Beijing+5: 23rd special session of the General Assembly

Fact Sheet No. 2

Education and Training of Women

Education is a human right and an indispensable element for economic and social progress. Ensuring women's full and equal access to education must be recognized as a pivotal building block for women's empowerment, and an essential tool for their achieving the goals of gender equality, development and peace.

Despite reported progress, there is still a persistent gap between women's and men's access to education. Combating the high rate of illiteracy among women and girls remains an urgent global need. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, it is now estimated that two-thirds of the world's 875 million illiterate adults are women. In Southern Asia, nearly three in five women are illiterate, and it is estimated that half of all women in Africa and in the Arab region are still illiterate.

Gender disparities for literacy rates are less marked amongst young adults. There is now little or no gender difference in the literacy rates of 15-24 year olds in several regions of the world, including Europe, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eastern Asia and Oceania.

The Platform for Action, adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, identified the need to ensure women's full and equal access to education and training as one of 12 areas of concern requiring urgent action by governments and the international community.
During its forty-first session in 1997, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women recommended further action to be taken to improve women's access to education, including the mainstreaming of a gender perspective in all policies and programmes in the educational sector. In its agreed conclusions, the Commission emphasized the interlinkage between education, training and the labour market, and called for more research on employment trends, income and future employment opportunities.

Eradication of Illiteracy

In many parts of the world, illiteracy remains high among adult women because of the lack of access to education in childhood. Strategies to combat female illiteracy must focus on ensuring girls' equal access to, and completion of, basic education. In addition, there is a need to reach out to adult women through massive literacy campaigns using all modern means available. Since the Beijing Conference, more efforts have been undertaken by many countries to combat female illiteracy:

  • Through the E-9 initiative, involving Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan, which together account for half the world's population and 70 per cent of the world's illiterates, these states have made specific efforts to achieve education for all, with a priority on the education of women and girls.
  • Nepal is among a number of countries that provide scholarships for girls from poor families or rural areas. Incentives are given to successful female students from rural areas to become teachers in their home villages.
  • In Botswana, more women than men are now enrolled in literacy classes, functional literacy projects and distance education, due to a concerted national effort.
  • In Burkina Faso, quotas have been introduced in satellite schools, non-formal education centres and literacy-training centres to ensure that 50 per cent of students are girls.
  • Senegal reports that the reduction in female illiteracy has increased the school enrolment rate of girls from 35 to 52.9 per cent.
    As a result of national programmes, Bhutan reports that 70 per cent of the beneficiaries of non-formal education programmes are women.

Universal Access to Basic Education

Enrolment rates for girls and boys at the primary and secondary school level have increased in almost all regions of the world. However, the gender gap persists in many countries. Traditional attitudes still prevail in many cultures, resulting in a lack of motivation among parents to send their daughters to schools.

 It is at the secondary level of schooling that the gender gap widens, as a large number of girls leave school earlier than boys, especially in rural or impoverished areas. Early marriage, teenage pregnancies and the need to provide assistance to the family, or to learn practical skills useful for employment, are among the reasons for girls dropping out.

In efforts to ensure access for girls to primary and secondary education, countries have taken various measures, including:

  • In Cameroon, the African Girls' Education Initiative, a programme sponsored by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), managed to increase girls' enrolment by 8 per cent between 1997 and 1998. During the same period, the drop-out rate for girls decreased from 9 to 6 per cent.
  • Uganda has established the Universal Primary Education policy, which covers tuition costs for four children per family and all orphans. The policy stipulates that two of four sponsored children should be female.
    Algeria and Iran have established boarding schools free of charge in rural and nomadic areas, and have made special efforts to reach out to girls.
  • China and Yemen have introduced changes in class schedules and flexibility in the curriculum to adjust to the needs of students, especially girls.
  • Turkey has adopted legislation increasing compulsory education from five to eight years.
    Benin is among countries that have embarked on campaigns to educate communities about the importance of secondary education for girls.
  • Argentina, Ghana, Indonesia and the Seychelles have taken legal action to ensure girls' equal access to free and compulsory education up to the age of 10 years.
  • To counter female drop-out rates, which occur mostly at the secondary level, Mexico has introduced changes in the curriculum to include family planning and awareness of the implications of early pregnancy and parenthood.
  • In some parts of Kenya, community mobile schools for single mothers have been established.

Achievements in Higher Education

Over the past 20 years, significant progress has been made with regard to higher education. It is of particular interest that in countries where tertiary education has expanded significantly, women's school enrolment has increased more than men's.

  • In Namibia, 50 per cent more women are enrolled in higher education than men.
  • In Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and many European as well as some Latin American and Caribbean countries, women's enrolment in tertiary education has reached more than 50 per cent.
  • Libya reports that more women go abroad for higher education than men.
  • In Norway, women now represent 34 per cent of those students who pass the doctorate examination.
  • Algeria reports that 86.6 per cent of female students pursue long-term studies.

Vocational Training and Science and Technology

Gender stereotyping continues to prevail in technical and professional fields. Even where women have open access to all professions, they overwhelmingly opt for traditionally "female" occupations. At the same time, the number of women attending vocational training programmes remains small.

  • In many countries, special initiatives have been taken to direct girls to non-traditional fields of study.
  • In Austria, special computer and Internet courses are offered to increase the number of girls enrolled in technical schools.
  • Zambia introduced affirmative action in science and technology to encourage the participation of female students.
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines reports that the introduction of guidance counsellors in schools has increased the number of girls in non-traditional subjects.
  • In the Netherlands, a "Women and Technology Action Plan 1995-1998" was designed to encourage more girls and women to opt for careers in engineering and technology.
  • Cuba introduced nation-wide training programmes in universities to integrate career and skill development for women.

Eliminating Gender Discrimination

There is an increasing awareness and recognition among governments of the persistent gender bias within education systems, reflected in textbooks and educational curricula, as well as in teacher attitudes and training. In efforts to combat these biases, countries have taken various actions:

  • In Kenya, gender sensitization workshops have resulted in a marked improvement in gender awareness among teachers and education officials.
  • Luxembourg has commissioned studies to examine gender biases in its entire education system, starting with the playing habits of children in pre-school.
  • Colombia has established a committee and organized training sessions on gender and non-sexist themes for special target groups, such as educators, editors and communication professionals.
  • In Italy, a self-regulated code of conduct for publishers of textbooks has been formulated.

This fact sheet is based on "Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action: Report of the Secretary-General" (E/CN.6/2000/PC/2).

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2035/B—May 2000