With gender inequality high in many developing countries it’s important to address how can we reduce the gap between the number of girls and boys being educated in poor countries.
Economists see reducing sexual inequality in education as a vital part of promoting development. The failure to educate girls limits economic growth in the developing world by wasting human capital. As a result, the UN set itself the target of eliminating gender disparity in education at all levels by 2015, as one of its Millennium Development Goals.
Although places like China, Bangladesh and Indonesia look likely to achieve the target, Africa, in particular, will not. For every 100 boys in secondary school on the continent in 2010, there were only 82 girls. The most common response is to channel more money to girls’ education. UN schemes finance school places for girls in 15 sub-Saharan countries. NGOs have got involved too. Camfed, a charity, now pays for almost 100,000 girls to be educated in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Looking at recently-published UN statistics on gender inequality in education, one observes that the overall picture has improved dramatically over the last decade, but progress has not been even (see chart). Although the developing world on average looks likely to hit the UN’s gender-inequality target, many parts of Africa are lagging behind. While progress is being made in sub-Saharan Africa in primary education, gender inequality is in fact widening among older children. The ratio of girls enrolled in primary school rose from 85 to 93 per 100 boys between 1999 and 2010, whereas it fell from 83 to 82 and from 67 to 63 at the secondary and tertiary levels.
In some places there has been little or no progress whatsoever. For instance, the enrolment ratio in Chad and the Central African Republic appears to be flat-lining at under 70 girls per 100 boys. These two countries look soon to be overtaken by Afghanistan, up to now the worst performing country in the world on this metric. There is also great variation within countries. The situation appears to be much worse in rural areas in Africa, where getting to school takes longer and may be more dangerous. For instance, in rural areas of Niger, UN estimates puts the number of girls per 100 boys at school as low as 41.
This is in contrast to dramatic improvements in gender equality in schooling seen in the rest of the world. South Asia, which lagged behind sub-Saharan Africa in 1999 at the primary school level, hit the UN’s 2015 target in 2010. Even the Middle East, where traditional religious prejudices often prevent girls going to school, has made substantial progress. Only Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen now have less than 90 girls per 100 boys at school, in contrast to over 14 sub-Saharan African countries.
Yet it is important to note that gender inequality is not the only problem in Africa. In many places there are not enough school places to go around for the boys alone. In Niger just 15% of both boys and girls were enrolled in secondary school last year. In the very poorest of African countries, simply funding more school places for boys or girls may end up boosting equality as girls may stop having to compete with boys for the few available spaces.
But other problems prevent girls going to school too. Some are kept away by the religious qualms of their families. Others are needed as child labour to prop up household incomes when times are tough, due to the lack of developed insurance or saving systems in these countries. Either way, gender inequality in Africa is a complex problem—and one which will need several different policy responses if the UN’s goals are ever to be reached.