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Education and Training of Women and the Girl-child
UNICEF Background Note on Beijing +10
Overview of Progress, Lessons and Challenges in Girls' Education

1. Introduction and Background:

1.1. As part of the follow-up to the Beijing Platform for Action UNICEF made a number of key commitments, including support for Girls' Education, in keeping with the strategic objectives and twelve critical areas of concern outlined in the Beijing platform. The focus on girls' education relates to the objective of eliminating discrimination against girls in education and achieving equal access to education for all children. This commitment by UNICEF to girls' education is manifested in two principal ways:

  1. Girls' Education is one of the five priorities in UNICEF's Medium Term Strategic Plan for 2002 to 2005.
  2. UNICEF is the lead agency for the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI). This has evolved into a major movement for girls' education since it was launched by the UN Secretary General in Dakar in 2000.

1.2. It is also through these two channels that UNICEF has contributed to the Education for All (EFA) goals and the Millennium Development Goals relating to education. In this regard UNICEF has worked closely with Governments and local partners in over 150 countries on education initiatives and interventions designed to eliminate gender disparity in education and help countries achieve quality education for all children. UNICEF has also worked closely with a wide range of development partner agencies and NGOs, in support of efforts by countries to achieve these goals. Against this background the main purpose of this note is to draw on the collective experiences of countries and partner agencies around the following issues:

  1. The strategies, initiatives and resources deployed in support of girls' education and to eliminate gender disparity in education as well as achieve equal access and completion of quality basic education for all children.
  2. The scale of progress achieved through these efforts, as well as a sense of the setbacks and emerging difficulties that have been experienced in the process.
  3. The key lessons learned and the remaining challenges which need to be addressed for success in this area.

2. Strategies, Initiatives and Actions to Support Girls' Education:

2.1. Since Beijing, there have been concerted efforts by Governments, civil society groups and development agencies to eliminate gender disparities in education through two major categories of interventions. A wide range of interventions have been used to promote girls education in specific local areas and constituencies, by addressing the barriers that prevent girls from attending and completing school or cause them to perform badly in school. These targeted interventions are usually small scale and involve measures to make schools safe and welcoming places for girls, training more female teachers as role models for girls, reducing the burden of household chores on girls, providing learning materials for schools to function effectively, advocating for parents and communities to give priority to educating their girls as well as boys, etc. These types of interventions have served to increase participation of girls in education as well as to make local communities more sensitive to the importance of education for all children, girls as well as boys.

2.2. At another level there have been interventions through policies and strategies that are aimed at changing the education system to improve participation of girls and eliminate gender disparities. These systemic interventions include eliminating school fees and other charges, providing block grants to schools for increased enrolment of all children, making changes in the investment pattern to compensate for discrimination against girls (e.g. the scholarship schemes for girls) and establishing standards that improve the quality of education for all children. These types of interventions have had a major impact on the elimination of gender disparities in education, as witnessed by massive increases in the enrolment of girls and boys in countries that eliminate school fees.

2.3. The different categories of strategies and interventions have been widely studied and documented by various agencies and there is growing knowledge about what works best in different circumstances and how to make sensible investments in supporting such measures. Several important conclusions have emerged from these studies and analyses, to guide future action and intervention in this area of work:

  1. While small scale targeted interventions are important to learn what works and to bring immediate relief to a local population or constituency, it is more efficient to invest in scaling up nationwide, those interventions that have proved to be successful at the local level.
  2. Interventions designed to promote quality education for girls inevitably involve action outside of the education sector, in order to address safety and security for girls, life-skills and HIV/AIDS Education, household income issues, nutritional status of girls, water supply to schools and separate toilets for girls and boys, etc. These inter-sectoral interventions have enabled actions taken for educational reasons to have an impact in solving other social problems like bringing water and sanitation as well as good hygiene practices to communities through the school. In other words interventions to support girls' education tend to pay dividends that go beyond benefiting the education sector.
  3. Efforts to provide good quality education for girls also benefit boys and in fact result in the provision of quality basic education for all children. On the other hand when girls issues have not been specifically addressed, these efforts do not necessarily benefit girls as much as boys. Hence, girls education is not really about favouring girls over boys. It is about an approach that gives priority to issues affecting girls, in order to secure educational gains for both girls and boys.
  4. Strong partnership is essential for systemic interventions to work in practice. When Government decides to abolish school fees for instance, there are many consequences (some unforeseen) for the education system, that will require the support of partners if they are to be adequately addressed. This requires funding and technical support as well as logistics and problem-solving to make systemic interventions work on a sustainable basis.

