The pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated the inequalities in education experienced by millions of girls around the world.
Societies that develop COVID-19 response and recovery plans to promote gender equality in education will build more inclusive communities and enjoy wider social and economic benefits, writes Barbara Payne of Cambridge Education, Mott MacDonald’s specialist education consultancy.
Coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the education of children everywhere, but especially on girls in the world’s least developed countries.
Girls have long been disproportionately disadvantaged by ingrained stigmas surrounding their right to an education.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and Western Asia, girls face barriers to entering both primary and secondary school. About a third of countries in the developing regions have still not achieved gender parity in primary education.
A legacy of this disparity in education access, participation and completion is that women account for almost two-thirds of illiterate adults globally, endure higher rates of poverty, and have lower political and economic participation rates.
On top of this came the pandemic, jeopardising the gains made in advancing education equality and inclusion in many low and middle-income countries. Adolescent girls are at greatest risk of dropping out of school altogether during a crisis, be it a pandemic, war or environmental disaster. COVID-19 has been no different.
By building back better after the current crisis to address persisting gender discrimination, we can get back on track to achieve education equality and inclusion for the next generation of girls.
This will call for systemic change and a renewed commitment from governments and the international community to girls’ education and empowerment, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These commitments need to be quickly translated into policy, and then equally swiftly turned into transformative action.
Making the learning environment more gender inclusive
We must look beyond the classroom, through a more inclusive lens, and invest in strengthening systems and institutions so they can be more responsive to girls’ educational needs.
This will involve working across the education sector – from the top policy maker, through to education officials at every level, and into every community and school – to root out the lack of knowledge and negative attitudes that prevent gender-inclusive policies from being implemented effectively and discrimination from being addressed.
Turning policy into action rests on all the key actors in a system knowing how to implement a policy, wanting to implement it, and having the ability and power to do so.
From our own experience of managing education improvement programmes in many countries, we know this requires system strengthening work that focuses on influencing changes in behaviour throughout a nation’s education sector.
To this end, there must be enough teachers, with the right skills, attitudes and training, and a balanced representation of women in front-line teaching as well as management and leadership positions.
It is they who will be at the forefront of ensuring each girl’s classroom experience is positive and engaging, and that girls learn in safety and stay in school for at least 12 years.
Stamping out discrimination in society
Achieving lasting change for girls requires not just government action, but the full attention of societies to address the complex set of attitudes and constraints that contribute to education exclusion, holding girls and women back and limiting their life chances.
Discriminatory social norms bring gender bias and inequity into schools, influencing teachers’ attitudes, restricting subject and career choices, and creating an environment that perpetuates violence against girls.
True system strengthening will concentrate on the important role that parents and communities can play in promoting girls’ education. Here, providing more information on the income-earning benefits of education has been shown to be a highly cost-effective way to shift parents’ attitudes about sending their daughters to school.
The whole learning environment needs to be safe, secure and welcoming for both girls and boys, regardless of where they live or their socio-economic background.
This can be done, for example, through the provision of facilities essential for girls’ privacy and managing their menstrual hygiene, such as separate toilets for girls and access to period products.
But this must be coupled with work – with parents and, crucially, with men and boys in and outside school – to remove the social stigmas attached to menstruation. These stigmas need to be addressed through comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and services, provided by skilled professionals to both boys and girls within schools and fully supported by parents.
Over time, this type of gender awareness education in school can shift deeply held, stereotyping attitudes that adolescents pick up from the adults around them and then perpetuate in their own lives.
Without working with boys, parents and the wider community to address misconceptions about girls’ abilities and needs, it won’t be possible to change the discriminatory attitudes that drive girls out of school.
But when we succeed, the outcomes will be that girls have more control over their bodies – reducing the prevalence of early pregnancies, improve their chances of completing their education, and gain greater decision-making power over their lives.
Strengthening the voices of girls and women
Most importantly, all interventions and decisions should be informed by girls’ and women’s stated preferences and needs, and better yet, led by them. It’s the best way to ensure the most relevant and important challenges and gaps in current education provision, policies and programmes are identified and prioritised.
This means putting women and women’s voices and organisations at the heart of COVID-19 response and recovery plans. More women in leadership positions will also help to challenge social and gender norms – and create role models for female students.
Gender equality in education must form part of holistic, multisector national recovery plans which aim to build more equal, inclusive and resilient societies.
Leveraging the full potential of girls’ education will lead to better social and economic outcomes, from reducing poverty and promoting public health and wellbeing, to driving inclusive growth and shared prosperity.
It underlines why gender equality is critical to all areas of a healthy society. It is only by enabling girls and women to play a full part in education, work and life that societies can reach their true potential.
Cambridge Education is a member of the UNESCO Global Education Coalition, a platform for collaboration and exchange to protect the right to education during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read how Cambridge Education developed innovative responses to the pandemic on its UK aid-funded education programmes across sub-Saharan Africa.