Gender equality: Education for everyone?

Education for girls is the “most effective single investment that a developing country can make”, writes the World Bank. Messages we received from our members show that some African countries are heeding this advice. But there is still a long way to go until there are equal opportunities for women on the whole African continent.

A survey conducted by the Alumniportal Deutschland in March 2016 on the focus topic Education.Opportunities.Prospects. shows: The issue of gender equality is a very important one for our members. Many comments came from Africa.

“Today, education is more important than anything else. We have a cultural problem in Africa: Some people think that it is not suitable for girls to go to school, because they will get married and have children anyway. But slowly, people are beginning to accept that women and girls go to school. A change can already be observed in Africa – in myself and others.” This was a response by an Alumniportal Deutschland-user from Côte d’Ivoire to our call for comments on our focus topic Education.Opportunities.Prospects in March 2016.

Here is a survey of the most important facts on the topic of equal opportunities for women and education:

  • Worldwide, around 781 million young people and adults can neither read nor write – around a third of them are women. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), around 58 million children of elementary school age have no access to schooling. Estimated numbers are much higher than this.
  • Education is a human right. The international community has committed itself to improving the global education situation. This was one of the Millennium Development Goals: By 2015, all children were to have access to and complete elementary school education. Gender equality too should have been implemented by this time on all levels of education. 

No equal opportunities in Cameroon

“In Cameroon, we still have a long way to go until men and women will have equal opportunities”, says Berthe Ada Biwole. She made her way in spite of this: As the daughter of a poor family from a small village near the town of Ayos, she was able to go to a secondary school, to study in Cameroon and to get a PhD in Germany. “I had to find all the funding myself. I didn’t have a scholarship and my parents were unable to give me any money.” Her total education took longer than for others, but it was worth it: Today, she works as an expert for literacy at the Bergische Volkshochschule Solingen and attends a graduate programme of Bergische Universität Wuppertal.

“But there are plenty of women among my closer acquaintances who have had no education at all – because they are women”, Berthe Ada Biwole tells us. “My friend, for instance, whose name I don’t want to mention: She became pregnant at 14 years of age. The father took no responsibility, she was left alone with the child. And she had to leave school.” Because, as Berthe Ada Biwole says, the regulations of nearly all schools forbid pregnant girls to attend classes. The same goes for the two-year period of nursing. This means that girls lose a total of three years, which in most cases they will not be able to catch up on. 

Equal opportunities on the lower levels of education in Kenya

The messages from Kenya sound a lot more hopeful. An Alumniportal member from Nairobi writes: “In Kenya, we believe that a good life is the result of a good education. Girls and boys are encouraged to continue their education to the highest possible level. In recent years, there has been enormous support of educating girls of elementary school age. This has been a success.”

This statement is confirmed by the numbers issued by the national office of statistics. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of children attending elementary schools has increased by 350,000. “According to official statements, 87.5 percent of girls attended school in 2014, in comparison with 89.3 percent of boys”, writes Mary Mutembei from Kenya’s capital Nairobi. “Other studies show, however, that in poorer quarters, significantly more boys attend school than girls.” And in the field of university education, too, the gap between the numbers of female and male students is still tremendous (259,600 men as opposed to 184,200 women in the year 2014).

Education for girls is essential for the entire country

“Well-educated women have fewer children and raise families of ‘good quality’. Also, they are more likely to marry someone who is not from their own area. This helps to break the circle of poverty in communities without education”, says Mary Mutembei.

“And this is exactly the kind of vicious circle were are still dealing with in Cameroon”, Berthe Ada Biwole responds. “My friend who became pregnant at 14 needed her parents’ support. So there was not enough money for her siblings. In cases like this, parents concentrate on supporting the children who don’t have any children yet. This often means supporting their sons and the girls come away empty-handed. This is a huge loss for individuals, but also for society as a whole.”

Biwole’s friend had lost her opportunity for education. In the end, she had to work at the market and she has never left her poor, rural home. “Particularly in poorer, uneducated areas, women have no opportunity to fight such a fate”, says Berthe Ada Biwole. “Not that much has changed over recent decades. That is why I wish so much for equal opportunities of men and women to finally become a reality.”

Mary Mutembei: I see enormous progress

Access to education for women has significantly improved. Mary Mutembei sees “enormous progress”. But there is still no real equality of opportunities, especially between women from poor and rich families.

In recent years, the East African state of Kenya has taken great steps towards better access to education for girls and women. Today, almost exactly as many girls as boys attend primary schools. In this interview, Mary Mutembei talks about the progress that she sees in her country and about the obstacles that are still hindering equal opportunities.


Discuss equal opportunities for women in our community

The World Bank considers investment in education for girls to be the most effective individual investments which a developing country can make. It impacts on all levels and benefits society, the economy and the environment.

What is your opinion on this issue? What is your experience regarding gender equality in your home country? Which are the areas that need more work? Tell us what you think about this important issue in the group “Zukunftsthema Nachhaltigkeit”!


Author: Verena Striebinger

June 2016

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