3. Progress and Remaining Challenges:

3.1. In the face of great difficulties many countries have made good progress with the goal of eliminating gender disparities in education. Data from the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2003/4 on 'Gender and Education for All' indicates that significant enrolment gains (8.7% globally), were achieved between 1990 and 2000. Developing countries in particular achieved strong gains in this period, with 38% growth in enrolment for sub-Saharan Africa, 19% for South and West Asia and 17% for the Arab States. As part of these commendable gains in enrolment, there was a narrowing of the gender gap in many countries, as documented in UNICEF's State of the World's Children Report for 2004 on Girls, Education and Development. This indicates that the ratio of girls in school compared to boys increased from 86% to 92% during the 1990s.

3.2. Despite these impressive gains serious problems persist in developing countries. It is estimated that while 81% of school-aged children worldwide were attending school in 2002, for South Asia only 74% of school-aged children were attending and this net enrolment figure for sub-Saharan Africa was only 59%. Similarly, while the gap is closing between girls and boys in terms of enrolment in school, there are still serious problems in the area of completion of primary school, with girls lagging behind boys by over 10%. This indicates that millions more girls than boys are dropping out of school every year in the developing countries. Indeed it is estimated that the number of girls out of school in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 20 million in 1990 to 14 million in 2002.

3.3. In general there are still deep gender disparities in education that are often hidden behind reasonable average figures for many countries and regions. For instance, the UNICEF State of the World's Children Report for 2004 reveals that in Central and Eastern Europe the number of girls enrolled in secondary schools declined significantly in 11 countries between 1990 and 2000, but this was largely ignored because there were as many girls as boys enrolled in primary schools. This makes it important for countries to disaggregate educational statistics so that pockets of disparity can be more easily identified and highlighted. While girls as a population are disadvantaged the disparity can appear insignificant unless the compounded problem of girls is appreciated further by recognising that they are further marginalised within already disadvantaged groups such as rural populations, the poor, ethnic minorities, indigenous populations, etc.

3.4. Steady progress has been made in dealing with the quality of education in many countries and important lessons have been learned in this area. There has been a steady progression from one-dimensional approaches such as training teachers, or providing textbooks, or improving the curriculum, to a package approach that integrates a number of powerful interventions for improving the quality of education. There is also a growing realisation that quality is not only about teaching and learning, but about the conditions in which learning takes place, the condition of the learner, of the school and of the teachers. It is against this background that various new models for quality improvement, such as UNICEF's "Child-Friendly Schools" have been developed and implemented in many developing countries. These models take account of a wide range of factors from simple and practical measures such as ensuring water, toilets, playing areas, etc. are available; to the more demanding business of safeguarding and protecting children and their rights, as well as promoting child-centred teaching techniques for teachers and a good supply of essential learning materials for all schools. However improving quality poses a challenge for many countries, since it implies new resources as well as a significant shift in the existing patter of investment in education. For instance, countries that continue to invest over 90% of their recurrent education budget in teachers' salaries cannot hope to make the necessary investment in other inputs that determine quality.

