Girls’ education: a democratic challenge for societies

Written on 19 Nov 18 by Veronica Ntoumos
Gender issues in education

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 62 million school-age girls do not have access to education (OECD, 2015). Out of 900 million illiterate adults, two-thirds are women. International research supports these findings: educating girls’ is one of the greatest challenges of the millennium.

Promoting girls’ education is a social, political and economic challenge. Gender roles are important in terms of rights, responsibilities, opportunities, and the capacity of individuals. In countries where girls’ education is progressing, infant mortality and the birth rate have fallen, and the spread of pandemics is better controlled.

What factors prevent more girls from attending school?

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) conducted a study on the question of inequalities between girls and boys at school in 42 education sector plans (ESPs) (GPE, 2017). Out of the 42 ESPs studied, 26 mentioned that there were barriers to equitable education i.e. between girls and boys. Girls face many social, cultural and economic barriers in accessing education and continuing their studies. Among the identified barriers, the most frequent are:

  1. Child marriage
    According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), ‘child marriage’ occurs when one of the spouses is aged under 18 (UNFPA, 2012: 10). Out of the 42 ESPs studied, 15 considered child marriage as a determining parameter in the non-schooling of girls (GPE, 2017: 29). Child marriage is far more prevalent in rural areas than in urban areas, and has a direct impact on girls dropping out of school. For example, in Laos among the Hmong and Khmu communities, it is rare for girls to complete secondary school as traditionally girls marry between the ages of 14 and 16. Once married, the girls do not return to school (Plan International, 2013).
  2. School-related violence
    The school environment plays a key role in the well-being of pupils and their learning outcomes (OECD, 2004); it also has significant consequences on the way in which parents perceive schools. Numerous studies have highlighted the growing problem of sexual, physical and psychological violence at school. According to the GPE report, this type of violence also occurs on the journey to and from school, and parents are becoming increasingly reluctant to send their girls to school if the journey is too long (GPE, 2017: 32). School-related violence and the issue of the distance between the school and the pupil’s home is considered by many countries as an obstacle to girls’ education (UNESCO, 2017). In Afghanistan, ensuring the safety of girls on their way to and from school, and on the school premises, requires special attention. For example, constructing a wall around the school grounds is key not only to protecting the girls from any possible intruders but also to prevent outsiders from seeing the pupils (GPE, 2017: 32).
  3. Inappropriate pedagogical practices
    The GPE study reveals that countries such as Afghanistan, Burundi, Eritrea, Senegal, Ethiopia and Haiti consider that certain pedagogical practices can create barriers to girls’ schooling. In Senegal, the problem is linked to the unequal treatment of girls and boys, as well as the lack of attention given to gender dimensions by the teachers themselves. For these six countries, with the exception of Haiti, the report indicates that gender strategies should be integrated into teacher training programmes (GPE, 2017: 33).

In addition to the most common barriers to girls’ education, there are other obstacles such as the lack of separate toilets for girls, and the cost of enrolment fees.


What measures best reflect national and local contexts in terms of integrating girls in schools? What infrastructures have been developed? What strategies are favoured?

  1. Recruiting female teachers
    According to the GPE report, the presence of female teachers plays a key role in parents’ decisions about whether to educate and send their daughters to school. Moreover, the presence of women on the teaching staff provides girls with a knowledge model that is not confined to a masculine viewpoint.

    In Afghanistan, a financial aid programme was launched to promote the monitoring and accommodation of female teachers in rural areas. In Kabul, the Ministry suggests doubling the salaries of female teachers if they are willing to move to rural areas - where they are under-represented. These measures also apply to female students who receive a $60-monthly allowance if they enrol in a teacher training centre.

    In Nepal, in order to recruit more female teachers, the education sector plan recommends e.g. introducing quotas, building sanitary facilities for female teachers at the school, and introducing maternity and paternity leave.

  2. Infrastructures suitable for girls’ schooling
    Well-thought-out premises and facilities designed for both girls and boys are a key factor in promoting girls’ schooling. For example, constructing a girls-only building is a key factor in some countries i.e. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and South Sudan. This is also true for the construction of girls-only boarding schools in isolated communities. The creation of these boarding schools enables girls to complete their secondary education.
  3. Integrating a gender dimension in school textbooks
    In order to challenge clichés about stereotypical images of women, textbooks must be updated and present a more positive and modern image of women i.e. highlighting their role in political, economic and social spheres. One example concerns Cambodian textbooks. Thus, Lenaerts, Braeye, Cnuddle, and Say observed that in a Cambodian textbook containing a lesson on the nervous system, the textbook states that brain activities about thinking and sports are associated with boys, while other activities such as smelling flowers and food are associated with girls. (Lenaerts, et al, 2016). Another example is Viet Nam. In order to promote gender parity, the Vietnamese government included the need to update textbooks in its national strategies (MOET, 2010).

The low attendance of girls at school leads to unequal power structures. This gender discrimination may be perpetuated by unfair practices towards girls in school environments but also in professional settings. The level of girls’ instruction is now the driving force behind equitable education for all.


Global Partnership for Education (GPE). 2017. Girls' education and gender in education sector plans and GPE-funded programs.

Lenaerts, F.; Braeye, S.; Cnuddle, V.; Say, S. 2016. Group Project: South East Asia VVOB. (Documents presented in the online IIEP course entitled “Monitoring and Evaluating Gender Equality in Education”.)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2004. Learning for tomorrow’s world: first results from PISA 2003. Chapter 5 – The learning environment and the organisation of schooling.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2015. The ABC of gender equality in education. Aptitude, behaviour, confidence. Paris: OECD.

Perrot, Michelle, et al. 2013. Mariage d’enfants et éducation : faire reculer le mariage précoce par l’éducation des filles. Paris: Plan France.

UNESCO. 2017. Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments. Global Education Monitoring Report 2017/18. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

UNFPA. 2012. Marrying too young: end child marriage. New York: UNFPA.

Viet Nam. Ministry of Education and Training, MOET; UNESCO Ha Noi Office; UNESCO-IBE. 2010. Guidelines for textbook review and analysis from a gender perspective.


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