Gender Disparities in World Education
Inequality in delivery of education to women has historically been a consistent force: girls traditionally have had much less access to education than boys and, in some cultures, have been banned outright from schooling. However, starting in the 1940s, nations across the world began to focus on the mass education of all citizens, male and female. Although great achievements in gender parity are being reached worldwide, there are still more boys than girls enrolled in school and boys often achieve higher levels of education at higher rates than do girls. Additionally, more men than women are educated and literate, so gender parity is a serious concern for adult education also. However, boys in developed nations (particularly the U.S.) sometimes fare worse than girls in school. U.S. school-aged boys have greater discipline problems and more learning disabilities than girls, and U.S. men are awarded fewer bachelor's degrees than U.S. women. Because of these issues and the fact that millions of men worldwide are illiterate, the issue of gender parity must include equal educational opportunities for both genders.
Keywords Education for All (EFA); Extreme Poverty; Gender Equality; Gender Parity; Nongovernmental Organization (NGO); Permanently Literate; Primary Education; Secondary Education; UNESCO
Under the leadership of the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), many nations around the world have embraced the global vision of education for all (EFA). EFA calls for all people in the world to have access to at least a primary education by 2015. In order for EFA to be a reality, UNESCO (2006) has established several goals that need to be met. One of them (Goal 5) is "gender parity," which UNESCO (2006) defines as the state of an equal number of girls and boys being enrolled in primary and secondary education at the same time. By 2005, UNESCO (2006) had planned to see gender parity accomplished in the world. UNESCO has revised this wish, hoping to see "gender equality" accomplished by 2015, which means that boys and girls will have equal access to education, equal achievement in education, and equal benefits from education. Cheung (2007) writes of both these goals and notes that "gender parity" is a more formal term, focused primarily on equal access to education, whereas the broader goal of "gender equality" requires that "discrimination between men and women should be obliterated" (p. 158).
UNESCO is not alone in focusing on educational inequality between the genders. Other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), many charities, and numerous government leaders are focusing on the importance of education and helping open up more educational opportunities for both boys and girls.
Barriers to Female Education
Worldwide, fewer girls than boys receive an education, and illiteracy rates are higher among women than men. There are many reasons for this. First, many girls are hampered by gender prejudice and cultural mandates that keep women limited to a narrow life of raising children and keeping a home. There is a persistent, widespread belief in many parts of the world that the education of women is not that important. In addition, economic issues, such as extreme poverty or lack of educational resources, often prevent girls from being enrolled in school. Often girls are kept at home to help with household chores and assist their mothers, and many girls must seek employment to augment their family's income; both situations leave little time for education. Teenage girls and adult women are often married with children or single mothers and have additional responsibilities that can prevent them from seeking further education. These barriers to girls' education are particularly troubling because education remains one the most important tools girls and women have for improving their lives.
Proven Benefits of Education for Women in Developing Nations
Some of the benefits that education provides specifically to women are lower fertility rates and lower levels of both maternal and infant mortality. UNICEF (2011) states that worldwide, over 500,000 women die annually from the complications of pregnancy or childbirth and that about 80 percent of those deaths are the result of preventable conditions such as hemorrhage or sepsis. Education helps reduce these numbers and improve the health of women and their children: better educated women are more equipped to care for their children, and women with fewer children are able to devote more time and resources to a smaller number offspring.
Educational opportunities for women also result in enormous economic benefits, such as helping women raise themselves and their families out of poverty. Poverty, particularly extreme poverty, is a global crisis. According to the World Bank, in 2010, an estimated 2.4 billion people lived on less than $2 US per day (World Bank, 2013), a condition that prevents them from being able to meet basic needs. Education helps women become employable by equipping them for the job market, giving them the skills needed to open their own businesses, and helping break down the gender discrimination that prevents women from seeking employment.
Parity Includes Boys
However, the issue of gender parity cannot focus solely on girls and women. Mills (2000) stated that there has been a worldwide concern over how boys are faring in school in comparison to girls, particularly in industrialized nations. Some have argued that the decades of feminism and late-twentieth-century focus on women have actually worked to marginalize boys. According to UNESCO (2006), in some areas of the world, there are more girls than boys enrolled in school, and "almost everywhere, girls do better in school than boys." Boys and girls share many of the same benefits of and barriers to education, and care should be taken that both girls and boys have equal access to education so that, as Cheung (2007) writes, neither males nor females experience any form of gender discrimination.
Global Challenges for Girls
Although "the proportion of girls and boys in primary school over the last 40 years has risen in every region" (Unterhalter, 2007, p. 4), there are still millions of children around the world who are uneducated. Globally, girls do lag behind boys in educational opportunity and enrollment. UNESCO (2013b) reported that 21 percent of the 57 million children not enrolled in primary school are girls. Furthermore, in sub-Saharan Africa, where education achievement is quite low, 16.1 percent of primary school–aged girls were not enrolled in school in 2011 as compared to 13.7 percent of boys.
While boys and girls do face many of the same barriers to education, such as poverty and lack of resources, girls often have more challenges to overcome. Some of the barriers are cultural biases and work demands, but money is often the greatest factor preventing girls from being educated. Gene Sperling, the director for the Center for Universal Education has said that if school costs are involved and parents cannot afford to pay for the education of all their children, inevitably they will choose to educate their boys over their girls (cited in "Universal education," 2005). Archer (2006) bolsters this statement by arguing that "when countries abolish school fees it is girls who flood into school—in their millions" (p. 23). Unterhalter (2007, p. 7) adds that, aside from school fees, generally it costs families less to educate boys because their school clothes are not as expensive, and boys are usually more safely mobile in society and do not need extra transportation and supervision when traveling to school.
While broad cultural issues (such as a widespread belief that women should be restricted to home) affect educational chances for girls, there are other particular cultural issues that also prevent girls from being educated. In many cultures, a married woman is no longer tied to her parental family; thus, upon marrying off their daughters, parents are no longer able to benefit from their daughters' education as they would their sons' ("Universal Education," 2005). Unterhalter (2007) states that some cultures outright forbid girls from getting an education and that, generally, it is girls from the poorest communities who have the most severe education restrictions (p. 7).
Overcoming the Barriers
Many organizations, such as UNESCO, are working to overcome these barriers, and primary school enrollment is increasing. EFA is making encouraging strides around the world, and gender parity in education is becoming more of a reality for millions of children. However, several problems remain, particularly for girls. While gender parity and school enrollment is increasing in the primary levels, UNESCO (2013b) reports that primary school dropout rates remain discouragingly high, particularly in the regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, where the dropout rate for students enrolled in primary school was about 33 percent in 2011. This is particularly troubling because...
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