Thinking Critically about the Gender Gap in Education and Development

26 June 2019

Visible disparities in education, especially gender equality, has long been a central concern to the international community and a focus of international development. For example, the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) for years has drawn special attention to education in developing countries with explicit inclusion of education in the former Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). SDG 4 sets out to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” drawing particular attention to disparities in gender, class, and other factors. According to the United Nations, over half of children and adolescents in the global south are not meeting minimum education standards. While it is important to pay attention to individual disparities, it is important to consider that factors such as gender and class are not mutually exclusive, and context and history also play a role in contributing to a crisis, such as the one in education.

Children at Kapuri School, South Sudan. CREDIT: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Unsurprisingly, discourses surrounding education in development are often about the gender gap situated within the African context* and the need to create access to “western” education. Recent research shows that a gender gap is persistent on the African continent (with broad differences varying between regions) and is often referred to as a learning crisis. And while there is quite clearly a gender gap in education in various African contexts, a more culturally sensitive and intersectional approach to discussing the problem must be employed in development studies (and international development in general).

South Sudan is a great example to contextualize this as the world’s newest country faces great challenges in education, especially in regard to gender equality. In South Sudan, around 76% of primary school aged girls are not receiving an education because of the ongoing conflict. The civil war in South Sudan has left millions of people food insecure and millions of other displaced. As this conflict continues, families cannot afford to send all their children to school and feed themselves. As a result, girls are kept out of school to do housework and help their families search for food. In other cases, families with no money resort to arranging marriages for girls of young ages in exchange of dowry which is later used to buy food. This example perfectly demonstrates the intersection of gender and conflict. While access to education is a challenge, it cannot be examined without consideration for the political situation in the country and how that impacts the lives of girls and boys differently.  To simplify further, the lack of food caused by conflict pushes girls to be excluded from educational opportunities over boys, thus showing how girls and boys education is impacted differently in conflict. So while it is easy to make a statement saying girls are excluded from education because education for boys is more valued it is overly simplistic; the current political, past historical contexts, and other factors work together to output the reality that is experienced by girls causing them to be excluded.

There is also a need to consider ways in which education is addressed. Increasingly, the language surrounding the way the international community speaks about the need of getting girls into schools, the more synonymous education becomes with strictly western ideas of education which are situated in or curated by the “west”. International development continues to push a model of education which mimic “western” style of schooling, discrediting forms of education that do not look the same.

As such, we need to question the notion that only western styles of schooling and education are adequate. This perpetuates the idea that the “west” is the only source of viable and legitimate education and this idea comes from a place of superiority and infantilization of the rest of the world, as well as fails to acknowledge occurrence which may have lead to current realities. Building further on this idea in reference to a gender gap in education within the African context is Teresa Barnes’ article on the gendered politics of the mind and body in African educational institutions. As Barnes interestingly points out, “colonialism transmitted the tradition European distinction between labour of the mind and the body directly to Africa”. So while the international community is quick to point out shortcomings in the African context in reference to gender inequality in education, it is incredibly important to keep in mind the colonial history of the African continent perpetuated by the “west” and the ways in which they have negatively impacted many aspects of life found there today.

*This is not to say there is only a gender gap in Africa, rather the fact that because of deeply ingrained structural hierarchies present in international development, Africa has come to represent the developing world.

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