Paris - Making some simple, basic changes in education policy can result in many more girls attending school, experts said at a meeting here this week on Gender Equality in Education.
Take the case of Kenya. The United Nations says that the country has made huge strides towards the goal of education for all by incorporating gender awareness in school administration.
"We offered free lunches, but not only that, we make sure that sanitary towels were available in schools, and that decreased absenteeism enormously," Kenya’s minister of education, Prof. Sam Ongeri, told IPS.
"Feeding students is one thing but when girls are made to feel comfortable and empowered at school, it makes an enormous difference," he said in an interview during the conference, acknowledging that problems still remained.
Kenya and many other countries have made progress in "narrowing gender gaps in education over the past decade," says the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which organised the two-day meeting ahead of World Teachers’ Day, celebrated Oct. 5.
But in certain regions, girls are still "being left behind in educational opportunities", the agency says in a report, adding that "being born a girl carries with it a significant education disadvantage in many countries."
According to UNESCO, too many governments are moving too slowly to eliminate gender gaps, with 69 countries failing to achieve gender parity in primary school enrolment. This translates to 3.6 million girls missing from primary school, the agency says.
Overall, there are some 67 million children out of school, and more than 50 percent are girls. Besides poverty and conflict, social and cultural norms are often to blame for girls’ marginalisation in some areas. But the latter is a sensitive topic at international governmental organisations.
UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova told IPS that the United Nations has been working to establish "non- traditional" places of learning for girls and women in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"There are certain cultural sensitivities in many countries in the world, but we’ve been working to set up community centres of learning, especially for dropouts or illiterate young girls," she said. "We also sometimes use mobile schools for nomadic populations. With these measures, we can reach out to hundreds of thousands of women."
She said it was important for UNESCO to "encourage governments" to make girls’ education a priority in their national policies, but at the same time to be "creative", especially in helping those who drop out of school.
"I think that providing education for the dropouts is the biggest challenge," Bokova told IPS. She has stressed previously that a lack of education for girls means high numbers of adult women without literacy skills.
Currently two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate adults are women, according to UN figures.
Participants in the conference also called for governments to look "beyond parity". Education should be a source of gender empowerment, transforming the mindset of both girls and boys even as parity is achieved, they said.
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"To change society, individuals not only must learn basic academic disciplines but must develop a sense of worth about themselves, feel they belong to a given society, and learn to defend themselves against threats and challenges," said Nelly Stromquist, professor of international education policy at the University of Maryland in the United States.
She and other experts said that governments need to ensure that girls feel safe at school, in addition to providing access to clean water and to facilities such as latrines, which she said, are "very important to adolescent girls."
Alice Kagoda, professor at Uganda’s Makerere University who trains teachers, said that girls often faced harassment both on the way to and within schools, and that it was important they were taught how to deal with this.
"The girl child in poorer communities in Africa faces challenges right from home, which ranges from looking for water to looking for firewood," she told IPS. "In rural societies they also have to walk to school, and girls themselves have said that in all these processes, they are harassed."
Within school, they are sometimes at risk of harassment from male teachers, Kagoda said. And at home, they often have no time for homework because of domestic chores.
"You are tired, you are harassed. You don’t have proper clothes, and you don’t attend school during the menstruation period. So how can you perform?" Kagoda asked. "There are so many problems that don’t allow girls in poor situations to study."
She said that male school administrators were not able to see or fully understand these gender-specific problems, so it was also imperative for governments to make sure there were enough female teachers and principals.
Experts at the conference said that globally women’s presence as teachers "decreases as school grade levels rise." In Liberia – an "extreme case", according to one speaker, 93 percent of principals are men.
"We have to be realistic. Many countries are willing to change but they do not quite know what to do, or how to approach the subject," said Khalil Mahshi, director of the International Institute for Educational Planning, the specialised UNESCO body that hosted the event.
"This is an opportunity to share research and put our experiences together so we can help governments to improve the inclusion of women in leadership positions," he told IPS. "We have to keep advocating and encouraging change."
The UN has set an ambitious goal of achieving gender parity in education by 2015, and officials say this includes the situation of boys, who have a higher dropout rate in regions such as the Caribbean and Latin America.
"With barely four years left to achieve the goals, we need to recommit and expedite our efforts to narrow the gender gap and to ensure that all children complete primary schooling, with girls and boys having equal access to free, quality education," said Cheryl Gregory Faye, head of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI).