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Achieving equality in and through education: The power of breaking regressive gender norms in low- and middle-income countries

Thu, March 14, 9:30 to 11:00am, Hyatt Regency Miami, Floor: Third Level, Foster 1

Group Submission Type: Formal Panel Session


Education plays a pivotal role in shaping societies, transforming lives, and promoting social progress. However, patriarchal norms and gender-related barriers to schooling continue to inhibit our efforts to create a just and fair world for all. Despite most countries of the world achieving gender parity in primary enrollment, gender disparities remain in higher levels of education, with enrollment rates and achievement indicators favoring males (e.g., standardized test scores or the choice of STEM major in college). In many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), girls are not provided the same educational opportunities as boys. Lower spending on schooling and higher burden of domestic duties as compared with boys, and other social and cultural barriers prevent girls from staying in school and receiving a quality education.

To explore the impacts of these barriers on girls’ schooling, a recent systematic review identified three main categories of gender-related barriers to girls’ education in LMICs – barriers that overwhelming affect girls (e.g., child marriage, regressive gender norms, and gender-based violence), barriers which are shared by boys and girls but affect girls more due to prevailing gender norms (e.g., preference given to boys in settings with low income and lack of schooling access), and barriers that are shared by both genders but differ in terms of pathways of impact on educational outcomes (e.g., pedagogy and lack of teaching materials). These barriers are often intertwined with one another and are present at the household, school, and community levels.

Forgoing any effort to eliminate these barriers could rob societies, economies, and individuals of the transformational and intergenerational power education has on gender equality. It is estimated that every $1 spent on programs and policies supporting girls’ human rights and schooling would generate an economic return of $2.80. By 2030, LMICs could increase their gross domestic product (GDP) by 10% if all girls completed secondary schooling. Furthermore, education can reduce the likelihood of girls and women experiencing harmful patriarchal practices such as child marriage and gender-based violence. Child marriage is especially interlinked with low education levels – it can act as a barrier to schooling, but robust education policies can, in turn, also reduce child marriage rates. The 2017 Global Education Monitoring Report estimated that 12 years of education could reduce the prevalence of child marriages by 64% worldwide. Similarly, women with some or completed secondary level education have 11-36% lower risk of experiencing domestic violence than other women. Education can also improve health and healthcare seeking behavior of women, such as use of family planning methods and using prenatal, postnatal, and newborn care. This can improve maternal health and reduce neonatal and infant mortality. Maternal education is also associated strongly with children’s education.

Finally, education can be a political tool for gender equality and social progress. Higher educational attainment can also increase the participation of women in political leadership in LMICs which can have secondary individual and social benefits. For example, women’s political leadership has been linked with better health and educational outcomes in communities they serve. In India, a 10 percentage point increase in women's representation was found to reduce neonatal mortality by 2.1 percentage points. Another study used data from 155 countries and found that at least 30% female representation in parliament was associated with lower child and maternal mortality rates.

However, these benefits will not materialize unless harmful gender norms and patriarchal practices in schooling and broader society are eradicated. When it comes to education, discrimination against girls starts early in life in many LMICs. For example, while there are no gender gaps in preschool enrollment among 2-4 year old siblings in India, girls are 19% less likely to be enrolled in higher-quality private preschools than their brothers. Among children of mothers without any schooling and those from rural areas, girls are 30% and 24% less likely respectively to be in private preschools as compared with their brothers. In most countries of Africa and parts of Asia, girls are expected to complete fewer years of primary schooling as compared with boys, and the female disadvantage in schooling, learning, and economic opportunities exacerbates as children grow older and eventually become adults. Seeing as gender inequitable schooling starts early in life, there is a pressing need to disrupt the patriarchal status quo and address gender inequality in and through education.

In this panel, we present four studies that provide new insights into the gender-related barriers and challenges to education in low resource settings and what interventions can do to address them. The Feminist School of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) study presents evidence from a gender-transformative skill building program for girls that was implemented in 2021 and 2023. It is an action- and peer-based on-line learning program focused on leadership skills-building coupled with experiential learning about gender justice and education, with the objective of intergenerational feminist movement building to ‘disrupt the patriarchy’ in education. In India, a study uses new national data to examine patterns in preschool enrollment among 2-4 year old children, showing that despite gender parity in overall enrollment rates, girls are substantially less likely to be in a better quality private preschool as compared with their siblings. Another study from Pratham India presents a novel analysis of gender norms in public preschool curriculum, showing that most learning material, while gender-neutral, lack gender-transformative elements that could help break traditional gender norms among parents and teachers. Finally, a study from Kenya presents an innovative early childhood development program that aims to bring social change through economically empowering women in low-income settings.

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