Updated: Jan 10
For nearly 75 years, we’ve acknowledged that access to quality education is an inalienable right, beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In practice, however, children face myriad barriers to education, including their poverty level, geography, proximity to a conflict-affected situation or insecure area, refugee status, gender, and local infrastructure, according to Educate a Child.
While we’ve taken strides in mitigating the gender gap, girls continue to lag behind boys in literacy rates and school attendance, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics in EdStats. In Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, and Sierra Leone, the majority of girls are illiterate. Almost 300 million women in India are illiterate, according to Graduate Women.
In pursuit of The Global Goals for Sustainable Development’s fourth goal, the organization has set a benchmark that by 2030, gender disparities are eliminated.
The commitment to gender equality has been made – what is standing in the way?
With so many public commitments to close the gender gap in education, it can be easy to wonder what’s standing in the way, and it’s often longstanding patriarchal norms.
1. Less importance may be granted to girls’ education. In India, Graduate Women says, society simply deems female education less important, and demand is low – and education may even be seen as a financial liability. This perspective is pervasive in many countries where women generally have a lower status.
By ensuring widespread education about the link between education and quality of life, a new emphasis and priority can be cultivated.
2. Education can be costly, forcing families to choose who receives an education – and who doesn’t. Direct costs like school fees, clothing, shoes, books, and supplies can add up for families, who often opt to send a son over a daughter if they have to choose. Indirectly, girls tend to work in the home or serve as caretakers, and sending them to school takes an indirect toll on family finances.
In Kenya, the Girl Child Network is working to emphasize the girl child to combat these social barriers, including the perspective that girls shouldn’t be educated because they will ultimately marry and leave the family.
By ensuring all education is free, we can avoid forcing families to choose which child to educate. Shaping educational content is also essential to change these norms, as education content itself can reinforce gender stereotypes and perpetuate a vicious cycle.
3. Social norms can stack up against girls before they even enter the school building – underestimating them right from the start.
In his research on gender achievement together with Sarah Lubienski, Joseph Cimpian writes in Brookings, that something outside of socio-economic challenges may be occurring within schools granting boys a math advantage. While race-based gaps can be attributed to the differences in schools attended by students and socio-economic difference, boys and girls typically attend the same schools and come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Despite this, while boys and girls enter kindergarten with math scores on par, by second or third grade, boys begin to show higher scores.
The real issue, Cimpian argues, is that “the overall picture related to gender equity is of an education system that devalues young women’s contributions and underestimates young women’s intellectual abilities more broadly.”
Equipping educators at all levels to understand and identify the potential to underrate girls and addressing systemic gender gaps can help eliminate bias.
4. Gender-based violence blocks girls from education. Gender-based violence, as defined by The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, is a human rights violation. Rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault, corporal punishment, and child marriage can keep girls from school for short or sustained periods. Children with mothers impacted by gender-based violence are also impacted. A study by the World Bank Group reported that 63% of children of abused in Nicaragua had to repeat a school year; they dropped out completes an average of four years earlier than their peers.
Traumatic circumstances can make concentrating in school impossible; pregnancy can force girls to drop out of school completely. This presents in schools as well, significantly enough that UNESCO defines a specific category of school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV). Transportation to and from school can place girls in vulnerable situations, and, devastatingly, even teachers and students can perpetrate SRGBV. In 2010, a survey reported that 47% of teachers initiated sexual relations with students.
While schools should take steps to cultivate safe learning environments, better awareness, education, and intolerance of gender-based violence are essential to igniting true social change.
Educating girls: a benefit to us all.
Providing girls with equal access to education is so much more valuable than simply meeting goals. The best predictor of a country’s peacefulness is the education and well-being of its women and girls, according to information from the Statistics on Women. That’s more influential than factors like wealth, political structure, and ethnic or religious makeup.
When equipping girls and boys with an education that allows them to critically think and challenge norms, we help them address gender roles.
Barbara Baily, Vice-Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women concludes:
“In cultures that value obedience above all, women are usually required to be the most obedient of all. But human progress, innovation, and development do not come from societies that impose submission. They spring from self-expression, free exchanges of ideas, the flash of criticism, and the clang of argument. And in all those elements, women must play a central role. No society can realize its potential for progress if it holds half its people back.”
For a more peaceful, innovative, and progressive society, we must begin to propel all people forward, and that begins with a strong educational foundation.
Help Education Unbound eliminate gender bias in education and equip girls and boys alike with an education that will encourage them to challenge today’s norms and build a better, more innovative future. Visit Education Unbound Programs and learn how you can support STEAM in education today.