UNICEF promotes equitable development, protection and inclusion for girls and boys, and the empowerment of women and girls.

A young woman looks off camera with some classmates behind her.

The challenge

Equity and sustainable development in Europe and Central Asia are threatened by an increase in attitudes shaped by gender-bias. The consequences can be particularly acute for children from groups who are already disadvantaged.

Gender discrimination can start early in life.

When gender discrimination is felt during early childhood, the impact may be profound. A preference for sons in parts of the region is creating the phenomenon of ‘missing girls’ as a result of gender-biased sex selection during pregnancy. Azerbaijan, for example, has rates of sex selection second only to China, and the problem is found elsewhere in the Caucasus and in some Balkan countries.  

Gender differences are also seen in education. While enrolment rates are similar for girls and boys until lower-secondary school, gaps emerge at upper-secondary level. And while boys are more likely to be out of school in some countries, the enrolment gaps are largest where more girls are out of school.  

Given the region's level of economic development, adolescent girls are not doing as well as they should. Where gender discrimination is entrenched, and where opportunities for female employment are limited, adolescent girls are more likely to drop out of school.

Five-year-old Edita poses for a photo in the Roma settlement Modricki Lug in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Five-year-old Edita poses for a photo in the Roma settlement Modricki Lug in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There are also clear links between the perpetuation of early marriage and school drop-out, with girls who are married before the age of 18 less likely to be in school than their peers, and girls who drop out of school more likely to be married young.

For Roma girls, refugee girls, and girls in parts of the Caucasus, Central Asia and Turkey, marriage often signals the end of education and more limited opportunities throughout their adult life.    

Adolescent boys face their own challenges.

Adolescent boys may come under pressure to start earning money – a pressure that fuels migration and causes stress. And conforming to negative stereotypes about masculinity may expose boys to situations of heightened risk or violence. The region has some of the world’s highest adolescent suicide rates, particularly for boys, which contribute to lower life expectancy for males in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  

Adolescent boys may also be drawn into risky behaviour, such as substance abuse and sexual practices that result in HIV infection. However, it is young women who may feel powerless to negotiate safe sex, avoid early pregnancy or access HIV information and services as they conform to notions of ‘acceptable’ behaviour.   

Read more about gender in this region and the challenges facing girls and boys in relation to violence against children, access to justice, and the impact of emergencies.

The solution

We address gender inequality in everything we do across Europe and Central Asia, for every child and at every stage of their development. 

We help support new parents who are vital for their child’s immediate well-being, and for the future prospects of both boys and girls alike. We encourage the greater engagement of men in parenting, alongside mothers, as a critical investment in the early years of every child. Our support for improved social services also aims to reduce the unequal burden of child care carried by women.

Where parents receive support through vital social services, investments in gender-responsive services have significant pay-offs for children and for society. Measures to support new parents and tackle stress can help to prevent violence in the home – the first step towards ending inter-generational cycles of violence. 

In Bulgaria, for example, home-visiting services have improved the health of women and young children in three regions, while increasing the involvement of fathers in the care of young children. More than 60 per cent of children under the age of three in these regions are now being reached by such services.  

A Syria refugee girl takes part in a Turkish language class at a camp for refugees in Turkey.
A Syria refugee girl takes part in a Turkish language class at a camp for refugees in Turkey.

UNICEF supports early learning programmes to ensure both girls and boys are ready for school and have the best launch-pad for their education. We promote inclusive education throughout primary and secondary school to address gender gaps in school drop-out.

In Kyrgyzstan, for example, our research on the problems girls face around menstruation at school has helped to break the silence on an issue that contributes to school drop-out.   

UNICEF’s work to empower adolescent girls and boys includes support to enhance girls’ skills in STEM (Science, Technology and Maths). Through the ‘IT Girls’ initiative in Bosnia and Herzogovina, girls learn computer programming, digital communications and website development with support from UNICEF, UNDP and UN Women.  

In violence-free schools in Croatia, Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, boys and girls learn to solve problems, communicate and contribute to more inclusive communities.

Read more about gender-sensitive access to justice, and the integration of gender-based responses into emergency programming.

Two girls huddle together over a desk while one completes some schoolwork

Preventing child marriage

We work with partners to end child marriage by promoting girls’ continued education and mobilizing those who influence families and wider society to give girls a fair chance.

In south east Turkey, for example, UNICEF is working with the Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality to identify causes and cases of child marriages and develop mechanisms to manage such marriages. The programme aims to reach around 50,000 children and 50,000 parents by the end of 2017.