Education for Girls: A Challenge to Learning Poverty

Despite the extraordinary progress made in the last 25 years, there are still 129 million girls who do not have access to education (32 million in primary, 97 million in secondary).

Globally, primary and secondary school enrolment rates are approaching parity (90% male and 89% female). However, the gender gap widens if school completion rates, which are lower for girls, are taken into account.

In low-income countries, only 63% of female students complete primary school (against 67% of males) and only 36% finish secondary school (against 44% of boys).  The gap remains similar when looking at upper secondary completion rates: 26% for young men, and 21% for young women.

The differences are seen mainly on a regional basis. Even today, in sub-Saharan African countries, one in three girls do not complete primary school, one in four in South Asian countries, and one in 12 in the Mena area (Middle East and North Africa).

In India, only 4% of girls between 5 and 14 do not finish this school cycle: a small figure, in percentage terms, but equal to 4.6 million girl students. The gender gap widens further with subsequent school cycles: in East Asia and the Mena area, only half of girls complete upper secondary school. A figure that drops to 30% in South Asia and 20% in Sub-Saharan Africa. The progress toward gender equality in education was slowed by Covid-19.

At the ‘peak’ of the pandemic in 2020, the closure of schools affected approximately 1.6 billion girl students in over 190 countries around the world and in October 2021 – more than 18 months after the start of the emergency – 128 million young people could not attend classes.

“Beyond the impact on learning, this unprecedented disruption represents an immediate and long-term threat to gender equality and can have detrimental effects on some specific aspects such as the health, well-being and protection of the female component”, reads the UNICEF report ‘When schools shut. Gender impact of Covid-19 school closures’.

Although the lack of consolidated data does not yet allow an overall picture to be taken, there are some elements that can help us understand how much the pandemic has impacted access to education and the well-being of girls.

The first is early school leaving: according to UNESCO estimates, 23.8 million students (from kindergarten to high school) are at risk of dropping out of their schooling. Of these, 11.2 million are girls.

The figure seems low at the Malala Foundation, which considers the number of 20 million more realistic. A study by the Population Council of Bangladesh showed that after the reopening of schools in that country, one in ten girls in the 12-15 age group never went back to school.

Going to Africa, in the state of Ghana 97% of the students resumed attending classes after the end of the state of emergency, but among those who ‘gave up’, 60% were girls.

In a survey conducted between February and March 2021, the Kenyan authorities highlighted that 16% of girls and 8% of boys between the ages of 15 and 19 had not returned to class in the two months following the reopening of schools. The prolonged closure of schools has had, and will have in the future, an even greater impact on the skills acquired by this generation of boys and girls.

An alarming study conducted by UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank recently highlighted how the share of children in conditions of ‘learning poverty’ (i.e., the inability of a child under 10 to read and understand a text appropriate to their age) in middle- and low-income countries went from 57% before the pandemic to 70%.

“This generation of students is likely to lose $ 21 trillion in earnings over their lifetime,” the report reads. Again, there are no global data or studies to detect gender differences. What is certain and emerges from surveys carried out in some countries is, for example, that girls have had greater difficulty following online lessons during lockdowns “due to the limited access to PCs, tablets and smartphones, the lack of digital skills and social norms that limit their access to digital devices”.

The UN agency report collects evidence from various regional surveys. As part of a survey conducted among 322 adolescents in five African countries (Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), 23% of male students replied that they were able to continue studying without problems during the pandemic compared to 12% of the girls.

Another study conducted in India found that only 26% of female students said they had free access to a smartphone compared to 37% of males. An additional obstacle for girls and boys was the increased burden of housework during the lockdown (house cleaning, meal preparation, care of younger siblings and assistance with homework) that some research has highlighted in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Niger, Pakistan and Sierra Leone.

The repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic are also beginning to be seen with regard to the ‘NEET’, or young people aged between 18 and 24 who do not study and do not work (‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’). According to the estimates contained in the latest ‘Education at a Glance’ report, OECD countries have gone from 14.4% in 2019 to 16.1% in 2020. While in the 25-29 age group the percentage increased from 16.4% in 2019 to 18.6% in 2020. “Young women are more likely to be ‘NEET’ than men”, the report reads. “In OECD countries, 16.5% of women between 18 and 24 do not study or work, while the percentage among men of the same age is slightly lower (14%)”.

“The reasons that force young women not to undertake training courses and not to have a job are varied. In the OSCE countries, 70% of young ‘NEET’ women are not active in looking for a job and one of the main causes of this condition is their commitments related to the care of children.

In addition, the share of unemployed ‘NEET’ (i.e., not looking for work) increases with age and this is particularly true for the female population, which in fact passes from 11.2 % in the 18-24 age group (against 7.5% among men) to 17.3% between 25 and 29 years (6.4% among men).

The gender disparity is also confirmed at the European level by the most recent Eurostat data: in 2021, 14.5% of girls and young women aged between 15 and 29 were classified as ‘NEET’ compared to 11.8% of men. A specific situation, on the one hand by social conventions or pressures that tend to give greater importance to the role of women within the family; on the other, a job market that favours the hiring of young men over young women, which makes it difficult to reconcile work with childcare.

Also in Europe, the share of ‘NEET’ unemployed young women (15-29 years), who are not actively looking for a job, is higher (10.2%) than the male component (6.3%). There is an average gap of about 4 percentage points, but in some countries (such as the Czech Republic and Romania) it exceeds 10%.

(I.Sesana, R.Panuzzo, P.Ferrera Terre des Hommes. Photo: Unicef/ Markonda)

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