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Gender Canyon

United Kingdom

new internationalist
issue 315 - August 1999

Light of learning. An open schoolroom in the jungles of Quiche in Guatemala.

Gender canyon
Getting girls into school in the South is literally a matter of life and death.
Yet in the North it is the underachievement of boys which is causing a stir.
Can ‘gender-sensitive’ education help on both fronts?

Nothing gets people going so much as sexual politics. Except perhaps race. Or religion. And when the three are mixed together you get something pretty explosive. One of the hottest issues in my local elementary school in recent years has been that of gender-segregated swimming, a storm which had thankfully blown itself out by the time I became a governor. The school had its own tiny unheated swimming pool, just about big enough for children to learn their first few strokes. It also had (and still has) a fascinatingly diverse multicultural population, which includes Kenyans, Chinese, Serbs and Albanians. A consistent one-third of the school’s children come from the local Muslim community; most of their families migrated originally from rural Pakistan.

To make a long story short, representatives of the Muslim community (of whom there are three on the governing body now, though there was then only one) requested that girls should swim in separate sessions to boys, saying that their children (often those least likely to learn to swim outside school) would otherwise be unable to take part. After much debate the governors eventually decided to agree to this, at which point many of the (generally liberal, feminist-sympathizing) white parents erupted in protest, finding the whole idea of sexual segregation outrageous. Those parents who felt most strongly about the issue then withdrew their children from swimming altogether. After a year or so of this, probably to everyone’s relief, the pool became unsafe and the lessons stopped.

This minefield of an issue is fascinating precisely because there was no easy resolution to it – it is often too easy to endorse multicultural education in a bland way that assumes it is uncomplicated and unproblematic. But despite the complications, I think all parts of the school community – children, staff and parents – genuinely see its cultural diversity as enriching.

The first migrants to this area came when their villages near Mirpur in north-east Pakistan were submerged under the floodwaters of the new Mangla Dam in the 1960s. In those days before unemployment rose and the immigration shutters went down, the former colonial power, Britain, allowed some of those displaced to immigrate; the rest were relocated within Pakistan. In the intervening years there has been a steady influx of new Pakistani migrants to East Oxford and, while the school now has some third-generation children whose parents were born in England, the majority still enter school at five speaking only Punjabi or Urdu.

Starting at a school run in a different language is inevitably alienating, no matter how much support you are offered in your first language. But at least all have access to schooling: their cousins in rural Pakistan often miss out on education altogether, particularly the girls. Pakistan has one of the widest gender gaps in the world, and despite promising in the early 1990s to reduce this gap and make sexual equality in education a priority, its governments’ efforts on this front have been dismal (see map, Band of shame).

Life savers
On a worldwide level, girls continue to be denied schooling to a much greater extent than boys – fully two-thirds of the estimated 125 million children currently out of school are girls. Girls’ exclusion from education is not just immoral and unjust – it is a flagrant abuse of their fundamental human rights. More strikingly, it is also a matter of life and death.

Source: UNESCO World education report 1998 By failing to achieve the goal of basic education for all children in the 1990s the world has effectively sentenced millions of children to death. How could this be? How could education possibly save so many lives? According to the World Bank, the best available estimates show that each year of schooling that a girl receives reduces the under-five mortality rate by up to ten per cent, as more educated mothers reap the benefit of their greater understanding of health, sanitation and nutrition.1 On this basis even just one year’s schooling would have reduced infant-mortality rates sufficiently to save two million of the children these out-of-school girls will one day have – though of course ‘Education for All’ would have entailed many further years of schooling, each of them multiplying the number of child lives saved.

The incontrovertible case for investing in girls’ education was made in a high-profile speech in Pakistan in 1992 by one Lawrence H Summers, who was then Vice-President and Chief Economist of the World Bank. As the advocate of a feminist cause he was, to put it mildly, an unlikely candidate, having gained notoriety for endorsing the dumping of toxic waste in low-wage countries. After his spell at the World Bank he joined the US Government and is now President Clinton’s right hand at the Treasury.

