enrolled at the primary level and 33 million fewer at the secondary school, as reported in 1999 by Shanti Conly and Nada Chaya. Due to low access to basic education when young, twothirds of the 900 million illiterates are women. The literacy gender gap has been narrowing over time, except in South Asia.

If educating girls is such a win-win proposition, why are there not more girls in school? Cultural factors such as notions of a girl's proper age for marriage, anxiety about the sexuality and sexual safety of daughters, and the division of labor at home (with women in charge of domestic and childcare tasks) affect girl's enrollment and both primary and secondary school completion. In India and many sub-Saharan countries, where strong cultural norms require early marriage, parents often consider puberty as the cutoff for schooling.

Many countries in the developing world face heavy external debts, which forces governments to give priority to economic matters (industrial or manufactured production) over welfare or social justice. Across countries, completion of girls' schooling is at risk because poor parents are more willing to invest in boys since boys (when adults) will be expected to support parents while girls will follow their husbands' families. Another economic factor of importance is the immediate value of girls through their domestic work. Since parents tend to withdraw daughters from school when they do not perform well, girls are not allowed to repeat school as boys would, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. About 150 million of those currently enrolled in primary school will drop out before completing four years of education according to Kevin Watkins's 1999 study. The losses are greatest among girls who belong to poor families or marginalized ethnic groups. Finally, political factors also intervene when governments find it is easier to maintain the status quo than to risk antagonizing opposing groups.

What Is Learned in School

In developing countries some rural families are reluctant to send their daughters to school for fear they will learn new values, becoming less inclined to accept domestic work and more interested in joining salaried occupations. But formal education–both in developing and industrialized countries–tends to convey messages and experiences that reproduce traditional views of femininity and masculinity, with the consequence that girls do not acquire knowledge that makes them question the status quo and boys do not learn to appreciate girls' needs and conditions. The school curriculum in some subject areas avoids dealing with issues considered social taboos. Thus, sexual education does not consider the social relations of sexuality but emphasizes knowledge of reproductive organs and, now that AIDS has become an illness of major proportions, information about avoiding risky sexual practices, primarily via sexual abstinence. Discussion of sexual orientation, a major concern in adolescence, is especially avoided for fear of promoting homosexuality. Serious and widespread issues such as domestic violence and rape are usually sidestepped in the school curriculum.

Activism by the women's movement and some research about textbooks led to the improvement of content of many school materials. Most of the changes have dealt with incorporating a more inclusive language (referring not only to men but also to women), including more balanced roles between women and men, and displaying a greater presence of women as examples or significant historical actors. Yet, although studies of current textbooks are limited, evidence indicates that the changes do not question the existence of sexism in society, nor challenge girls and boys to confront everyday practices at home, school, and other institutions that sustain conventional gendered ways in which society is organized.

A major weakness in the efforts to make schools become venues for gender contestation has been the limited provision of teacher training (either in institutions that prepare new teachers or through inservice training) on issues of gender in society and education. As a result, teachers–many of whom are women–do not have a solid understanding of how gender operates in their lives and in the lives of others. Classroom behaviors by teachers favoring the intellectual development of boys and fostering the compliance of girls go unchecked. Outside the classroom, spaces where the reproduction of prejudicial gender beliefs and norms occurs, such as sports, the playground, and extracurricular activities, are seldom considered for examination and transformation.

Public Policies on Gender and Equity

Many governments have made public commitments to increasing the access of girls to schooling, reducing the gap in schooling between girls and boys, and reducing illiteracy, especially among women. Such commitments are seldom met. For example, the Education For All (EFA) initiative sought to provide universal education for all by the year 2000. By 2000 this goal had been deferred to 2015, with no firm promise that previous obstacles to policy implementation would be removed. Major international assistance agencies (notably the World Bank and the U.S. and Japanese bilateral development agencies) continue to justify support for girls' education for its value as an economic investment, downplaying reasons of social justice and individual autonomy. A number of pilot studies attempted in several developing countries have demonstrated the power of interventions such as the provision of tuition subsidies or scholarships for girls to offset their economic value to families. Unfortunately, only a handful of countries have brought these interventions to nationwide application (scholarships for secondary schoolgirls in Bangladesh, family stipends to families with daughters in primary school in Guatemala, and subsidies to rural families in Mexico). Most governments are willing to uphold the importance of girls' and women's education, but fail to acknowledge the impact of ideological factors shaping definitions of masculinity and femininity, which in turn determine men's and women's unequal roles in society. When women shy away from male-dominated fields of study and occupations (particularly in science and technology), and as they give priority to family over professional or occupational responsibilities, their decisions are interpreted as entirely individual choices.

Schools throughout the world are undergoing major structural and substantive reforms. Efforts to decentralize the public school system and to foster the creation of private schools abound. It is not clear how community participation in the decentralized schools will favor gender equity if the parents themselves are not educated to understand the dynamics of gender reproduction and transformation. Privatization may further constrain girls' participation if the economic conditions of families do not improve. Substantive reforms of schools are focused on improving quality, but this objective is defined in narrow terms, emphasizing the preparation of future workers, rather than future citizens. Math and science are seen as the key curriculum subjects to the detriment of other disciplines. Evidence from Latin America indicates that current reforms express concern for issues of "productivity" and "competitiveness" but much less so for those of equity and social justice (Task Force on Education Reform in Central America, 2000). They seek to promote decentralization and nationwide assessments of student achievement to compare their performance within and across countries. They also seek differentiated pay for teachers on the basis of their performance, which will act as a mechanism to further concentrate on math and reading.

Concerned with the slow progress to improve education in general and the education of girls in particular, a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in developed countries have become active in advocating major financial resources for education in the Third World. It is estimated in Watkins's 1999 study that closing the gender gap by 2005 would require U.S. $9.5 billion in recurrent expenditures in the fifty-one countries with the largest gender differentials. As of the early twenty-first century, the quantity and content of girls' education is best described as being at an impasse, in which forces capable of implementing nationwide action are concentrating on the economic ends of schooling and seeing it as a gender-neutral institution, while forces for transformation, particularly those that could be carried by women's groups, are not receiving the support they need.


KING, ELIZABETH, and HILL, ANNE, eds. 1993. Women's Education in Developing Countries. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

O'BRIEN, ROBERT; GOETZ, ANNE MARIE; SCHOLTE, JAN; and WILLIAMS, MARC. 2000. Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Economic Institutions and Global Social Movements. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

TASK FORCE ON EDUCATION REFORM IN CENTRAL AMERICA. 2000. Tomorrow Is Too Late. Washington, DC: Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas.

UNITED NATIONS. 1995. Women's Education and Fertility Behaviors: Recent Evidence from the Demographic and Health Surveys. New York: United Nations.

UNITED NATIONS CHILDRENS' FUND (UNICEF). 2000. Educating Girls: Transforming the Future. New York: United Nations Childrens' Fund.

WATKINS, KEVIN. 1999. Education Now: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty. Oxford: Oxfam International.


CONLY, SHANTI R., and CHAYA, NADA. 1999. Educating Girls–Gender Gaps and Gains. Washington, DC: Population Action International.



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