BEIRUT: The Arab world is among the most unequal regions in the world when it comes to gender and education, according to a new report released Monday by UNESCO.
The Education for All Global Monitoring Report studied gender imbalances in education across the globe, finding that 100 million women in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read a single sentence. The report concludes that not a single goal set by the U.N.’s Education for All initiative will be reached by the 2015 deadline.
According to the report, it is projected that by 2015, only 70 percent of countries will have achieved parity between the sexes in primary education and 56 percent will have achieved parity in lower secondary education. The report calls for immediate efforts to address this gap and ensure equal access to education for both boys and girls.
In the Arab world, girls make up 60 percent of children out of school, the largest percentage of any of the regions in the report, including sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, that number has not budged since 1999, indicating little if any progress.
“The Arab world is the region that is lagging most behind in that respect,” the study’s author, Pauline Rose, told The Daily Star by phone from London. “The reasons are largely cultural.”
Cultural biases are compounded by poverty, Rose said, explaining that many poor families in countries like Yemen can only afford to send some of their children to school, and they see their male children as a better investment for the family.
“They are more likely to get a return on their son’s education, because they expect them to get work and give more back to the household,” Rose, who is the outgoing director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, said.
In some countries in the region, such as Syria, violence has interrupted education for all children, but it is more likely to adversely affect girls than boys.
“In insecure contexts, girls are more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, and parents are less likely to let them go to school if they have to worry about them walking through the streets,” Rose said. “This is in addition to whether there are any schools.”
Even the seemingly bright spots in the report, such as that educated Arab women make 87 cents to the dollar men make – above the global average – are likely evidence of other socioeconomic inequalities.
“I think the reason for this is a very high selection bias,” explained Rose. “If you are a woman who gets a job, you are likely be from a better-off family, to have connections.”
One of the domino effects of having fewer girls in school is that the Arab world suffers from a shortage of female teachers in a region where segregated education is common and even preferred, especially in the same rural, disadvantaged areas where female teachers are needed most.
The two moderate success stories from the region were Iraq and Turkey, which both managed to close their gender gaps in education with teacher training and other targeted programs.
Even lower income countries can shorten this gap by reorganizing resources, Rose insisted. The key is to convince countries that girls’ education benefits not only women, but also the society as a whole, leading to lower birth rates and higher survival rates among mothers and children.
Several strategies that have yielded positive results in some countries include giving stipends to families for sending their girls to school; providing scholarships to girls, especially for secondary school; and recruiting teachers from underserved areas who are more likely to stay and understand the culture.
“In West Africa, one of the things that helped is that religious leaders and community leaders have mobilized to encourage parents to send girls to school. Poverty is still affecting girls more. ... This is where cultural and community mobilization comes in, and it’s not very costly.”