But his speech had all the more impact in development circles because it came from a conservative economist, a World Bank clone. ‘Reflecting the biases of an economist,’ he said, ‘I have tried to concentrate on the concrete benefits of female education and explicitly contrast it with other proposed investments. Expenditures on increasing the education of girls do not just meet the seemingly easy test of being more socially productive than military outlays. They appear to be far more productive than other social-sector outlays and than the vastly large physical capital outlays that are projected over the next decade.’1

So there you have it – for once the World Bank and the New Internationalist are in agreement. Educating girls has myriad well-established benefits, such as later marriage and fewer children, lower maternal and infant mortality rates, the passing on of education to the next generation – not to mention greater freedom from an oppressive family or social situation.

Given all this, why hasn’t the world moved heaven and earth to give all girls at least a decent primary education by the supposed target date of the year 2000? You may well ask – and towards the end of this issue we’ll try to identify the culprits.

Ruts, roadblocks, achievements
But at least mainstream acceptance of the urgent importance of girls’ education has meant organizations working in this field have found the doors of the powers-that-be more open to them. One that has made particular headway is the Forum of African Women Educators (FAWE). The organization was set up in 1992 by women from across the continent who had battled against the odds to achieve not just academic success of their own but positions of power and influence in education at the national level – there were current and former ministers of education, university vice-chancellors and prominent educationists. The idea was to pool their strength and access to the levers of power to mount a cohesive campaign for girls’ education at the same time as promoting that cause via practical initiatives wherever possible. FAWE now has 31 national chapters.

Source: Education Now, Oxfam International 1999. At one end of their activity is the idea of celebrating women’s achievement: inspiring girls by example with a sense of what schooling can make possible. It gives an annual award – the Agathe Uwilingiyimana Prize, named after the late Rwandan prime minister who was herself a former teacher and FAWE member – for innovative achievements in African female education. But it also focuses on good role models at the grassroots like Priscilla Naisula Nangurai, a headteacher in Maasailand, Kenya, who has worked particularly hard to resist family pressures for girls to drop out of school. ‘Getting girls into school,’ she says, ‘is merely the first step on a long rugged road which is filled with ruts and roadblocks – some cultural, others economic’.2

But FAWE is also working to improve the situation on a more structural level, collaborating with a team from the Institute of Development Studies in England on a major new girls’ education programme called Gender and Primary Schooling in Africa (GAPS). The aim is to analyze the practical needs and cultural circumstances of individual African countries and design a reform programme that will deliver schooling for all within 15 years. In Ethiopia, for example, the reform proposals chart a route by which the country might get all children enrolled in primary school within 15 years – and given that Ethiopia currently manages to educate fewer of its children than any country in the world bar Somalia and Niger (39 per cent of boys and 24 per cent of girls) that would be a pretty impressive result.3

In Ethiopia among the key reforms proposed are increased spending on learning materials, higher wages for teachers and subsidizing stationery and clothing costs for rural girls. But what is aimed at in general is a gender-sensitive model of education.

Up until the 1990s education in the Third World was almost always seen in terms of ‘bottoms on seats’. There wasn’t enough schooling to cope with all the children who needed it, so what you had to do was to provide more. But more of the same is often not good enough, as child labourers have proved the world over by voting with their feet – like Assane, a 10-year-old shoeshine boy from Senegal, who memorably told this magazine in 1997: ‘I don’t need to go to school. What can I learn there? I know children who went to school. Their family paid for the fees and the uniforms and now they are educated. But you see them sitting around. Now they are useless to their families. They don’t know anything about farming or trading or making money... If anyone tries to put me in school I will run away.’4

The friendly classroom
It is no good simply opening the doors of a classroom and expecting the desperate multitudes to pour in: like Assane, many children will have good reasons for scorning what passes for education in school.

Reaching for the sky: these Bella nomads near Gorom-Gorom in Burkina Faso are among the millions of African girls who need friendlier, more flexible schools.

The same principle applies in girls’ education. You can’t simply carry on in exactly the same way and expect equal numbers of girls to take their allotted place in class. Instead you have to look at all the myriad reasons why girls have not been coming to school and be prepared to modify everything from the education system to the method of teaching.

