Argument

Girls Have Greater Access to Education Than Ever

But equality is still a long way off.

A young student wears a face mask on her first day a back at the Freetown Secondary School for Girls in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Oct. 5.
A young student wears a face mask on her first day a back at the Freetown Secondary School for Girls in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Oct. 5. Saidu Bah/AFP/Getty Images

LONDON—When Adelaide Tsogo Masenya was six, she switched primary schools. Her local school, Dr Knak Primary School, in the poor Johannesburg township of Alexandra, only taught in her native language of Sepedi. Her new school, Marlboro Gardens Secondary School, had an English-only curriculum. Years later when she asked her mother, a cashier who only had a primary school education, why they had moved her, her mother replied, “You actually asked me to take you to an English school.” Even at such a young age, Masenya, who is now 30, had enough agency to understand the importance of education for her future.

Masenya went on to attend university in Johannesburg—later working both in human resources and as a secondary school teacher. She was also awarded a Chevening scholarship to obtain a master’s degree in education and development at University College London, something that likely wouldn’t have been available if she had not had access to a good recognized university for her undergraduate degree. “Education has taken me to places where I never thought as a young Black girl from Alex I would reach,” she said, sitting in an outdoor café in west London, where she now lives and remotely runs the Tsogo Ya Bokamoso Foundation, an education nongovernmental organization she founded. It focuses on mentoring secondary school girls back in her township. “It has made me live a life of freedom where I am able to provide for my family, I am able to work in any space that I want to, I am able to have a voice and express my rights. Education has made me who I am today.”

Masenya’s tale is unique, but it also exemplifies the stories of millions of girls and young women across the globe who, if given an opportunity for education, can run with it. Through education, they can both better their own lives and benefit their families and communities through better health outcomes and delayed marriage and pregnancy. These are related to better educational outcomes, which, in turn, can lead to improved economic performance for the community as a whole.

Those benefits have been long understood. It was 25 years ago—not far off from when Masenya was asking her mother to change schools—that 189 countries unanimously adopted the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPA) to advance the rights of women and girls. One of the aims in the BDPA was to get governments to increase access to education and training for women and girls.

It was the first time that girls’ education was rolled into international development goals in a serious way. In the two and a half decades since, girls’ education has become a mainstay for multilateral organizations, NGOs, private foundations, and individual governments that push forward agendas not only to get more girls enrolled in school but also to tackle some of the intersecting issues that take them out of school, including poverty, cultural norms, and sexuality.

A UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report released on Oct. 9, “A New Generation: 25 Years of Efforts for Gender Equality in Education,” highlights some of the advances of the past decades. However, it also pinpoints what more needs to be done for education for all children, including better-quality curricula and pedagogy, textbooks that are more inclusive, and increased access to female teachers and mentors beyond primary school.

The world’s progress in the past 25 years has been uneven. Since 1995, the global enrollment rate for girls has increased from 73 percent to 89 percent, with the biggest improvements in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia. More than 180 million more girls were enrolled in primary and secondary school in 2018 compared to 1995, which included a 58 percent jump in girls enrolled in secondary school. Over the past 25 years, female enrollment in tertiary education also rose by three times its total to 115 million women registered for programs in 2018. The global numbers are impressive, but they conceal regional disparities with many girls remaining out of school in the world’s poorest countries. In at least 20 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa but also in Pakistan, Haiti, Belize, and Papua New Guinea, hardly any poor rural young women have completed upper secondary schooling.

Another seemingly positive outcome is that globally gender parity has been reached in primary and secondary schooling. In 1995, there were only 90 girls enrolled for every 100 boys. In 2018, those figures were equal. But, again, the headline figure masks huge differences. India and China, with their huge populations, have reached gender parity (the percentage of all girls attending is equivalent to the percentage of boys), balancing out almost every other country that hasn’t.

There are also the questions of discrimination in schools and the quality of the education students are getting. “Definitely gone are the days that we pat ourselves on the back for reaching gender parity and enrollment,” said Yona Nestel, Plan International’s senior education policy and advocacy advisor, in September over Zoom. “We know that girls can complete their education having experienced violence, harassment, and discrimination throughout their education and be spit out into a society that still doesn’t value them. I take issue with these kinds of quantitative statistics like gender parity, because it doesn’t help us understand the experience.”

The UNESCO report also makes clear that the world has a long way to go on improving the quality of the curricula that children and teenagers are getting in school. It’s not just enough to have them enrolled and physically in the classroom; it’s about educational outcomes as well. Last year, UNESCO found that in low- and middle-income countries, 53 percent of children could not read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school. In some poor countries, that number was as high as 80 percent. For many girls and young women—and their parents—attending a school where they don’t get a quality education feels pointless, while dropping out to get a job, help out at home, or get married might feel more beneficial. “Now the discussion is really around what are those skills and competencies that we should be focusing on beyond hard math and hard reading,” Christina Kwauk, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education, said in September over Zoom. “What are those social and emotional components? What are the 21st-century skills?” There is a clear shift, she continued, from the “access story to one focused around what does it mean to be in school and what does it mean to be learning.”

Discrimination against girls and women in school likewise continues to be a challenge. There are still two countries, Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, that prevent girls from going to school if they are expecting. (Sierra Leone earlier this year overturned a similar ban.) Meanwhile, it’s estimated that around 12 million girls a year are still getting married before they turn 18, which is associated with less schooling and early pregnancy. Parents often continue to prioritize their sons’ education over their daughters as well. “If you are a young man and you don’t go to school, there is an element of your participation in that decision,” Manos Antoninis, the director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, pointed out this month over Zoom. “But if you are a girl, you have no choice if someone tells you not to go to school.”

Textbooks continue to be gender-biased, too, with women often represented in texts and illustrations in care positions while men are more likely to appear as leaders and executives. That comes in part because, as the report states, many of the textbooks writers in countries such as Nepal tend to be men. Even in Ethiopia, where there has been a major commitment to gender equality in education since the BDPA, textbooks highlighted stories of African kings, male freedom fighters, and leaders. Women who were keenly involved in the struggle for independence were nowhere to be found.

As girls advance through their school career, they are less and less likely to see female teachers in the classroom. Around the world, 94 percent of pre-primary teachers are women. But by the time female students get to their tertiary education, only 43 percent of their teachers are women. There is likewise a dearth of female mentors in school settings, from head teachers and administrators all the way up to government ministers in charge of education. “In school we were never taught or told what you can study, where you can study, what is available in terms of funding,” said Masenya in response to why she started her mentoring NGO. “I wanted to close the gap and make a way for girls to have access to education and information that I didn’t have growing up.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has had devastating consequences for every country around the world, and the UNESCO report states that the pandemic risks deepening existing disparities. But Nestel, for one, is hopeful that pandemic could bring about some positive outcomes. “I do feel like COVID has cracked open any illusion that we’re not facing some pretty great inequalities within education,” she said. “And it will force the education sector to be more resilient and more responsive to the needs of those who are most vulnerable. [So] it creates an opportunity for us to really move the needle in a much quicker way than we ever have before.”

Ginanne Brownell is a journalist.

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