Today marks the 100th anniversary or International Women’s Day. The United Nations’ theme for this year is Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women. While the past century has witnessed significant attitudinal shifts about women’s place in the work-force, in science, and in academic settings, the battle has not been won. A 2008 UNESCO Institute for Statistics study of 157 countries found that only one in three had reached gender parity in both primary and secondary education. According to the study, 46% of countries are at risk of not attaining gender equality by 2015. Regions in which the majority of countries are at risk of not achieving this goal include sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arab states, and East Asia and the Pacific. Additionally, despite improved access to tertiary education globally, the study still reported considerable barriers as women enter the labor market and move further up the academic ladder into research careers. Men still surpass women in virtually all countries at the highest levels of education, accounting for 56% of all Ph.D. graduates and 71% of researchers.
Education is a fundamental human right necessary for all children, regardless of gender, and this gap is unacceptable. A quality basic education equips girls and boys with the knowledge and skills necessary to adopt healthy lifestyles, protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and take an active role in social, economic and political decision-making as they enter adulthood (Unicef.org). These benefits are cyclical as educated adults to ensure that their children start school on time and are ready to learn. Thus the advantages accumulate over generations, creating a ripple effect of increased opportunity and a sustainable framework to end poverty. Furthermore, when girls and women earn an income, 90% reinvest it into their family in comparison to 30-40% of boys and men. Thus, promoting education for girls lifts whole families out of poverty, helps communities flourish and countries prosper (genderacrossborders.com).
So what barriers are preventing girls from accessing an education? There are a number of factors, including:
1. Socio-cultural and religious practices and behaviors that perpetuate negative stereotypes about girls’ ability and worth;
2. The availability of water, hygiene, and sanitation services (a responsibility that usually falls upon girls in developing countries);
3. Gender streaming in curriculum that only allows girls a “feminine” education or presents material in a way not conducive to their learning;
4. Household poverty and poor state/national/international funding for education (as well as a preference in both the home and funding schemes for boys – Less than two cents of every international aid dollar is directed to girls);
5. Violence again women: when girls aren’t safe they cannot learn;
6. Early pregnancy and marriage; and
7. A lack of statistics on girls and women: research in education is still predominantly focused on boys as the subjects.
What needs to be done? The UN has put forth a number of suggestions. These include increasing advocacy for girls’ education by governments and civil society, involving women in school activities, introducing income-generating activities for women into communities, collecting gender-specific data and implementing programs to address girl’s specific needs (for example, distance learning and back-to-school projects for pregnant girls).
* * * * * * *
For more information on gender equality and education, see:
An excellent report on education for girls from the UN:
An article on how equality for women, particularly to tools and technology in agriculture, can reduce world hunger: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/07/women-equality-reduce-world-hunger
An organization doing innovative work on closing the gender gap and offering suggestions about how you can help:
Links on International Women’s Day
A History of International Women’s Day: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/iwd/history.html
Find an event in your area:
International Women’s Day Arts Initiative: Be inspired by women’s art and stories:
The bloggers at Gender Across Borders have posed some interesting questions: