Education and Gender Equality


Child-friendly education (for all)

Girls' education and gender equality

Early childhood development (ECD)

Education in emergencies


Education Think Pieces



© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-2267/Pirozzi
Two girls study together at a primary school in Maganja da Costa, one of the poorest districts in Zambezia Province, Mozambique.

Going to school and completing a basic education had long been out of reach for far too many children in Eastern and Southern Africa. Only in recent years, thanks to fundamental shifts in national policies and assistance from development partners, the situation has been steadily improving. Today, an increasing number of children are enrolled in school, and a higher number than ever before is completing a cycle of primary school education.  

Between 2000 and 2011, the number of children in primary school rose dramatically from 42 million to 67 million in the 17 countries where data were available (UIS Data Centre, 2012). The regional primary net enrolment rate now stands at 89 per cent for boys and 86 per cent for girls. However, there are wide variations between countries, ranging from 37 per cent for boys and 34 per cent for girls in Eritrea, to 98 per cent for boys and girls in Tanzania.

Despite the positive trends, in 2010, there were still around 9 million children of primary school-age excluded from enjoying their right to a basic education. While this has been a considerable improvement from 2000, when 17.6 million children were out of school, the large number of out-of-school children means that the majority of the region’s countries are unlikely to achieve the Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals of Universal Primary Education by 2015.

For secondary education enrolment, as well as attendance, rates are significantly lower. The regional enrolment averages are 32 and 29 per cent for boys and girls, respectively, and an even smaller proportion actually attends school (23 per cent for boys and girls).

© UNICEF/UGDA2010-00285/Noorani
Students of Kisojo Model Primary School, Uganda. UNICEF supports the school with teachers training, textbooks and programmes on water, sanitation and hygiene. UNICEF also support the girls’ education movement to keep girls in school.

Barriers to education

The barriers that keep children out of school are formidable and numerous. Vulnerable children, including girls, nomadic children, orphans, children with disabilities, children affected by HIV and AIDS or by armed conflict and natural disasters are at particular risk of missing out. Further, for every two children who start school in ESA, one drops out before graduating.

Often, parents cannot afford the direct and indirect costs, such as school books and uniforms, of their children’s schooling. Qualified teachers are in short supply, and many schools are located far away from children’s homes, a factor that can increase the risk of sexual abuse and harassment for girls. Lack of access to safe water and separate latrines for boys and girls can also discourage children, especially girls, from attending school.

These barriers, coupled with other obstacles - disability, exclusion and emergencies, for example - create high levels of out-of-school children for ESA. Particularly worrying are the situations in Comoros, South Sudan and Somalia, where more than half of primary school-aged children are not attending school.

Poor quality of education and learning achievements

The most recent survey on learner achievement in ESA demonstrates that even after completing six years of schooling, only 62 per cent of children attain minimum reading scores, and only 33 per cent achieve minimum standards in mathematics (SACMEQ, 2010) [1]. As school fees are reduced or eliminated, national budgets need to be increased to keep up with the costs of educating larger numbers of children.  But even as access to education is increasingly improving, overall quality is suffering. Pupil-teacher ratios have increased over the last 10 years (UIS Data Centre, 2012), and the teachers on duty receive only minimal, if any, training (UNESCO, 2012) [2].

In addition, countries show huge variations in learning achievement. For example, in Swaziland, 93 per cent of students at Grade 6 achieved the minimum standard in reading, but the number stands at only 27 per cent in Malawi (SACMEQ, 2010). Similar large variations are also found within countries with the rural poor particularly disadvantaged across the region.

UNICEF in action

Over the years, working alongside partners, UNICEF has been supporting governments to ensure that every child in ESA can have a chance to fulfill his or her basic right to a quality education. 

In 2011, UNICEF launched the Out-of-School Children’s Initiative (OOSCI) with the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, aiming to produce enhanced data and analysis on who is out of school and why. The initiative is a follow-up to the School Fee Abolition Initiative (SFAI). Launched by UNICEF and the World Bank in 2005, it has helped bring millions of children into school through leveraging policies on Universal Primary Education. Along with these initiatives, UNICEF and the World Bank will also roll out a new methodology called the Simulation for Equity in Education to help countries identify cost-effective strategies for reaching children who are excluded from or underserved by education systems. 

In recent years, UNICEF has become a major partner in managing donor funds, especially in countries where education is threatened by political instability. Two recent examples are the Education Trust Fund in Zimbabwe, where textbooks were provided to every primary school child; and the Fast Track Initiative in Madagascar, where UNICEF helped ensure that the education system continued to function during the country’s political turmoil through interventions such as providing payment to the teachers. 

UNICEF has also been heavily involved in securing technical and financial assistance for countries through engagement with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). Currently, UNICEF is performing management entity roles in Burundi, Comoros, Eritrea, Madagascar, Somalia, South Sudan and Zambia.

[1]  Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, III Project Results: Pupil achievement in reading and mathematics.

[2]  EFA Global Monitoring Report 2012: Youth and Skills, Putting Education to Work.



 Email this article

unite for children