Gender and health

Gender and nutrition

Gender and water, sanitation and hygiene(WASH)

Gender and education

Gender and child protection

Gender and emergencies

Gender and HIV/AIDS: Prevention of Mother-to-Child-Transmission (PMTCT) and paediatric treatment

Gender and HIV/AIDS: Prevention among young people


Gender and education

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-1373/Pirozzi
Girls tend the school garden at the Catholic primary school in Rwanda. UNICEF supported construction of the school and its sports and play areas.

All children have a right to quality education, and realizing this right for girls goes a particularly long way. Educated girls grow into women who tend to have healthier and better nourished babies, who most likely will do everything to have their own children attending school as well, thus breaking the vicious cycle of poverty. Educated girls can better protect themselves against HIV, trafficking and abuse.

Educating a girl also means that as a woman, she is empowered and more likely to participate in development efforts and in political and economic decision-making. Women who went to school usually manage to increase the household income. The advantages of girls’ education thus do not stop at the boundaries of a single child, but ripple through families, communities, and nations.

Countries throughout then Eastern and Southern Africa region (ESAR) have made progress in ensuring girls can enjoy their right to education. However, major challenges remain.

Key issues

Primary education: Access to primary school education in ESAR has increased exponentially since the World Education Forum in 2000. Between then and 2007–2008 the number of children in primary school rose from 46 to 68 million. The net enrolment rate increased in almost all countries reaching a regional average of 85 percent in 2007–2008. These gains are largely a result of increased investment and new policies, such as the abolition of school fees and innovative interventions supported by developing partners, including UNICEF. However, in the region some 8.8 million children of primary school age remain out of school.

On average, enrolment in primary school is now higher for girls than for boys. The gender parity index (GPI) for net enrolment stands at 1.01, meaning there are 101 girls against 100 boys in primary school in the region. However, the average often masks significant gender gaps between and also within countries. In Comoros (75 percent/71 percent), Eritrea (50 percent/43 percent), Mozambique (82 percent/80 percent) and Somalia (25 percent/21 percent) net enrolment of boys is higher than of girls.

In addition, repetition and drop-out rates in the region remain unacceptably high throughout primary education. Average repetition rates for all grades are about 15 percent, and approximately 4 out of 10 children drop out at the primary level. There are only limited gender disaggregated data available on primary school completion. In 2006, girls in Eritrea had higher completion rates than boys (48.3 percent for boys/51 percent for girls), while in Mozambique (38.3 percent/32.6 percent), Malawi (22.3 percent/13.8 percent) and Burundi (44.9 percent/27.3 percent) rates were much higher for boys than for girls in 2006.

Secondary education:  At secondary level, girls’ enrolment remains lower than that of boys, with a GPI of 0.97. The gap is significant in countries such as Angola(22 percent for boys/20 percent for girls), Eritrea (30 percent/20 percent), Ethiopia (30 percent/23 percent), Malawi (25/23), Somalia (9/5), Zambia (38/35) and Zimbabwe. In other parts of the region, boys are disadvantaged. In Lesotho for example, 16 percent of boys are enrolled in secondary education compared to 27 percent of girls.

Female teachers: The percentage of female teachers in primary schools varies widely: In Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa in 2007 around 78 percent of primary school teachers were women, compared to 33 percent in Comoros and 34 percent in Mozambique. In secondary school, 50 percent or more of the teachers were women in 6 out of 13 countries.

Barrriers to girls' education

At household and community level poverty is a main factor undermining girls’ right to education. School fees and additional costs such as transport, clothing and books reinforce the gender gap. When poor families cannot afford to educate all their children, it is often their daughters who have to stay home until they get married. In Malawi, the World Bank provided adolescent girls with stipends in addition to cash transfers being paid to their parents. By the end of the project in December 2009, girls’ drop-out rates had been reduced by approximately 40 percent.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2005-1395/Nesbitt
Girls share a book during class at Ndirande LEA (Local Education Authority) Primary School in Malawi.

Further to this, household chores often affect girls’ opportunities to learn and thrive, by taking away valuable time that they could spend on their education. For example, girls often are in charge of collecting water before school. Each trip may easily take more than an hour, resulting in tardiness and absenteeism. A study in Tanzania showed a 12 percent increase in school attendance when water was available within 15 minutes compared to more than half an hour. Girls often also have to stay home to care for sick relatives, an ever-increasing need in the context of HIV and AIDS. 

At school level infrastructure deficits often hamper girls’ school attendance and achievements. Less than half of all schools in the region provide for access to safe water and less than 40 percent have adequate sanitation facilities. All too often, girls in particular are forced to skip classes or drop out of school altogether because there are no separate toilets for them which guarantee a minimum of privacy, a problem which becomes particularly pertinent once girls reach puberty.

Moreover, harassment and insecurity may deter girls from attending school. Many girls are facing sexual and physical abuse from teachers and peers, both in school and on the journey to and from home. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) sexual coercion and harassment are most commonly experienced at home and in school. Research in Uganda found that 8 percent of 16 and 17 year-olds had had sex with their teachers. According to a study by Plan International, at least one-third of all child rapes in South Africa in a given time were committed by school staff. However, most victims never speak out because they feel ashamed or scared of being stigmatized.

Early marriage and pregnancy can also lead to girls dropping out of school. Some countries, including Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya have introduced policies which facilitate the re-admission of young mothers after giving birth, Between January and June 2007, over 326 pupils in Malawi came back as a result of this policy. Other countries however are still lacking behind.

UNICEF interventions

In keeping with the Beijing Platform for Action’s commitment, UNICEF uses a wide range of interventions to promote girls’ education.
One of the key initiatives is the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI). UNICEF is the lead agency and manages the UNGEI Secretariat. The initiative aims to narrow the gender gap in primary and secondary education and to ensure that by 2015, all children regardless of gender will complete primary schooling and have equal access to a quality education that is free of charge.

The initiative has contributed to strategic reforms in many countries in the region, with significant support from donor countries such as Norway.

At the policy level, UNICEF advocates for reforms which facilitate the inclusion of girls, including the elimination of school fees as well as the introduction of protection mechanisms for pregnant girls and re-entry policies for young mothers.
As part of its Child Friendly School approach UNICEF promotes gender sensitive education, helps train female teachers as role models for girls, and supports the construction of separate sanitation facilities for boys and girls.

Another key component of UNICEF’s support is the introduction of a stronger gender focus in life skills education for HIV prevention.



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