So what does gender-sensitive education actually mean? In practice most reforms undertaken in the name of improving quality and child rights will also make education more gender-sensitive. In that sense making schools more girl-friendly in, say, Mauritania, will also make them more boy-friendly. Some of the key measures are:

  • Making the classroom experience child-centred, relevant to the local community and in the local language.

  • Training teachers to be more sensitive to gender issues. In many areas of the South more women teachers are needed, who can act as role models for girl students.

  • Locating schools closer to children’s homes: this makes schooling more accessible to all children but particularly encourages girls (and their families) to enrol. In Egypt if a school is one kilometre instead of two kilometres away, enrolment goes up 4 per cent for boys but 18 per cent for girls.5

  • Providing decent early-childhood-care schemes. All children benefit from this kind of preschool care and stimulation, but girls’ staying-power in primary school seems to be increased by it even more than boys’.

  • Scheduling lessons flexibly to help children expected to work for the family in the fields or the home.

  • Making education available free or at very low cost. In poor families where a choice has to be made between sons and daughters going to school it is the girls who usually lose out.

  • Involving the local community.

  • Ensuring that schools are safe places, with clean water and latrines.

  • Rooting out gender bias from textbooks and materials. Given that biased examples tend to show males in positions of activity and authority, this might superficially seem like a reform detrimental to boys. In reality boys also benefit when they are encouraged to make choices based on who they are rather than on who society expects them to be.

Even when a country has managed to offer a primary-school place to all boys and girls, however, as is broadly the case now in East Asia and Latin America as well as in the industrialized world, the need for gender-sensitive education by no means disappears. Girls can find it even harder to make it into secondary school than they did to get through the door in the first place. Yet dropping out at this point can be disastrous. In some parts of Thailand, for example, it is particularly vital that girls make it across the precarious bridge from primary to secondary school because it is at this point, as they enter adolescence, that they are most vulnerable to being recruited – or even abducted – by agents for the sex industry.

Another risk at this age is early pregnancy, which in many countries causes girls to be automatically expelled from school. An innovative project in Botswana has established a daycare centre alongside a junior secondary school. Pregnant girls receive three months’ maternity leave during which they keep in touch via extension courses; they then return to school and have their baby looked after. In return they work for a few hours a week in the daycare centre, which doubles as a living classroom teaching parenting and life skills to both male and female students. Meanwhile a popular campaign has forced Botswana’s government to allow pregnant students to take exams and be re-admitted to their original school.5

Boys in trouble
What are the implications of the ‘gender-sensitive’ classroom for the rich world? Here, as the 1990s have unfolded, a different kind of gender divide has emerged into the light – that between the majority of the world’s countries, where the primary problem remains girls’ exclusion from school and the opportunities it affords, and the minority where girls are markedly outperforming boys.

In the industrialized countries it is only fairly recently that boys’ underperformance has become a major concern. Girls have always, it turns out, tended to do better than boys up until their teens but the traditional view has been that boys, who develop later, catch up by the time of the major public exams at 16 and beyond. The trouble is now that boys are no longer catching up – in Britain last year, for example, 51 per cent of girls achieved five or more passes in the exam for 16-year-olds and only 41 per cent of boys.6 It is with a certain irony that feminists have noted the worry about this of politicians and commentators who were distinctly unworried about girls’ disadvantage in the past.

From Adam’s rib
it’s prophesied
I came,
but that’s his story

I’m walking on my own
down these streets
with a stop sign on every corner, takin’ my time.
I’ve got no place to go ’cept forward.

Down these highways without a road map,
down these sidewalks,
where the cracks want to
break my mother’s back,
where the city is crowded.
I’m walking on my own.

I’m not on a Stairmaster,
and I won’t wait for an elevator.
I’m taking the fire escape
to the top floor.

If I want to,
I’ll walk all around the world,
taking the long way
or the shortcuts,
’cross countries and through
I won’t be swimming.
I’ll walk
on my own.

Mary Blalock, who was a high-school student in Portland, Oregon, when she wrote this poem.


