Basic education and gender equality

The big picture

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0798/Dormino
A girl looks up from writing on a chalkboard, in a tent classroom at Ecole Joyeux Lutins in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Education is a fundamental human right: Every girl and boy in every country is entitled to it. Quality education is critical to development both of societies and of individuals, and it helps pave the way to a successful and productive future. When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that influences generations to come.  

Education ends generational cycles of poverty and disease and provides a foundation for sustainable development. A quality basic education equips girls and boys with the knowledge and skills they need to adopt healthy lifestyles, protect themselves from HIV and take an active role in social, economic and political decision-making as they transition to adolescence and adulthood. Educated adults are more likely to have smaller and healthier families, to be informed about appropriate child-rearing practices and to ensure that their children start school on time and ready to learn.

Reducing inequities and discrimination

Education based on human rights also helps to root out some of society’s persistent inequities. These deprive millions of children, particularly girls, of quality education – and therefore subject them to a life of missed opportunities. Ensuring equity in education builds a foundation for equal opportunity, economic growth, employment creation and productivity.

UNICEF supports development of national capacities to reduce gender and other disparities and discrimination against children who are out of school. This includes girls; children from poor households or living in rural areas; children belonging to ethnic and linguistic minorities, indigenous groups and castes facing discrimination; and children affected by HIV/AIDS or disabilities.

For UNICEF, equity means that all children have an opportunity to survive, develop and reach their full potential, without discrimination, bias or favoritism. This interpretation is consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which pledges the fundamental rights of every child.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0945/Ramoneda
Young children queue in a school yard in the city of Benghazi, Libya.

Fulfilling global education goals

In 2000, governments adopted the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All. It lays out six broad goals and a number of specific targets to be met by 2015 to address “the learning needs of all young people”. Underlying each of these goals is respect for the right to quality education. As the deadline draws nearer, it is more crucial than ever to break with business-as-usual approaches in order to achieve success, particularly given deep national and international divides in education opportunities, which are undermining economic growth and reinforcing an unequal pattern of globalization.

Two of the Millennium Development Goals deal with education directly – Goal 2, which calls for universal primary education, and Goal 3, which addresses gender equality and empowerment of women. But accelerating progress in education is also critical to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals covering poverty reduction, nutrition, child survival and maternal health. To realize them, UNICEF supports efforts to develop national capacities to improve educational quality for girls and boys everywhere. This will raise the percentage of children who stay in school and graduate with a solid education.

Substantial progress has been made towards gender parity in primary and secondary schools and in the proportion of children completing primary education. Between 1999 and 2011, the number of children out of school fell almost by half. South and West Asia experienced the fastest decline, contributing more than half the total reduction in numbers out of school. Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Rwanda and Viet Nam, for example, have reduced their out-of-school populations by at least 85 per cent in the last five years.

Getting children in school and learning

Yet despite this good news, over 59 million children remain out of school, and success in reducing this number has regressed. Sub-Saharan Africa is lagging most behind, where more than half of world's out-of-school children resided in 2013. Moreover, dropout before completing a full primary cycle has hardly changed since 1999. Only about 80 per cent of those who were enrolled in primary school in 2012 are expected to reach the last grade. Most of those children live in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. By the 2015 deadline, one in six children in developing and least developed countries – or almost 100 million – will not have completed primary school. 

Poor education quality and a failure to reach the marginalized have contributed to a global learning crisis. This is costing governments $129 billion a year and affecting the most disadvantaged girls and boys. Ten per cent of global spending on primary education is lost on poor quality education that is failing to support teachers and ensure that all children, regardless of their circumstances, are in school and learning. As of 2011, 250 million children – 130 million of whom are in school – were not able to read, write and do simple arithmetic. One in four young people in poor countries is unable to read a single sentence. With this many children and youth not learning the basics, they are lacking the skills they need to get decent employment and lead fulfilling lives.

Well trained teachers are key to improving education quality. An estimated 5.2 million new teachers are needed by 2015 to achieve quality learning for all, coupled with an explicit commitment by governments to reach the most disadvantaged students. This means attracting the best candidates for teaching; providing relevant, ongoing training; sending them to areas where they are needed most; and offering them incentives and a desirable career path to make long-term commitments to teaching.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1013/Gangale
Girls attend a class in Horyal Primary School in the Ifo refugee camp in North Eastern Province, near the Kenya-Somalia border.

Education during and after conflict

Conflict is another obstacle to education. Children in countries enduring conflict are less likely to attend primary school and more likely to drop out. Around 36 per cent the world’s out-of-school population has been living in conflict-affected countries in 2012, up from 30 per cent in 1999. Of approximately 21 million primary school aged out-of-school children in conflict-affected countries, 95 per cent live in low and lower middle income countries. Girls – making up 53 per cent of the total – are the worst affected. Armed conflicts had significant impact on education in Middle East and North Africa in the last years, where the proportion of out-of-school children has risen from 63 per cent to 87 per cent in 2012.

Re-establishing education after an emergency not only safeguards children’s fundamental right to education, it also plays a critical role in normalizing their environment. This helps them overcome the psychosocial impact of disasters and conflict. During conflict, education can offer knowledge and skills that provide protection, while in the longer term, it can help develop values and attitudes that prevent conflict and build peace.

Achieving gender equality

Gender equality demands appropriate schooling environments, practices free of discrimination and equal opportunities for boys and girls to realize their full potential. Despite progress in recent years, gender disparities remain in many countries. In 2013, 1 out of 10 girls and 1 out of 12 boys were out of school. By the September 2015 deadline, 69 per cent of countries are projected to have achieved gender parity at the primary enrolment level and 48 per cent at the secondary enrolment level. Gender equality must be addressed in national education plans to narrow gaps in access and learning for girls, who continue to suffer severe disadvantage and exclusion in education systems throughout their lives.

Equity in education

Inequality keeps some children out of school because they cannot manage the costs, do not identify with the content or suffer from discrimination. Children who cannot go to school for whatever reason may be forced to start working too early. This will prevent them from developing to their full potential, reduce their lifetime productivity and deprive society of their potential skills and innovations.

Equity in education has two dimensions: fairness and inclusion. Fairness requires ensuring that personal and social circumstances – such as gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin – do not interfere with achieving educational potential. Inclusion requires ensuring that everyone receives a basic minimum standard of education – every boy and girl should be able to read, write and do simple arithmetic. The two dimensions are closely intertwined. UNICEF works to tackle obstacles to equity and to overcome the effects of social deprivation, which often prevents children from getting a quality education.



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