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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #042 – Bella

By CEID Blogger, on 9 October 2020

Increased inequalities during COVID-19 hampers progress towards inclusive gender equality

By Nicole Bella

The recently released Global Education Monitoring Report’s 2020 Gender Report provides us with a glimmer of hope on the front of gender equality in education. There has been a generational leap in girls’ education since 1995, a clear indication of countries’ commitment to advance gender equality in education. But, the 2020 Gender Report also clearly shows that much remains to be done to make it more inclusive. The move towards gender equality has been uneven with the most marginalized girls and boys being left behind. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic still underway risks deepening existing inequalities.

Since 1995, 180 million more girls have enrolled in primary and secondary school while the number of female students enrolled in tertiary education increased by three-fold worldwide. Between 1995 and 2018, the percentage of countries with gender parity in education rose from 56% to 65% in primary, from 45% to 51% in lower secondary, and from 13% to 24% in upper secondary education.

Girls’ and women’s enrolment have improved significantly since 1995

Girls’ and women’s enrolment have improved significantly since 1995

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) database

More girls have been completing school, with their primary completion rates improving faster than for boys’. Their advantage in reading has widened over boys in more than half of the 38 countries and territories taking part in PISA in 2000 and 2018. Girls perform as well as boys in mathematics in over half of countries and do better than boys in one quarter of countries. Despite this notable progress, girls continue to face forms of exclusion reminding us that gender equality in education remains a distant goal. Three-quarters of children of primary school age who may never set foot in school are girls. While girls perform more than or as well as boys, their self-efficacy and career expectations are still much lower than boys’. Gender segregation in fields of study persist and affects career prospects and equality in work opportunities. Countries are still falling short of developing textbooks and learning materials that are gender-responsive and free of gender biases. Gender barriers exist in pursuing adult education opportunities while new gender gaps in digital literacy skills are developing with important implication for gender equality in general and in education in particular during the COVID-19 confinement period the world went through.

Beyond the girls and boys, and women and men divide the 2020 Gender Report shows that gender intersects with other social divisions to exacerbate exclusion from education. In at least 20 countries, hardly any poor, rural young woman complete upper secondary education. The most disadvantaged women are further left behind in terms of literacy skills. Women with disabilities tend to be particularly disadvantaged. In Mozambique, 49% of men with disabilities can read and write, compared to only 17% of women with disabilities. Teenage pregnancy is a cause of early school leaving worldwide. Where it prevails, it affects more girls from poor educational and social backgrounds. In United Kingdom, the risk of becoming a teenage mother is nearly ten times higher for girls in the lowest social class than those in the highest social class.

Girls and boys, women and men are not homogenous groups. Their experiences of exclusion and discrimination in education are shaped not just by their gender, but by a combination of political, economic, social, and cultural factors, which shape individual opportunities and collective institutions. It is therefore important to look at both micro-level experiences, such as personal identity development and relationships with others, and macro-level factors, such as policies and practices in education and beyond.

Multisectoral cooperation and ties between different government departments helps address the intersecting needs of many girls and young women of child-bearing age. In the United Kingdom, a protective legal framework, a teenage pregnancy unit and a strategy, increased childcare, awareness, advocacy with young men, and support of the non-government sector helped reduce the number of conceptions per 1,000 15- to 17-year-old women from 42 to 18 between 1995 and 2017

The COVID-19 pandemic still underway is having clear impact on gender equality, further exacerbating existing inequalities in education. School and university closures to prevent its propagation have affected 1.5 billion students, including 743 million girls and young women worldwide. Existing information and communication technology divides have prevented many, including girls, from benefiting from the pedagogical continuity put in place in different countries. According to a study by the World Bank girls aged 12-17 are more likely to remain out-of-school in low- and lower-middle income countries, whereas boys are more likely to be out of school in upper-middle and high-income countries. Some 0.6 years of schooling could be lost as a consequence of the epidemic. Evidence of increased violence against women (GBV) has also been reported. A 30% increase in domestic violence has been reported in France during the confinement. In Kenya a 50% increase in violence against girls only in two weeks in April 2020 according to World Vision that also estimates 4 million girls could be at risk of early marriage due to COVID-19 in the next two years worldwide. Teenage pregnancies have also gone on the rise, including in Kenya again where 40% more adolescent girls became pregnant (or 152,000) in the country monthly average during the lockdown period (GivingCompass, 2020). The same may happen in Sierra Leone where the Ebola crisis in 2014-2016 lead to a 42% increase in adolescent pregnancies. Save the Children estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to 23,000 additional teenage pregnancies in the country by the end of 2020, potentially reducing the likelihood these girls return to school. As schools have been reopening their doors, a survey by Actionaid also indicates teachers’ concerns in 14 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America about many girls in their classes struggling to return due to increases in early marriage, pregnancy and unpaid care work during the pandemic.

Working to mitigate the gendered impact of COVID-19 and more generally to make gender equality in education more inclusive is a key priority to achieve the Education 2030 agenda. It will require designing, enforcing and implementing laws and policies that turn commitment to gender equality from paper into practice, which look beyond averages to capture overlapping differences between groups, and address deficiencies to prompt deeper engagement with ideas about inclusion.

Nicole Bella is a Senior Statistician and Lead Gender Specialist for the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report.


Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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