Amartya Sen, often referred to as the father of the concept of ‘human development’, reminds us of a quote by H.G. Wells, where he said that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”. Sen maintains that “if we continue to leave vast sections of the people of the world outside the orbit of education, we make the world not only less just, but also less secure”. To Sen, the gender aspect of education is a direct link between illiteracy and women’s security.
Not being able to read or write is a significant barrier for underprivileged women, since this can lead to their failure to make use of even the rather limited rights they may legally have (to own land or other property, or to appeal against unfair judgment and unjust treatment). There are often legal rights in rule books that are not used because the aggrieved parties cannot read those rule books. Gaps in schooling can, therefore, directly lead to insecurity by distancing the deprived from the ways and means of fighting against that deprivation.1
For Sen, illiteracy and innumeracy are forms of insecurity in themselves, “not to be able to read or write or count or communicate is a tremendous deprivation. The extreme case of insecurity is the certainty of deprivation, and the absence of any chance of avoiding that fate”.2 The link between education and security underlines the importance of education as akin to a basic need in the twenty-first century of human development.
GENDERED EDUCATION GAPS: SOME CRITICAL FACTS
While a moral and political argument can continue to be made for the education of girls and women, some facts speak powerfully to the issue at hand. Girls accounted for 53 per cent of the 61 million children of primary school age who were out of school in 2010. Girls accounted for 49 per cent of the 57 million children out of school in 2013. In surveys of 30 countries with more than 100,000 out-of-school children, 28 per cent of girls were out of school on average compared to 25 per cent of boys. Completion of primary school is a particular problem for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia.3
Surveys in 55 developing countries reveal that girls are more likely to be out of school at a lower secondary age than boys, regardless of the wealth or location of the household. Almost two thirds of the world’s 775 million illiterate adults are women. In developing regions, there are 98 women per 100 men in tertiary education. There are significant inequalities in tertiary education in general, as well as in relation to areas of study, with women being over-represented in the humanities and social sciences and significantly under-represented in engineering, science and technology.
Gender-based violence in schools undermines the right to education and presents a major challenge to achieving gender equality in education because it negatively impacts girls’ participation and their retention in school. In addition, ineffective sexual and reproductive health education inhibits adolescents’ access to information and contributes to school dropouts, especially among girls who have reached puberty.
The education of girls and women can lead to a wide range of benefits from improved maternal health, reduced infant mortality and fertility rates to increased prevention against HIV and AIDS.4 Educated mothers are more likely to know that HIV can be transmitted by breastfeeding, and that the risk of mother-to-child transmission can be reduced by taking drugs during pregnancy.
Each extra year of a mother’s schooling reduces the probability of infant mortality by 5-10 per cent. Children of mothers with secondary education or higher are twice as likely to survive beyond age 5 compared to those whose mothers have no education. Improvements in women’s education explained half of the reduction in child deaths between 1990 and 2009. A child born to a mother who can read is 50 per cent more likely to survive past age 5. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 1.8 million children’s lives could have been saved in 2008 if their mothers had at least a secondary education. In Indonesia, 68 per cent of children with mothers who have attended secondary school are immunized, compared with 19 per cent of children whose mothers have no primary schooling. Wages, agricultural income and productivity—all critical for reducing poverty— are higher where women involved in agriculture receive a better education. Each additional year of schooling beyond primary offers greater payoffs for improved opportunities, options and outcomes for girls and women.
In the varied discussions on the post-2015 education related agendas, there was strong consensus that gender equality in education remains a priority. Various inputs noted that inequalities in general, and particularly gender equality, need to be addressed simultaneously on multiple levels—economic, social, political and cultural. A response on behalf of the International Women’s Health Coalition maintained that “all girls, no matter how poor, isolated or disadvantaged, should be able to attend school regularly and without the interruption of early pregnancy, forced marriage, maternal injuries and death, and unequal domestic and childcare burdens”.
Other inputs highlighted the importance of ensuring access to post-basic and post-secondary education for girls and women. Referring to secondary education, the German Foundation for World Population noted that the “completion of secondary education has a strong correlation with girls marrying later and delaying first pregnancy.” While access to good quality education is important for girls and women, preventing gender-based violence and equality through education clearly also remains a priority.
Gender-based discrimination in education is, in effect, both a cause and a consequence of deep-rooted differences in society. Disparities, whether in terms of poverty, ethnic background, disability, or traditional attitudes about their status and role all undermine the ability of women and girls to exercise their rights. Moreover, harmful practices such as early marriage, gender-based violence, as well as discriminatory education laws and policies still prevent millions of girls from enrolling and completing their respective education.5
Additionally, given the extensive and growing participation of women in income generating activities, education for girls and women is particularly important, especially in attempting to reverse gendered patterns of discrimination. Not only is it impossible to achieve gender equality without education, but expanding education opportunities for all can help stimulate productivity and thereby also reduce the economic vulnerability of poor households.
GENDER EQUALITY, EQUITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Equity is the strongest framing principle of a post-2015 rights-based agenda, and underlines the need to redress historical and structural inequalities in order to provide access to quality education at all levels. This heralds what was effectively one of the strongest themes that emerged in the post-2015 education consultations, i.e., a rights-based approach in which rights are indivisible. This implies that all aspects of education should be considered from a rights perspective, including structural features of education systems, methods of education, as well as the contents of the education curricula. Indeed, overcoming structural barriers to accessing good quality education is vital for realizing education rights for all.