The world's daughters are most at risk
More than half of all the children in the world who are not in school are girls. The highest number of these live in sub-Saharan Africa, South and East Asia and the Pacific. Worldwide, 121-million children are not in school - and 65-million of these are girls.
This is according to a Unicef report released in December last year, which contends that gender equality and education goals are central to meeting other United Nations Millennium Development goals by 2015. Sub-Saharan Africa is lagging behind and is in danger of not meeting the goals of eliminating hunger, providing primary education and reducing the child mortality rate.
The detrimental effects of not attending school are far higher for girls than for boys, the report finds. ‘Whether educated or not, girls are more at risk than boys from HIV/Aids, sexual exploitation and child trafficking. Without the knowledge and life skills that school can provide, these risks are multiplied.”
Several reasons for the exclusion of girls from schooling were given in the report: the belief that schooling is not a right, only a ‘good thing”; the failure to understand the benefits of education; development paradigms that fail to resolve the unequal relationships between women and men; and strategies that are ‘narrow and single-focused”.
‘Traditional perspectives often fail to take into account the gender issues that affect children’s access to school, those related to the differences between the needs of girls and boys ... Without a recognition of such differences, educational policies and practices are gender-blind when they should be gender-sensitive.”
But the report also notes that in South Africa more boys than girls drop out of school at a more senior level. While boys have a higher attendance rate than girls in primary school (86% to 84%), there is a 32% drop in boys’
enrolment from primary to high school, compared to a drop of 17% for girls. Understanding the reasons for this is one of the areas that will require further analysis and research in the future.
The benefits of educating girls are numerous. Among them are enhanced economic development, a continued cycle of education, healthier families and a decrease in the number of women dying in childbirth.
Education’s impact extends beyond learning, says the report, with health ramifications and a decrease in vulnerability to exploitation and violence.
Faranaaz Veriava of Wits University’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies, says that the lack of initiatives to stop sexual harassment in South African schools leaves girl learners vulnerable. They either withdraw from school entirely, or their school work is adversely effected.
Salim Vally, a senior researcher at Wits’s Education Policy Unit and a member of the Education Rights Project, said that while enrolment figures look relatively good in South Africa, the retention rate leaves a lot to be desired. ‘A lot of young people drop out between the last year of primary school and high school.”
Factors that prevent parents from sending their daughters to school include cultural beliefs and practices related to gender roles - such as whether an educated girl makes better marriage material or not, the Unicef report says. Other concerns cited include the questionable safety of schools, long journeys that put girls at risk of being assaulted, and the economic need to have a girl at home. ‘For poor families, bearing the cost of sending a girl to school may not seem economically justifiable in the short term.”
Yet free schooling could result in a flood of attendees. Kenya’s
abolition of school fees this year resulted in 1,3-million more
children attending school. Nearly half were girls. Forty-three per cent of children not in school in East Asia and the Pacific blamed a lack of money for their exclusion.
The report calls for a ‘new paradigm for education” that requires integrated strategies at all levels, and wants leaders to abolish school fees as a fundamental step in ensuring that all girls are educated.
Unesco’s Education for All campaign monitors countries’ progress in achieving gender equality in primary-school enrolment. Its 2002 report, parts of which the Unicef report incorporates, found 31 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, to be highly unlikely to reach the goal of gender equality by 2015.