Basic education and gender equality

The big picture

© UNICEF Malawi/2008
Pupils study beneath a tree at Miteme Junior Primary School in Khonthi village, Malawi.

If we took a snapshot of the state of education across the globe, the image would shock many of us. Current estimates place the number of out-of-school children at 93 million – more than the entire population of the Philippines . The majority of these children are girls, and almost 80 per cent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Indeed, quality education remains a distant dream for many of the world’s children, even though it is a fundamental human right enshrined in international commitments. From the Millennium Development Goals to the Dakar Declaration, countries have repeatedly committed themselves to achieving universal primary education and eliminating gender disparities at all levels of education by 2015.

And while the number of out-of-school children is substantially lower than it was in 2000, quality education still remains elusive for millions more.

School attendance rates are rising rapidly worldwide.  For example, in five developing countries, primary net attendance rates increased by 10 percentage points from 2000 to 2006, and the gender gap is narrowing. Yet despite this good news, there is much work left to be done. For international education goals to be achieved, all children must not only enrol in school, but also complete the required years of schooling.

Only 60 per cent of children of the appropriate age attend secondary school worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, that number drops to only a quarter. In this region, substantially more secondary-school-age children attend primary school than attend secondary school.

Education provides the knowledge, values and skills that form the foundation for lifelong learning and professional success. Quality education is child-centred, gender-sensitive and tailored to different age groups. It is based on a curriculum that is relevant to the needs and reality of all learners, and it is transmitted through professionally trained teachers equipped with appropriate learning materials. Child-friendly environments are safe, clean and conducive to learning and play.

Education can be either formal or non-formal, encompassing literacy, numeracy and life skills.
From cradle to success

Traditionally, concern for access to education has focused on the primary school years, that fundamental period of learning literacy, numeracy and other basic skills. But while primary education is absolutely essential, it is simply not enough.

Children start learning at birth, and the first few years of their lives are critical to developing their cognitive, language, emotional and social skills. Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes are therefore an essential step on the educational journey, arming children with the tools they will need to succeed when they enter primary school and laying the foundation for their future success.

That success is also enormously impacted by a quality post-primary education, a basic right. Post-primary education is critical to improving societies and achieving gender equality. Girls reap enormous benefits from post-primary education, including skills that translate into employment and empowerment. In addition, there is a correlation between education beyond primary school and having healthier families and lower fertility rates . Yet despite the multiple benefits of secondary education, four out of every five girls in Africa go without it.

Gender equality in education

As long as girls do not have equal access to education, gender equality is but a pipe dream. But beyond merely having equal access to education, true gender equality means that schools are gender-sensitive environments that promote equal participation and empowerment.

Gender equality requires adapting equally to the needs and interests of girls and boys, creating a school environment that is friendly to both sexes and ensuring that women are equally represented in teaching, administrative and educational leadership roles.

The gender equality equation is a powerful one. By combining the right to education with rights within education, we can achieve rights through education. Indeed, gender equality is an essential strategy for ending discrimination and achieving justice in societies.


  • Email this article




Progress for Children: Achieving the MDGs with Equity (No.9)
September 2010

Interactive report | PDF

New enhanced search