Tuesday, 13 March 2012

UNESCO World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education: A call to action

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 could expect to spend about eight years in a classroom although the boy sitting next to her would 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 on International Women’s Day.

The World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education comprises about 120 maps, charts and tables featuring a wide range of sex-disaggregated data and gender 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.

Though the “growth in girls’ enrolment in primary education clearly demonstrates the successful mobilization towards Education for All movement, we must reinforce this movement if we are going to reach the most vulnerable girls and women who continue to be denied their right to education,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. “We must attack the root causes of this discrimination and target our interventions. For example, the data clearly show that a girl who starts school late has a very high risk of dropping out. The Atlas serves as a roadmap to bring about real change in the lives and opportunities of male and female students globally.”

Globally, girls 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 countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. However, girls who do make the transition tend to persist and 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 school system can expect to receive. It is important to note that 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 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 10 years, respectively, in a classroom. Nevertheless, boys in both regions still have the advantage with at least one extra year of instruction. It is also important to note high repetition rates in many countries can diminish the impact of these gains in school-life expectancy. 

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 gender equality. 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 equality.”

The print edition of the atlas, is available in English, French and Spanish, and will be accompanied – as of mid-May 2012 - by an online data mapping tool that enables users to track trends over time, adapt the maps and export the data. This eAtlas will be regularly updated with the latest available data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. 

For more information on the World Atlas, please contact:  Lydia Ruprecht, Education Research and Foresight Team, Knowledge Management Services, UNESCO.

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