Economic equality between men and women falls short despite investment in girls’ education

A new study finds that investments in girls’ education have not achieved economic equality for women.

By Thalif Deen

Researchers found that while such investments have brought many other benefits – including better health outcomes for women and their families – the economic returns are often disappointing.

The study, published on 12 May and written by researchers at the Washington and London-based Center for Global Development, found that the huge increase in the number of girls going to school in the world’s poorest countries does not translate into equal employment and economic gender equity.

“Investing in girls’ education makes sense, no doubt about it. But it is not enough for girls to go to school to have equal opportunities in the future,” says Shelby Carvalho, senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development and one of the report’s lead authors.

An analysis of 126 countries revealed that little has changed in women’s work over the past 30 years, despite the dramatic increase in the level of education available to girls. In fact, women are still twice as likely as men to be neither employed nor educated.

The study, entitled “Girls’ Education and Women’s Equality: How to get more out of the world’s most promising investment”, also revealed:

‘On average, higher rates of girls’ participation in school have not consistently translated into more women working, and when they do, there are huge pay and seniority gaps.
Globally, the majority of unemployed youth (aged 15-24) are women.
In India, the number of women in work has not increased since the 1980s, despite a massive increase in the number of girls going to school.
Data from Ethiopia, Malawi, Pakistan and Uganda show that improvements in girls’ education had no impact on labour market equity.
In Latin America, the number of women entering the work force is slowing, even though girls are doing better in school.

When asked her if the new findings would undermine the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), peculiarity those related to gender empowerment and women’s education, Carvalho told IDN: “These constraints affect at least three of the SDGs.”

SDG 5, she noted, calls for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Girls’ education is a key instrument for achieving gender equality, and countries absolutely must invest in quality education for all girls.

But if there is not a level playing field in the world of work, she argues, women cannot reap many of the benefits of that education.

“SDG 10 requests that inequality within and between countries be reduced. Gender inequality is a major source of inequality within countries, and the lack of women’s representation – from political leadership to women teachers in science classrooms – holds back progress,” she said.

SDG 4 requests inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

“When only 5 per cent of girls complete secondary school – as is the case in Benin and Guinea Bissau – and fewer than 1 in 5 girls complete secondary school in Papua New Guinea and Haiti, we are far from achieving Goal 4,” she added.

The following are excerpts from an interview:

What is the status of girls’ education and gender empowerment in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia that follow Sharia law?

Carvalho: We have found that more restrictive laws or regulations that may limit girls’ education, their aspirations or the types of opportunities available to women in the labour market have the potential to limit the role that education can play in promoting empowerment and can act as persistent barriers to equal economic opportunities later in life, even when education outcomes are equal.

While places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, as well as many others, have made progress in some areas related to girls’ education and women’s rights, there are still other areas of both formal law and social norms that are likely to continue to limit the potential for girls’ education to be the great equaliser we believe it can be.

Does religion – or misinterpretation of religion – play a role in gender discrimination?

Carvalho: Social norms play an important role in gender discrimination, and these can be influenced by any social phenomenon, including religion. Societies that limit women’s ability to work or limit their ability to work in certain industries mean that some women are unable to reap the full benefits of education.

Currently, more than a third of countries restrict women’s work in the same industries as men. Often, male-dominated industries are also better paid. There are many other examples: restrictions on access to credit, restrictions on working hours, and so on. The only way for girls’ education to pay off is for women to have equal opportunities in the labour market.

Carvalho also said that “for women and girls everywhere, the fact that you have the same level of education as your male partner does not guarantee that you won’t be paid a fraction of what he earns, or that you can’t work because you spend so much of your time doing unpaid housework or taking care of children.”

“It doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be more likely to experience violence from men. It doesn’t guarantee that you will have the same opportunities for prosperity, or that the society in which your children grow up will be more egalitarian,” Carvalho said.

The researchers also recommend that education systems do more to support gender equality by ensuring that schools are safe for girls, eliminating discrimination and supporting girls in the transition from school to work.

“We know a lot about how to get girls into school and how to help them learn,” said David Evans, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the report’s other lead author. “But we still have a lot to learn about how to ensure that schools are safe places for all girls.”

Through this lens, the authors examine the investments being made in global education by major donors such as the World Bank and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Gender equity and girls’ education are commonly cited as a focus of these agencies: in 2020, 92% of FCDO education funding and 77% of World Bank funding went to projects that included girls’ education as a stated priority.

“But this has only translated into projects that specifically target girls or the unique challenges they face less than half the time. A paltry 5 per cent of projects focus on reducing gender bias in the classroom, and less than 20 per cent focus on girls’ empowerment, access, health and safety, or advocacy,” the study notes.

Few World Bank education project documents in the last 20 years addressed barriers specific to girls, such as child marriage, teenage pregnancy or inadequate menstrual hygiene management.

“Institutional gender biases in education systems and a lack of attention to proven interventions – many of them simple, such as eliminating school fees for girls – are hitting the world’s poorest and most marginalised girls hardest, and the pandemic is pushing them further behind.”

Poor girls who live outside cities are the most likely to be out of school. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of those out of school live below the poverty line in rural settings, according to the study.

“And drops in household income – common in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic slowdown, as well as pre-pandemic problems such as a parent losing work or falling ill – are more likely to cause girls to drop out of school than boys.

“For gender equality and the full economic benefits of education to be more than a pipe dream, we have to do more, and we may have to think differently than we have in the past,” said Carvalho. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 May 2022]

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