Basic education and gender equality




© UNICEF ROSA/TNybo/2015
Nepal: Children studying in their classroom

Education can unlock a better future. Educated people lead healthier lives; they can choose to be more responsible global citizens, reducing the incidence of conflict and war. Educated women are less likely to have been pushed into child marriage or push their own children into it; they are less likely to die in childbirth, and more likely to raise healthy children. Education is especially transformative for children who are poor, female and  who live in remote areas.

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since 1990, when the international community pledged to provide education for all. Since then, the number of children attending school in South Asia has increased significantly – net enrolment in primary education has increased 15 percentage points, from 75 percent in 1990 to 90 percent in 2012. In 1990, there were 132 million children enrolled in the region’s primary schools: by 2012 there were 192 million. The biggest progress is in the enrolment rate of girls, which has jumped 27 percentage points since 1990. However, gender equality in primary education remains elusive. Overall progress in enrolment has been stagnating: the net primary enrolment rate for South Asia has remained at 90 percent between 2009 and 2012. Renewed efforts will be needed to reach the last and hardest-to-reach children.

Most countries in the region have seen remarkable progress in expanding access to education – the biggest increases being in Bhutan and Nepal. However, there has also been a slight decrease in enrolment rates over the last decade in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where enrolment was near universal 10 years ago.

There are still too many children in the region who are not in school. Although most countries in South Asia have legislation making primary and/or basic education free and compulsory, an estimated 36.4 million children aged 5-13 are out of school. Of these, 9.9 million (aged 5-10) are not in either primary or secondary schools; the other 26.5 million (aged 11-13, 48 percent of whom are girls) should be in secondary education but are not in school at all. In absolute numbers, the issue of out-of-school children in the region remains staggering – the only region in the world with more out-of-school children than South Asia is sub-Saharan Africa.

The Global Initiative in Out-of-School Children revealed that 27 million children (aged 5-13) are out of school in just four countries – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.64 Most of these children in
the three largest countries live in rural areas and urban slums, and in the estate sector (tea plantations) of Sri Lanka.

In Pakistan, one in three children (or 33 percent) aged 5-9 are not in school.65 In Bangladesh, the rate of exclusion from primary education66 is 16 percent; the rate is 6 percent in India. Exclusion is higher in specifi c groups, which suggests that poverty, caste, geographic location, gender and disabilities – as well as other factors – remain barriers to education. In India, girls aged 6-10 from Scheduled Castes are almost twice as likely not to attend school than the average Indian child, and over three times more likely not to be attending school than an Indian girl who is not from a marginalized group. Children from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are also more likely to be out of school.

Even in countries where there is near universal access to basic education, such as Sri Lanka, some groups are still excluded from schooling. Lower secondary school-age children from the tea plantation estates in Sri Lanka are more than three times more likely to be out of school than the average Sri Lankan child. The rate of exclusion for children from the poorest families is twice the national average.

Poverty is an important exclusionary factor in primary education, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the graph overleaf shows, of all the disparities measured using household survey data for five countries in the region, the most signifi cant disparity is between the richest and poorest children in Pakistan, with a gap of 50 percentage points. Across South Asia as a whole, children from the richest families are 31 percent more likely to attend primary school than children from the poorest.

The most excluded children often face multiple barriers to education. For instance, girls with disabilities living in rural Nepal have the lowest access to education in that country. There are probably three major barriers to overcome here – the lack of rural schools that have suitable facilities for children with disabilities, gender bias in favour of boys, and misunderstandings about children with disabilities.

Emergencies caused by confl ict and natural disasters (fl oods, cyclones and earthquakes) also take a toll on education. In Pakistan, armed confl ict in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2009 displaced an estimated three million people – some 600,000 children in three districts alone were reported to have missed at least a year of schooling in the three districts that saw the heaviest fi ghting.69 And in Bangladesh, an estimated 1.5 million children missed out on education due to cyclones Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009, with damage to school infrastructure reckoned to reach USD 140 million.

For children who manage to get to school, there are further challenges: completing the full eight to 10 years of basic education, and actually learning in the classroom. In South Asia, only 64 percent of children who enrol in Grade 1 reach the last grade of primary education (data for 2010); this fi gure has hardly changed since 1999, when 62 percent reached the last grade. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that only a third of children in South Asia who have had at least four years of primary education meet minimum learning standards,72 a lower proportion than in any other region. This learning crisis – where attending school produces no tangible results – effectively robs children of their most receptive years. It also represents a huge loss of investment. Some groups of children are affected more than others, again refl ecting the disparities in society, and there are geographic differences too. In India, for example, the 2013 Annual Status of Education Report shows that, nationally, only 47 percent of Grade 5 (Standard V) students can read Grade 2 (Standard II) text. Children in private schools have a higher reading score (63 percent) than those in government schools (41 percent).

Reading scores vary between states too – Puducherry in South India and Madhya Pradesh in central India have the lowest; Kerala and Himachal Pradesh have the highest.

In Pakistan, 51 percent of children in the fifth year of primary education (Grade 5) cannot read Grade 2-level text in their local language, while 57 percent of Grade 5 children cannot do two digit division. There are ender disparities too. In rural Pakistan, only 38 percent of girls can do simple arithmetic compared with 45 percent of boys. The gender difference is smaller when it comes to reading, but again fewer girls (43  percent) than boys (48 percent) can read.75 When broken down by income level, the gender gap almost disappears in children from the richest families. Thus girls from the poorest families in Pakistan are most  disadvantaged when it comes to learning achievements: only 15 percent of girls from the poorest families can read basic Urdu (the fi gure is 21 percent for boys from the poorest families) compared to 42 percent of girls from the richest families.



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