President’s Newsletter: Education and Gender Equality – December 2018


The aim of this essay is to give an overview on the current situation of gender equality in education and the ways to improve gender disparities in the field of education at the international and national level. The focus of this essay is on international and national mechanisms to hold governments to account, civil society activism and credible education plans.

  1. The current situation

UNICEF has stated that education offers children a way out of poverty and a path to a promising future. However, approximately 264 million children and adolescents around the world do not have the opportunity to enter or complete school. They are hindered by poverty, discrimination, armed conflict, emergencies.

According to UNESCO, there are 63 million children of primary school age (from six to eleven years old) who are out of school. Of these children 34 million are girls. In 2000, 58 % of the 100 million out-of-school children were girls. By 2016 this percentage had fallen to 54 % which meant that 10 % of girls of primary school age were out of school in comparison to 8 % of boys. However, this global average does not show the differences at regional and country levels.

Girls at primary school face a disadvantage in most regions, except in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Northern America where boys are more likely to be out of school. In Europe and in Northern America in 2016 the out-of-school rate of boys was 4,1 % (1,4 million) whereas girls’ rate was 3,4% (1,1 million). In Latin America and in the Caribbean in 2016 the out-of-school rate of boys was 5,5% (1,7 million) whereas the girls’ rate was 4,4% (1,3 million). In Asia, girls face more disadvantages attending school. For example, in Southern Asia in 2016 6,4% (5,6 million) of girls were out of school compared to boys whose out-of-school rate was 4,9% (4,7 million). Sub-Saharan Africa is the region which has the largest gender disparities. There girls account for 56% of out-of-school children and 53% of all out-of-school youth.

In Northern Africa and Western Asia, 12 % of girls do not attend school, compared to 10% of boys. In the following nine countries the female primary out-of-school rate is at least 10% higher than the male rate: Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan and Yemen. Furthermore, more than one-half of girls of primary school age do not attend school in Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia and South Sudan.

At the global level, the out-of-school rates between women and men are almost identical. However, this average does not take into account differences between regions. For example, in Northern Africa and Western Asia 16% of adolescent girls remain excluded from education compared to 11% of boys. Whereas, in sub-Saharan Africa, the female rate for exclusion is 39% compared to 35% for males. In Latin America, the Caribbean, Southern Asia and Europe and Northern America adolescent boys are the ones who face disadvantages in attending school. In Europe and in Northern America in 2016 the out-of-school rate of boys (lower secondary school age) was 2,4 % (0,5 million) compared to girls’ rate of 1,9% (0,4 million). In Latin America and in the Caribbean the out-of-school rate of boys was 7,9% (1,5 million) whereas the out-of-school rate of girls was 7,2% (1,3 million). Furthermore, in Southern Asia the out-of-school rate of boys was 18,3% (10,2 million) and the out-of-school rate of girls was 15,9% (8 million). Also in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia the out-of-school rate of boys was higher 9,3% (4,4 million) than the one of girls 8,6% (3,6 million). Oceania is closest to gender parity in the age group of lower secondary school.

  1. Political and legal background

The international community has committed to achieving gender equality since the establishment of the United Nations. Chapter I of the UN charter notes as one of the organization’s purposes the aim to achieve international cooperation through ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’ (United Nations, 1945). Since the formulation of the UN charter, countries have been increasing their political and legal commitment to gender equality in education.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development obliges countries to take gender equality into account throughout all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). From all the SDGs the SDG 4 on Quality education and the SDG 5 on Gender equality emphasise gender equality in education. The SDG 4 demands inclusive, equitable education of good quality whereas the SDG 5 aims at achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls. The aims of the SDG 5 include the elimination of all forms of discrimination, gender-based violence and child marriage, increasing participation of women at all levels of decision-making, and providing universal access to sexual and reproductive health services.

The Education 2030 Framework for Action, which is the international community’s guideline to achieve the SDG 4, states that gender equality is essential if the right to education is to be extended to all. According to the Framework, governments must promote gender-sensitive policies, plans and learning environments. This involves eliminating gender-based discrimination and violence and providing teacher education and support in offering gender-equitable education. However, it is important to remember that the 2030 Agenda is not legally binding.

States’ legal obligations on education derive from legally binding international treaties that outlines governments’ responsibilities to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education. States must abstain from violating the right to education. The protection of the right to education indicates that states must ensure that third parties do not prevent equal access to and enjoyment of education. In addition, the fulfilment of the right to education obliges that states must adopt legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial and other measures towards the full realization of the right. All countries have ratified at least one treaty which protects the right to education is protected.

Three global treaties are especially important to gender equality in education. First of them is the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This treaty is considered as the most specific and substantive treaty concerning the legal obligations of states towards gender equality in education. Article 10 of CEDAW outlines state obligations and establishes acceptable norms, such as equality in access to and quality of education, the reduction of female dropout rates, programmes for women and girls who have left school prematurely, and access to educational information on health and family planning whereas Article 16 bans child marriage. However, although 189 states have ratified CEDAW, many countries have made reservations to it. This undermines their commitment to the treaty.

Secondly, the Convention against Discrimination in Education (CADE) is the only treaty specialised in the field of education. It is also considered as the most comprehensive treaty concerning discrimination in education. CADE prohibits all forms of discrimination, including gender. In addition, it focuses on discrimination both in access to and quality of education.

Thirdly, Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are often recognised as the foundation of the legal right to education. The treaty’s monitoring committee has outlined state practices that are necessary in bringing change to eliminate discrimination, all of which demand close monitoring and disaggregated data to identify patterns of discrimination as stated in Article 13.

