Gender Equality Fact Sheet
Education leads to greater choices. But 115 million children of primary school age are denied this right. 1
The loss of potential does not affect children alone:
- Education, especially for girls, has social and economic benefits for society as a whole.
- Educated women have more economic opportunities and engage more fully in public life.
- Women who are educated tend to have fewer and healthier children, and they are more likely to attend school.
- Education also increases the ability of women and girls to protect themselves against HIV.
All of the above benefits are essential to breaking the cycle of poverty.
Gender equality in primary school enrolment has been nearly achieved in most developing regions. However, Southern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia lag behind, with ratios that remain low in spite of progress between 1990 and 2002. These regions will most likely miss the target of closing the gender gap in primary education by the end of 2005. 2
Recent data indicate that the greatest progress was achieved in regions where the gap was widest:
- This is true in Northern Africa, where the ratio of girls to 100 boys increased from 82 to 93.
- It is also the case in Southern Asia, where the ratio increased from 76 to 85.
Still, the gender gap remains a serious concern in Southern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia.
- In countries where resources and school facilities are lacking, and total enrolments are low, a choice must often be made in families between sending a girl or a boy to school.
- More often, girls tend to lose out. In some of these countries, only 75 girls are in school for every 100 boys.
However, targeted interventions can go a long way towards getting girls into school, and encouraging them to stay there. These include:
- Providing safe transportation to and from school
- Providing separate toilets for girls and boys
- Avoiding gender stereotyping in the classroom 3
Gender disparities tend to increase at higher levels of education.
At the secondary level of education, the gender gap remains a serious concern in sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia and Western Asia, where there was little or no progress over the period 1998-2002. 4 In these regions, ratios remain very low, with 79 girls enrolled per 100 boys. A number of countries, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa, lag far behind, with girls' to boys' ratios as low as 46 in Benin.
If this slow rate of progress continues, the target of eliminating the gender gap in secondary education by 2015 will be missed.
In regions where enrolment is generally higher, the gender gap moves in the opposite direction, with more girls than boys enrolled in secondary school. This is the case in the developed regions, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Latin America and Caribbean, mainly due to a substantially higher drop out rate for boys. 5
Overall, in most developing regions, gender disparities become progressively more marked when girls enter secondary school and later go to university. Of some 65 developing countries with full data sets, about half have achieved gender parity in primary education, compared to about 20 per cent in secondary education. Only 8 per cent have achieved gender parity in higher education. 6
The table below displays the latest available estimates of literacy rates and numbers of illiterate adults (age 15 and over) by sex. According to these estimates, there are nearly 800 million illiterate adults in the world, representing 18 per cent of the adult population.
Adult literacy (age 15 and over) by sex and region, 2000–2004
Almost two thirds of the world's illiterate are women.
- The proportion varies widely by region, from 55 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean to 77 per cent in Central and Eastern Europe.
- The gender parity Index (GPI) for literacy ranges from 0.63 to 0.77 in Southern and Western Asia, the Arab States and sub-Saharan Africa to above 0.90 in the rest of the world.
Adult illiteracy is almost exclusively a developing country phenomenon:
- Developed countries and countries in transition have literacy rates close to 99 per cent, and together account for just 1.3 per cent of the world's illiterate people.
- About a quarter of the adult population of the developing world is illiterate.
- Latin America and the Caribbean and East Asia and the Pacific both have literacy rates around 90 per cent but, accounting for 22 per cent of the world's illiterate people.
- Truly severe illiteracy is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States and Southern and Western Asia, which have literacy rates of around 60 per cent.
- The lowest literacy rates are found in Burkina Faso (13 per cent), Mali (19 per cent) and Niger (17 per cent). 7
Over 70 per cent of the world's illiterate adults (562 million persons) live in nine countries. About half live in India.
Because education affects well-being, autonomy and empowerment, actions aimed at achieving gender parity in education would yield comprehensive benefits for women and their children. 8
The education and literacy of a mother can increase the probability of a child participating in or completing primary education. Factors include:
- Increased income levels of educated women
- Greater appreciation of the value of education
- The ability to help children learn
In general, literacy rates tend to be higher among youth than adults, because of recent expansion of access to basic education.
- The latest available estimates indicate that there are nearly 137 million illiterate youth in the world (17 per cent of all illiterate adult).
- Some 85 million of them (63 per cent) are female. 9
- In developing regions, youth illiteracy rates range from 2 per cent in East Asia and the Pacific to 28 per cent in Southern and Western Asia.
- Gender disparities in literacy are generally less pronounced for youth, but follow similar patterns regionally, with gender gaps still notable among youth in Southern and Western Asia, the Arab States and sub-Saharan Africa.
- The largest gap is in Southern Asia, where young women's literacy rates are 19 percentage points lower than men's. They are 17 percentage points lower in Bangladesh and 24 points lower in Pakistan. 10
- In countries including Benin, Chad and Liberia, the difference is well over 30 points. 11
Youth literacy (15–24) by sex and region, 2000–2004(1)
While literacy rates vary widely by region and country, even greater variation exists between rural and urban populations within countries. In the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Sierra Leone, fewer than one in four rural youths are literate, compared to one in ten young women, or fewer.
