Educating women and girls: is this the key to meeting the Millennium Development Goals?

The Millennium Development Goals have come under critical fire for engaging with social issues in a largely statistical manner. The targets and indicators used to measure progress tend to be more quantitative than qualitative, failing to take into account the stories, complexities and experiences behind the statistics, particularly when it comes to the continuing prevalence of gender inequality. eLearning Africa will offer participants the chance to engage and contribute to this critical conversation, especially insofar as the damage that gender inequality renders to education in Africa.

By Claire Adamson

Although gender inequality is the specific focus of MDG 3, gender issues, particularly discrimination against women and girls, are a factor in all of the eight goals. Universal education and child health tie especially heavily into the status of women.  However, the goals that are concerned with gender equality and women’s empowerment are the furthest away from achievement. Governments and institutions must begin to challenge prevailing attitudes and tackle complacency in leadership that contributes to gender inequality, rather than merely working to improve statistics. At eLearning Africa 2013, with a focus on change, tradition and innovation, the scope of technology to facilitate this change will be a hot issue on the agenda.

The UNESCO World Atlas on Gender Equality in Education, published in 2012, paints a gendered picture of access to education across the world. The report provides a comprehensive overview of the manifestations of gender inequality in the world and where such inequalities remain very stark. While it was shown that a lot of progress has been made toward universal education and even toward gender parity in education, from a statistical perspective the struggle for a qualitative improvement in the lives of women and girls in education and a shift towards equal opportunities for all, remain formidable. Sub-Saharan Africa showed up some of the worst inequalities in everything from school attendance and gender parity at all levels of education to drop out and repetition rates.

Although many countries seem to be close to achieving universal primary education, and even gender parity in the primary sector, this only looks at enrolments overall and fails to  take into account school attendance, the learning experience within given gendered schooling contexts, repetition rates, education achievement and completion rates.

Access to education is unavoidably tied to gender: countries with high rates of female education tend to be far more developed. Where girls and women have access to education, they have better health awareness, lower mortality rates and a lower incidence of HIV/AIDS. But because of traditional gender roles and fears surrounding their physical safety, access to education is much more of a challenge for girls in developing countries. Girls are more frequently kept home by their families to help with household maintenance and childrearing. Long distances between school and home bring the threat of sexual harassment and violence that keeps many girls away. When schools do not offer sanitary facilities, hygiene can become an issue. The fact that girls often face sexism and discrimination in schooling environments is a pressing issue that cannot be ignored.

Women who have better access to education tend to have more decision making capacities in their own families meaning children are more likely to be sent to school, and this is less likely to be a gendered decision – boys and girls get equal access. Equal access to education is also important at higher levels, but gender parity in education tends to taper off at secondary and tertiary levels, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. This means young women across the continent are having their voices silenced by an unequal system.

Although the first goal of ending poverty and hunger is also tied to gender inequality, the targets behind the goal largely ignore gender as a factor. Data masks the dynamics of gender in poverty, and understanding needs to go deeper in order to increase progress toward this goal. In countries where women face barriers to land ownership and resource management, there tends to be higher levels of child malnutrition and higher levels of poverty overall. This interplay between female empowerment and poverty were largely overlooked by the MDG targets and, as preparations begin towards a post-2015 development agenda, this oversight must not be repeated.

Gender inequality also comes into play in MDG 4, which addresses child health. Child mortality rates are particularly high in Sub-Saharan Africa and the targets for the goal are once again quantitative, failing to acknowledge the changes in attitude necessary to achieve this goal. When women have less input at home, they have less control over the wellbeing of their children. As well as empowering the female role in the household, it is also fundamental that men are allowed to take more of an interest in the health and well-being of their children – the limitations of traditional gender roles have a negative effect on everyone, women and men. In countries where child mortality rates are high, there is a need to redefine out-dated ideas in order to progress toward the MDG targets.

The achievement of the MDGs in 2015 is looking less and less likely because the targets and indicators are failing to take into account the complexities of gender dynamics, social construction and how this links with development overall. Attitudes toward traditional gender roles need to be addressed by governments and institutions before there is any hope of exceeding the limited goals of gender parity and progressing towards genuine equality with all its adjacent benefits.

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