Twenty years ago, a young girl starting school in sub-Saharan Africa could expect to receive about five years of education during her entire life – and part of that time might have been spent repeating grades. Today, she can expect to spend about eight years in a classroom. But the boy sitting next to her is likely benefit from an extra 18 months of instruction. This remarkable yet uneven progress comes to life in a new atlas on gender and education, released by UNESCO for International Women’s Day 2012, celebrated on 8 March.
The World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education includes more than 120 maps, charts and tables featuring a wide range of sex-disaggregated indicators produced by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The Atlas enables readers to visualize the educational pathways of girls and boys in terms of access, participation and progression from pre-primary to tertiary education. It also illustrates the extent to which gender disparities in education have changed since 1970 and are shaped by factors such as national wealth, geographic location, investment in education and fields of study.
“This Atlas is a call for action. The growth in girls’ enrolment in primary education is a clear demonstration of strong political will to achieve the Education for All goals. But there are still great strides to be made in order to reach the large numbers of vulnerable girls and women who continue to be denied their right to education,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. “We must address the root causes of this discrimination and target our action towards those most in need.”
Girls in all parts of world have been the first to benefit from the tremendous efforts made to achieve universal primary education, especially since 1990. Two-thirds of countries have achieved gender parity at the primary level but access to secondary education remains a challenge for girls in many regions, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. Those girls who do make the transition tend to perform better in their studies than boys. As a result, there has been a significant rise in women’s participation in tertiary education, especially in high-income countries where female students outnumber male students. Yet as highlighted in the Atlas, these gains do not necessarily translate into better opportunities for women in terms of employment or income.
To illustrate these patterns, the Atlas presents the school-life expectancy (SLE) of different regions and countries from a gender perspective. In this case, school-life expectancy reflects the average number of years of instruction that a boy or a girl entering the system can expect to receive. However a child can spend part of this time repeating grades.
The greatest progress in reducing the gender gap in SLE has been made in South and West Asia, where a girl who starts school can expect to receive 9.5 years of education compared to almost six years in 1990. However, boys continue to have the advantage, with an average SLE of 10.5 years. A similar situation is found in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab States, where girls who start school are now likely to spend eight and ten years respectively. Nevertheless, boys in both regions still have the advantage with at least one extra year of instruction. It is important to note that these regional averages mask considerable variations among countries, especially those with limited access to education compounded by high repetition and dropout rates. As a result, millions of girls continue to be denied their right to education and many who are able to enrol never reach secondary school.
In East Asia and the Pacific, school-life expectancy for girls increased by 38% between 1990 and 2009. Consequently, a girl enrolled in primary education can now expect to spend about 12 years in school, which slightly surpasses the male average. This is also the case in Latin America and the Caribbean, where a girl starting primary school can expect to receive almost 14 years of instruction compared to 13.3 years for boys.
“These data reflect the commitment of governments and the international community to close the gender gap in education. But there is a tremendous difference between gender parity and gender equality,” said Hendrik van der Pol, director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. “There may be equal numbers of boys and girls in the classroom but to what extent are both groups encouraged – or discouraged – to pursue their education and potential? To better understand what girls and boys are learning in the classrooms, UNESCO is developing new ways to measure the quality of education and the learning outcomes of all students, with a specific focus on gender.”
The print edition of the atlas, available in English, French and Spanish, will be accompanied by an online data mapping tool that enables users to track trends over time, adapt the maps and export the data. This e-Atlas will be regularly updated with the latest available data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.