The data reflect narrow, stratified access to learning opportunities and show the importance of targeting populations that are marginalized by low literacy skills.
Reducing gender inequality is essential to increasing women's economic security, defeating poverty and fostering sustainable development and growth.
Gender inequality in the labour market is manifested by:
- Occupational segregation
- Gender-based wage gaps
- Women's disproportionate representation in informal employment, unpaid work and higher unemployment rates
Women represent the majority of the working poor in all regions.
- Out of the 550 million working poor in the world, an estimated 330 million, or 60 per cent, are women. 12
- Several factors contribute to this situation, including the undervaluation of women's work and women's intermittent career paths, due mainly to their role as caregivers in the family and their greater need to balance work and family life.
- In some countries, there are also legal restrictions or prohibitions against women engaging in certain types of work.
Despite some progress in the 1990s, women typically earn less than men, even for similar kinds of work. 13
Women's access to paid employment is lower than men's in most of the developing world. In the developed regions, women and men approach parity in wage employment.
Women are less likely than men to hold paid and regular jobs and are over-represented in the informal economy, which provides little financial security and few social benefits.
- Fewer women than men own businesses and employ others.
- Worldwide, over 60 per cent of people working in family enterprises without pay are women.14
- In the home, women perform most of the chores – work that is both unpaid and not reflected in national production statistics.
Even where women have made significant gains in paid employment, labour markets remain strongly segregated, often to the disadvantage of women.
- Occupational segregation is often accompanied by lower pay and worse working conditions in occupations that are typically held by women.
- Occupational segregation decreased significantly during the 1990s in developed countries, Latin America and the Middle East.15
- Proportionately more women than men are unemployed, particularly young women (below 25 years old) in Latin America and the Caribbean, Southern and Western Asia and Northern Africa. 16
Women's employment in the informal sector as a percentage of women's total non-agricultural employment is generally higher than for men.
- The difference is particularly evident in sub-Saharan Africa, where 84 per cent of women's non-agricultural employment is informal, compared to 63 per cent of men's.
- In Latin America, the percentages are 58 and 48 for women and men, respectively.
- In Northern Africa and Middle Eastern countries, the pattern is reversed, with employment in the informal sector being more important for men than for women. 17
Women are less likely to secure higher paying jobs for a variety of reasons, including discriminatory stereotyping and because they are less available for full-time work due to greater family responsibilities.
The human rights of women workers are often overlooked or denied
- Very few countries have ratified 18 the International Labour Organization Convention No. 156 on Workers with Family Responsibilities (1981.
- Similarly, ILO conventions related to maternity protection 19 are poorly ratified.
- The employment situation of women is also affected by the rights they enjoy or are denied by law – such as the right to own property and to access credit and, in some countries, even the right to hold an occupation.
The number of women in national parliaments continues to increase, but no country in the world has yet reached gender parity.
A number of factors continue to present challenges to women's parliamentary representation:
- The type of electoral system in place in a country
- The role and discipline of political parties
- Women's social and economic status
- Socio-cultural traditions and beliefs about a woman's place in the family and society
- Women's double burden of work and family responsibilities. 20
Since the early 1990s, women's share of seats in parliament has steadily increased. Nevertheless, women still hold only 16 per cent of seats worldwide.
Share of women in single or lower houses of parliament, 1990 - 2005
The largest relative increases in the proportion of women in parliament have been in Northern Africa – where the percentage of women in parliaments tripled since 1990 – followed by Latin America and the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa.
There was significant progress also in the developed regions and in Southern and South-Eastern Asia.
In moving towards multiparty democracies, countries in the CIS saw a significant decrease in the number of women in the political arena in the early 1990s. Previously, women's political participation was guaranteed, and their representation was frequently over 30 per cent.
Nordic countries have experienced a sustained and exceptionally high level of women's participation in the political arena, with the percentage of women in parliament well above 30 per cent. 21
Many post-conflict countries have recognized the importance of including women in peace-building and reconstruction and have instituted measures to ensure women's participation in new democratic institutions.
- The national constitutions of Rwanda and Burundi now include provisions to reserve seats for women.
- In 2003, elections in Rwanda saw the greatest proportion of women elected to any parliament in history. These elections were the first since the internal conflict of 1994.
- The Rwandan parliament has come closest to reaching an equal number of men and women in parliament.
- In South Africa and Mozambique, the introduction of quota mechanisms by political parties meant that, in 2004, post-conflict and post-crisis countries ranked among the highest in the world in terms of women's representation.
- In Eritrea, Mozambique and South Africa women comprise between 22 per cent to 35 per cent of the legislature. 22
The increase in women's parliamentary representation in Latin America and the Caribbean is also attributable to the introduction of affirmative action measures. Various quotas for women's political participation exist in 17 countries in this region. 23 Similar efforts have been made in the Arab world.24