There are all kinds of theories advanced for this phenomenon. Certainly girls are benefiting from the greater freedom and confidence that a feminist-influenced culture has given them – they are no longer prepared to cede their ground to boys and will seize opportunities that their mothers and certainly their grandmothers would likely have relinquished. It is also undeniable that the fundamental shift in the labour market away from manufacturing and towards service- or information-based industries is likely to suit girls more than boys – some estimates say two-thirds of new jobs created over the next decade will go to women.6 It is tempting to pin this on globalization, not least when you see the disaffection and hopelessness of working-class boys in what were once the industrial heartlands – the US rustbelt or the Northeast of England – who, far from following in their fathers’ footsteps, have only unemployment to look forward to.

If these kinds of recent economic explanations were the only factor, you would not expect any obvious gender-based difference in performance at elementary-school level. Yet the differences are there. The worldwide obsession with testing children at all ages is something to which I return in the second half of this magazine but if tests of seven-year-olds are proving nothing else they are showing that girls are outperforming boys even at this age.

Again, theories abound as to why – and we have to leave at the door our beliefs about whether differences between boys and girls derive from environment or heredity, since by the time they get to school they are already established. One notion, for example, is that more traditional modes of teaching – ‘chalk and talk’ – favour girls, who are more ready to sit down and get on with a task. A feminist teacher at our own school, in a long and fascinating discussion of the gender issue with governors, said that in her experience a simple shift in language can make all the difference: saying, for example, ‘let’s find out about shape’ (which intrigues boys who relish the process of discovery as well as girls) rather than ‘let’s look at shape’ (to which only girls will tend to respond).

Another factor which may contribute to boys’ alienation from education is the fact that at primary-school level they are taught almost exclusively by women and thus lack positive male role models. The same situation applies in the Caribbean, where many more boys than girls fail the common entrance exam to secondary school. It is perhaps significant that researchers looking into boys’ underachievement in England and the Caribbean have reported a similar feeling that schoolwork is somehow unmasculine. ‘I never wanted nobody to tease me and call me a “sissy”,’ says 17-year-old Algie, from Dominica, explaining why he used to play truant. A female teacher from St Vincent and the Grenadines explains that his attitude is common: ‘The boys don’t utilize education in the same way [as the girls]. Much of it has to do with image. They don’t want to be seen as a nerd, and a nerd is someone who works hard at school.’5

Of course different places with different problems require different solutions. As with so many aspects of development there is no one model which can be approved on high and then applied everywhere. While most countries have an inbuilt bias against girls’ education, there are some that have always tended the other way, like Lesotho or Mongolia, in whose pastoralist traditions boys have always been expected to remain with their herds. But what is clear is that no attempt to guarantee all children an education will succeed if it is not sensitive to the gender dimension.

Let 12-year-old Amina Hassan of Chikunja Village in Tanzania have the last word. She is one of the girls who has been utterly untouched by the world’s supposed commitment to sexual equality in education by the end of the millennium. ‘I wake up very early,’ she says. ‘I have no notion of time. I sweep the compound, wash last night’s dishes. Then I go to the well, but the natural wells are all dry now and we have to walk very far to the artificial wells. We have to wait in a long queue as there are many people. Then I go to the farm to dig or pick cashewnuts. I prepare the day’s relish and make ugali for the family. I sometimes get a few hours to play with my friends in the afternoon. I pound cassava or maize for the evening and next day’s meal; I then cook supper. After meals I play or listen to adult conversations, especially when there’s moonlight. I go to bed when adults go to sleep. Maybe I could go to school, but it is expensive, and my mother will be alone to do all the work.’

1 Lawrence H Summers, Investing in All The People, Quad-i-Azam Lecture, January 1992, World Bank.
2 Dynamic African Headmistresses, FAWE 1995.
3 Pauline Rose; Getachew Yoseph; Asmaru Berihun; and Tegegn Nuresu; Gender and Primary Schooling in Ethiopia, IDS 1997.
4 NI 292, July 1997.
5 The State of the World’s Children 1999, UNICEF.
6 The Economist, 29 May 1999.

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New Internationalist issue 315 magazine cover This article is from the August 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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