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The enrolment boom
TODAY there are more children at school than ever before as an education avalanche gains momentum, sweeping away illiteracy and ignorance in villages and cities through the world. This year 82 per cent of boys and 71 per cent of girls of primary school age are in school, the beneficiaries of a global enrolment effort that peaked in the 1960s and 1970s and reduced the proportion of people unable to read and write to just 29 per cent by 1980.
Nevertheless, this still leaves many more women illiterate than men. And this literacy gap is paralleled by an education gap at every level of the education system. In 1985 there are seven girls for every eight boys in primary education; around five girls for every six boys in secondary school; and about four women for every five men at college or university.
But the good news of the Decade is that the education gap is closing at last. Though boys still outnumber girls at school, girls are edging forward slightly faster in the race towards literacy. In some countries the improvement has been quite dramatic. In India. for example, the proportion of boys in primary school hardly changed at all, compared with a 12 per cent increase in the proportion of girls sitting behind a primary-school desk. While in Sudan and Iraq massive education gaps of around 50 per cent at primary level at the beginning of the Decade had been cut to less than 15 per cent by 1985.
And, as these children work their way up the education ladder - from pencil to biro, from addition to calculus, from ABC to literature - so that gap at secondary school level is beginning to close too. In the developing countries girls made up only 37 per cent of the secondary school population in 1975. By 1985 their share of secondary places had jumped to 41 per cent.
The gap remains, however, in all countries without compulsory education. And it is proving a stubborn gap to close. To understand why parents continue to favour their sons over their daughters means seeing education as an investment. Their choice of whether to send a child to school is influenced by two major concerns: the amount of work the child could be doing now to help support the family while she or he is still of school age; and the chance of the education investment paying off in the future - in the shape of a good, well-paid job that will help the family when the child leaves school.
In much of the rich world child labour is outlawed and children tend to be a drain on the economic well-being of the family. But in many countries the work which even quite a young child can do is often a major reason for having that child in the first place.
In Rwanda, for instance, where enrolment in secondary school is generally very low, and where boys outnumbered girls at that level by around three to two in 1975, one study found that mothers with daughters are relieved of approximately 40 per cent of their domestic work, leaving them free to spend more time in the fields.
Some girls miss out on schooling altogether, spending their days scrabbling weeds from around corn stalks or selling bananas at the side of the road. Many more are forced to skimp their studying because their hours of pounding grain for supper, or fetching firewood, eat away at the time they would otherwise spend doing homework.
Already these young girls are learning different lessons: they are learning to balance their domestic role with their schooling and being set on a conveyor of compromise that will restrict their choices at every stage of their lives.
Parents may be willing to sacrifice their daughters’ help in the present if they feel that the future benefits will make that sacrifice worthwhile. But, in many countries, economic factors again tip the balance in favour of sons.
Even in parts of Asia where female employment is rising faster than anywhere else in the world - a son is more likely to get a job than a daughter. And, even if she does strike it lucky, the odds make it overwhelmingly likely that her job will be less well paid than her brother’s - for all the reasons already explained in the section or employment.
Sex or school
Economic reasons are not the only ones that prevent girls going to school or continuing their education for as long as boys. More reasons can be equally powerful.
In strictly Muslim countries, for example. where premarital sex is considered an utter outrage for women, many parents keep their daughters away from coeducational school as soon as puberty approaches. In Ethiopia
and Morocco. for instance, there are nearly twice as many boys as girls in secondary school, while in the Yemen Arab Republic and Pakistan boys outnumber girls by well over three to one.
In such countries pubescent girls ar prevented from associating with boy altogether. In other countries it is the actual consequences of that association that cause girls to leave school. Pregnancy - wanted o unwanted, legitimate or illegitimate - is another major reason why girls are less like! than boys to complete their education. In every country these costs of adolescent sexuality are borne by girls alone.
Lessons in inequality
Though girls tend, on average, to get fewer years of education than boys, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stresses that it is the quality rather than the quantity of girls’ education that prevents them from advancing in the world of work, keeping them confined in badly paid occupational ghettos.
From their earliest years in school girls tend to be channelled towards subjects that are likely to be of more use to them in the kitchen and the living-room than in the outside world, They learn art, literature, domestic science and dressmaking while the boys are struggling with knotty mathematics problems, spending hours in the physics and chemistry labs, or covered with sawdust in the woodwork department.
By the time teenagers are ready to go on to more specialist training, the worst of the damage is already done. Two-thirds of girls at Danish technical colleges in 1982, for example, were being trained in just three subjects: the clothing trade, textile design and the hotel industry. And, thousands of miles away in Ghana, the picture is exactly the same. Here, as in Denmark, girls take around 20 per cent of the technical college places. And here too the vast majority of girls are studying just three subjects: dressmaking, embroidery and catering.
Education and liberation
Though education - in schools, in society, in the media - does tend to steer women on a course that sets them down firmly in the home and in badly paid jobs, it also teaches them the rules of navigation. And those rules. an understanding of the world’s language and symbols, give women a power they have never had before. True, they learn to read about cookery and poetry - but they do learn to read. True, they learn to count stitches and to measure out flour and currants - but they do learn to count. And these basic skills give women, at last, a framework for reflection. As Paulo Friere, the revolutionary Brazilian educationalist, declared: ‘I can read. Therefore I can control the world.’
And there is powerful evidence that education is one of the most potent ingredients, in a general mix of advantages, for changing women’s lives. In fact the World Fertility Survey discovered that women’s ability to read and write was more closely related to their fertility, their use of contraception and their children’s health than even their income. Women with more than seven years of education in countries as different as Kenya, Bangladesh, Portugal and Mexico were found to be four times as likely to use contraception than those without schooling.
These findings should not be used as an excuse to substitute education for justice, however. Education is just one factor in a complex of interacting and interlocking cogs and wheels that help a woman take more power over her life. If it can act so dramatically on her freedom of choice within her role as wife and mother, then the potential of an unstereotyped education system to launch a woman finally into the world of men must be great indeed.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
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