UNFPAState of World Population 2002
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HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2002: Poverty and Education
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Poverty and Education
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Poverty and Education

Wealth Differentials in Access and Attainment
The Gender Gap
Returns on Education Investments for the Poor
Meeting the Goals of the ICPD

The Gender Gap

While the "gender gap" in education has narrowed over the last decade, the relative disadvantage still keeps girls from enrolment in secondary education in most of South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and several other developing regions. About 31 per cent of women were without any formal education in 2000, compared to 18 per cent of men (18). There are large variations among countries, with the widest gaps in North Africa and the narrowest in South Asia, Latin America and Central Asia.

Enrolment rates show the concentration of gender differentials in a few regions. South Asia and some countries in West Africa (Benin, Central African Republic and Chad) and Morocco have enrolment rates 15 or more percentage points higher for boys than girls. In several Latin American countries and in the Philippines, enrolment rates for girls aged 6-14 exceed those for boys.

The gender gap is typically wider at higher levels of schooling. Women in South Asia have only half as many years of education as men, and female enrolment rates at the secondary level are only two thirds of male rates. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls' school attendance at age 12-13 is 80 per cent that of boys but by age 18-19, only half as many girls as boys are attending school (19).

Investing in education is critical for the future. If enrolment rates remain constant and fertility and mortality decline according to expected trends, there will still be a gender gap in educational attainment in 2030 (20). (It would not close completely even if enrolment rates in all countries rose to current North American levels by 2030, because of the wide gap among older age groups (21).

CONTRIBUTING FACTORS The distance to school can be important in deciding whether girls attend because of family fears of sexual harassment on the way there. In Pakistan, where there is strict segregation of the sexes in school, the availability of schools has been found to affect schooling decisions for girls but not boys (22).

School facilities and attitudes towards girls in school can be important, both for the girls and their parents. A study in Kenya found inadequate toilet facilities in many schools. Girls were harassed, and were more likely than boys to be assigned menial tasks (23). If the quality of schooling is perceived to be low, parents may decide that girls can be more use at home. The cost of school fees, books and uniforms also works against girls more than boys, especially in poor families. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls are sometimes vulnerable to "sugar daddies" who offer to pay school fees in exchange for sex (24).

Gender disparities within countries are often greater among the poor (25), and in some countries continue among the poor after they have disappeared in wealthier groups (26), so to be a girl from a poor family is a double disadvantage. Poor parents may be unwilling to educate girls because they believe that girls will never earn as much boys. Their labour is needed immediately to support the family (27), help with household chores or care for younger siblings.

Poor communities where women's role is limited often do not believe that a girl needs formal education to be a wife and mother. Schooling is seen as attracting better-educated and financially successful husbands (28), but parents expect the benefits of education will go to the husband's family, not their own.

Pregnancy can also lead to girls dropping out of school. Poor families with many children may withdraw daughters from school to help with child care. A lack of resources for school fees may force allocation choices that favour boys. School policies often compel pregnant girls to leave school; others leave due to marriage (though many girls leave at younger ages). The contribution of fertility to school discontinuation varies, but can be important (29). A review of several country studies in sub-Saharan Africa found that between 8 and 25 per cent of girls' school discontinuation was due to pregnancy (30).

CHALLENGES TO INVESTING IN GIRLS' EDUCATION Some experts believe it is wiser to invest in expanding and improving education for all children than to target resources towards girls, which they argue may reduce those available for boys. Another view is that programmes designed for girls' needs are required to get them into the classroom and stay there; and that investments that lower obstacles for girls also lower them for boys. Still others take the position that "child-centred" schools, regardless of the sex of the students, will work best (31). Each perspective is being implemented and evaluated in different countries.

Another policy issue is whether to concentrate on educating girls or to include reducing illiteracy among adult women. Women manage their children's health and schooling, so educating them multiplies the value of investment in education. But some argue that scarce resources should be concentrated where they will have the greatest long-term effect.

Gender bias-in curricula, approaches to teaching, and the overall school environment-is an important policy concern. Girls may receive less attention from teachers, be perceived as less smart, and perform worse academically. This may be because the competitive and confrontational teaching style prevalent in many schools is inconsistent with traditionally valued female traits of passivity and collaboration. Educational materials typically display strong role models for boys but few or weak role models for girls. Girls are often not encouraged to take courses in technical and science fields that may enhance job opportunities, reinforcing gender segregation in the job market (32).

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