3.5. Unfortunately, changes in the wider society often thwart efforts at promoting quality education for all girls and boys. Many developing countries continue to face new challenges that compound the difficulties involved in eliminating gender disparity in education. One of the most pervasive challenges is that posed by HIV/AIDS. Changes in the demographics of this pandemic have resulted in a more gendered face, that puts girls and young women more at risk. It is estimated that over 50% of new HIV infections in 2003 were in the under-25 population. In addition, 62% of the 15-to-24 year-olds living with AIDS are female, and in sub-Saharan Africa young women are three times as likely as young men to be living with AIDS. All the knowledge at our disposal indicates that the best option for defeating HIV/AIDS is with investment in quality education for all children and young persons, especially girls and young women. Yet, education itself is under threat from the pandemic, with teachers and administrators dying in unacceptable numbers and children being denied access to education because they have been orphaned or otherwise affected by HIV/AIDS. These are serious reversals that call for more intensive efforts to provide quality education for girls and young women.

3.6. In addition to HIV/AIDS there are natural disasters and civil conflicts that threaten and often wipe out hard-earned gains in education. Here again, girls and young women tend to be more vulnerable in times of civil conflict, and can be victims of rape and other forms of violence and abuse. Increasingly important lessons are being gained on how to do education in emergencies. Indeed some of these lessons also hold out hope for helping to address problems of stagnation in countries that are not in an emergency situation. The experiences gained in emergency education work indicate that eliminating gender disparities in education is not an insurmountable task. It simply requires strong political will, sensible investment and the application of proven strategies and interventions.

4. What more can be done?

4.1. Given the progress made in efforts to eliminate gender disparities in education and the challenges that still confront us, there is much the world can do to ensure success in line with the call from Beijing and the Millennium Development Goals. A few broad suggestions are outlined here.

  1. Stakeholders need to be well informed at all times about the reality of gender and other disparities in education. This highlights the importance of disaggregated statistics on all aspects of education to shed light on the plight of disadvantaged groups such as girls and women, rural poor, ethnic minorities and indigenous populations.
  2. Specific measures are needed to promote equitable distribution of national resources available for education. While securing more resources for a particular constituency has its advantage in the short-term, this is not in the long-term interest of promoting quality education for all children. Also, local small-scale interventions are not the most efficient way of using resources for quality education systems: successful interventions need to be taken to scale nationally.
  3. More networks and pressure groups such as the Forum of African Parliamentarians for Education (FAPED) and the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) in sub-Saharan Africa should be formed to provide strong lobbying as well as the necessary pressure for promoting quality education for all girls and boys.
  4. Governments need to ensure appropriate changes in the way investments are made in education, for example, providing for quality inputs beyond teachers' salaries. Similarly monitoring expenditure patterns and allocation of funds down to the end-user level can contribute to a social audit of the national budget to better understand where and how resources are spent and who benefits or loses out in the process.
  5. Support is needed for bold measures by Governments to eliminate school fees and other charges that hamper participation of disadvantaged groups in quality education.
  6. Given the importance of girls' education as a potential solution to a wide range of other problems such as HIV/AIDS, child mortality, etc. national leaders and opinion leaders can champion girls' education as one of the most strategic investments for progress that any country can make.
  7. Realising that at the current rate of progress the goals set for 2005 and 2015 may be jeopardised, bold and radical interventions are needed that seek to accelerate progress towards these goals. The 25 by 2005 initiative led by UNICEF and supported by a wide range of partners within the United Nations Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI) is one example of such interventions. Now is the time for bold actions, with attention to effective implementation and monitoring.
  8. There is a critical need to enhance investments in education. However, this is not just a matter of more investments, but of better investments targeted more strategically to address points of leverage through which education systems can be changed in significant ways. System-wide strategies are essential for overall expansion and improvement of education, but targeted interventions are still useful for addressing specific obstacles and barriers that affect disadvantaged groups such as girls and the rural poor.
  9. We need to get beyond the usual concern that expanding education to all children would compromise the quality of education in the country. We have the knowledge and experience to safeguard quality while expanding education systems and we need to deploy such expertise and experience in the efforts to eliminate gender disparity in education.
  10. Advocacy and social mobilization efforts are needed to help build a groundswell of support in the population for girls' education as a priority national investment.

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