  1. How gender equality can be achieved in the field of education?

Even though states formally accept the responsibility to guarantee the right to gender equality in education, discriminatory practices based on gender still exist. NGOs and citizens can use both international and national and civil society channels to have their voices heard and hold governments to account. International and national channels are associated with human rights treaty bodies, parliaments and independent institutions whereas civil society channels involve civil society groups including those that address women’s rights issues.

3.1 International mechanisms to hold governments to account

Governments can be held accountable in a couple of ways when it comes to the treaties. First, authorized parties may be able to bring complaints directly to the committee monitoring the treaty. Secondly, the treaty usually demands countries to report progress on meeting treaty commitments to the committee. Thirdly, third parties might be asked to inform further the committee during a country review process.

The principal way to hold governments accountable for their commitments on the right to education is through the submission of complaints, communications, petitions or claims by anyone who feels that their human rights have been violated by the state. The committees observing CEDAW, ICESCR and CADE all have mechanisms to submit complaints.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors the implementation of CEDAW. This means that the Committee is the most likely UN treaty body to receive a complaint on gender inequality in education. Even though UN treaty bodies have dealt with a small number of complaints or communications on the right to education, no UN treaty body has yet adjudicated on a specific case of gender discrimination in education. However, the Committee of CEDAW has adopted decisions that affect gender equality in education.

Countries must report periodically on measures they have taken to meet their obligations. During the last reporting for CADE, completed in 2013, 40 out of 59 countries reported important policy changes. For example, in Bahrain, nursery schools were opened in continuing education centres to provide a space for childcare while parents continue their education. Whereas, in Bangladesh the Female Stipend Programme was expanded to upper secondary, allowing the 3.9 million students receiving the stipend to extend their education.

Furthermore, non-government organisations (NGOs) are given the opportunity to submit information on violations of rights committed by states during country reviews. Reports from NGOs are known as shadow or parallel reports and they take local voices into the international arena.

All in all, the multiple ways offered by international treaties are underutilized measures for holding countries accountable for gender equality in education. Although lack of an enforcement authority may limit the degree of national reporting on treaty goals, normative pressure to meet commitments has driven progress in some countries. Thus, individual citizens and civil society organizations could use more often these measures to highlight issues of discrimination and segregation because committee recommendations together with public scrutiny can prompt government action. 

3.2 National mechanisms to hold governments to account

Independent institutions present other routes for citizens to contribute complaints. National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), including ombudsman offices, are assigned to report on complaints involving government human rights violations and to recommend corrective action. In 2010, 118 countries had ombudsman offices.  For example, in Finland, the Ombudsman for Equality supervises compliance with the Act on Equality between Women and Men. The office of the Finnish Ombudsman studies inquiries and complaints on gender issues in employment, education, housing, social protection and healthcare, and goods and services. Furthermore, gender audits by independent audit institutions can also add pressure on governments.

3.3 Civil society activism

Accountability systems, including civil society movements, provide an avenue for citizens to make complaints. Women activist groups have had a huge role in many countries in holding governments into account for their commitments.

Campaigns for women’s rights are often organized by NGOs, sometimes together with governments and local authorities. For example, in Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan the support of local and religious leaders helped to change their communities’ attitudes towards girls’ right to education.

Progress can also be accelerated by gender-focused international NGOs. A few examples of these NGOs and their campaigns are the Campaign for Female Education, the MenEngage Alliance and Women Deliver. In addition to this, the #HeForShe campaign launched by UN Women in 2014 focuses on engaging men to become change agents and help achieve gender equality also in the field of education. This campaign has also developed programmes to address gender-based violence at universities.

Social media is more and more used to draw attention to gender issues, hold governments and other stakeholders to account and give a voice to civil society. Hashtag activism can also help convey local concerns into global consciousness. For example, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign drew global attention to the kidnapping of over 250 secondary school girls in Borno State, Nigeria, in 2014.

3.4 Credible education plans

Governments have political and legal obligations to plan and implement education policy, within their resource limitations. Governments are liable both for protecting the right to gender equality in education and for providing gender equitable education services. There is no single way on how governments can ensure gender equality in education. It is also important to remember that governments are not uniform actors; they are composed of many sectors, departments, levels and authorities with variable levels of capacity. Furthermore, fragile, post-conflict and post-reconstruction states are usually in a weaker position in enacting and enforcing policies.

In holding governments accountable for their promises on gender equality in education, a key tool is credible education plans. These credible education plans should identify clear lines of responsibility, be properly funded and have a transparent budget. Education plans promote coordination across government bodies and can gather different ministries to tackle the wide-ranging challenges that often restrict girls’ education. The involvement of different stakeholders can help in assuring that plans include and adequately fund strategies and policies that advance gender equality.

However, the existence of an education plan that meets certain criteria is by no means a guarantee of success.  For example, Afghanistan has a gender-sensitive plan. This plan recognizes the importance of female teachers in facilitating girls’ enrolment as
well as the difficulty of recruiting them. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education has introduced inducements to attract more female teachers, especially in rural areas. Unfortunately, the strategy has made little difference: 1/5 of all districts do not have a single female teacher.

According to the Global Education Monitoring Report 2018, every stage of an education plan should be considered through a gender lens. Firstly, a gender assessment should measure the potential gender implications of the policy. Secondly, gender budgeting should make sure that resources are properly targeted and equitably distributed. Thirdly, different stakeholders should be included in the examination of the plan or policy in relation to the original intention and identifying any explicit or hidden prejudice or discrimination. Finally, a report on policy implementation and results, including gender analysis and segregated data, should be prepared and published to a wider public.

This paper has been researched and drafted by Vilja Härkönen, intern at the Secretariat of IAW in Athens, under the supervision of Joanna Manganara, President of IAW.