The Puggle: September 2023 edition

Our last post showed how many milestones we have to celebrate when it comes to girls’ education outcomes and highlighted the areas where we need to focus our work going forward. This month we confirm the progress that has been made, validating decades of work by girls’ education champions. However, as we discussed last month and Alice Evans argues, although the headline findings from recent World Bank data on gender equality look promising, when you dig more deeply, patriarchy persists. The good news is the gender gap in secondary school enrollment has closed, females exceed males in tertiary enrollment, and adolescent fertility has plummeted. But over 25% of girls in the middle of Africa are married as children, female employment remains low in many places, and intimate partner violence remains high. She argues that “Greater parity in school enrolment sounds great, but may just be a holding pen, to delay child marriage.”

This highlights the need for what the Global Partnership for Education lays out in a new paper on its approach to gender equality: gender equality in access to, within, and through education. (Check out the appendix for a set of resources to “support operationalization of gender equality goals.”)

Gender equality in access to education has advanced quite a bit, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to gender equality within and through education. Take, for example, the Center for Global Development’s recent summary of evidence on Violence in African Schools. They find that boys and girls alike experience violence at school (although there is limited data on many dimensions of this). Girls in particular experience high rates of sexual violence in schools, and yet the evidence on preventing sexual violence remains quite thin.

Meanwhile, the narrative is increasingly shifting to ways in which boys are being left behind in education. At the recent RISE conference, Victoria Kiasyo Isika and Sarah Kabay shared a qualitative study looking at Gender and the Return to School in Kenya. Teachers and parents had clear theories about education barriers faced by girls — domestic chores, pregnancy, and early marriage — but they were also concerned that boys are overlooked and falling behind. Interviewees were less clear on why boys are not achieving, but the paper offers a few potential hypotheses. One is the notion that the norms of “hegemonic masculinity” can be “seen to be in opposition to the behavior conducive for academic success…Gainful employment and access to money was more attractive and masculine” than schooling.

These hypotheses underscore the possibility that the same patriarchal dynamics that hold girls’ back from achieving in school (e.g. when they are expected instead to care for family members and household responsibilities) can also hold boys’ back in education (e.g. when they feel they are expected to work). The paper concludes with:

 “Recognizing that challenges facing boys and girls can be interrelated, and also that boys face their own unique challenges does not indicate that boys and girls must be in competition for educational resources or that the need to work to ensure access to meaningful and quality education for girls and women no longer exists (World Bank, 2021). More research is needed to better understand boys’ experiences in and out of school and the roots of both high achievement and underperformance across both genders.”

The World Bank’s draft of its new gender strategy has also newly emphasized accelerating gender equality for all and recognizes “the disadvantages facing men and boys.” The strategy specifically calls out that “boys are increasingly falling behind in education in many countries” and goes so far as to talk about the need for targeted interventions to “address boy’s educational underachievement.” 

The World Bank strategy does not talk about the ways the same systems (patriarchy) are affecting men and women to the detriment of educational achievement. This seems like a missed opportunity in the push to advance gender equality, particularly given continued research on interventions that explicitly address gender and power inequalities in early adolescence. 

What the World Bank strategy does articulate is the importance of “Affordable and accessible quality care services, including childcare” (this is also the focus of a complementary thematic brief on care). Some of these same themes have come up in Claudia Goldin’s influential, now Nobel economics prize-winning research on women’s pay. Melinda French Gates also highlights how investments in childcare “can unlock massive gains…increasing access to child care across 15 countries (including both rich European economies and emerging African ones) could boost their GDP by $1.2trn—equivalent to Indonesia’s annual output—in only five years.” And a wide array of co-authors have recently articulated how Smart investment in global childcare requires local solutions and a coordinated research agenda.

For a deeper look at how gender dynamics show up in the early childhood education space, the Population Council recently hosted a webinar on Gender in Early Childhood Education that offers a useful primer. In my discussant remarks I summarized the key themes from the panelists as follows:

  1. Early childhood is incredibly consequential. It’s a time of rapid brain development and therefore yields exceptional investment returns. It’s also consequential since children form their concepts of gender norms by the about 2.5 years old. And it’s not just being a child that is so consequential, but having a child is also incredibly consequential. It can spell the end to education, the beginning of restricted job opportunities, and the change of identities.
  2. There are gender gaps in early childhood, and they often go somewhat hidden. For example, preschool enrollment in India is equal by gender, but families are more likely to pay for boys to go to private schools. It’s also not always obvious how the content and role modeling that children see when they are at preschool expose them to further inequities. And many early childhood programs out there ask mothers to expend their time in support of their children’s development. This is pragmatic because mothers are often the primary caretaker. But it is also problematic insofar as it further entrenches traditional gender roles and adds to the responsibilities women take on.
  3. If we care about gender equality, intervening in early childhood makes sense; it does not (yet) receive the investment and attention that it deserves. Organizations that consider themselves girls’ education organizations are not often active in ECD. Based on EGER’s database, only 14% of implementers cataloged work in ECD, vs. 49% for life skills and 45% for literacy. Investing in the early years — with a gender lens — offers an opportunity to:
  • Set girls and boys off on a path towards greater educational achievement.
  • Shape more expansive notions of gender norms for young children.
  • Invest in the caretakers of those young children, who are very often women or girls.
  • Shift family norms around gender.

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