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close this bookThe Challenge of Universal Primary Education - Strategies for Achieving the International Development Targets (DFID, 2001, 49 p.)
close this folder2. Defining the challenge
View the documentAchieving the targets: the scale and geography of the challenge
View the documentBarriers to UPE and gender equality

Barriers to UPE and gender equality

Poverty heightens educational disadvantage

2.10 In the countries with the worst education indicators, most children from the poorest households have no primary education. Households with limited education are more likely to be poor. The gaps between the attainment of rich and poor children can be enormous. In India, for example, 15 to 19 year olds from the richest 20% complete on average 10 school grades more than the equivalent cohort amongst the poorest 40% of students.21 In Senegal, the enrolment of 6 to 14 year-olds from the poorest households is half that of children from the richest households. Of the children who do enrol, it is the poor who overwhelmingly drop out of school.

21 World Bank (1999), Poverty Trends and Voices of the Poor. Washington: World Bank.


Figure 3: Girls as a percentage of boys in primary and secondary school(1)

(1) Ratio of girl’s gross enrolment for primary and secondary education, expressed as a ratio of the corresponding figure for boys


Figure 4: Gender equality in adult literacy(1)

(1) Ratio of girl’s gross enrolment for primary and secondary education, expressed as a ratio of the corresponding figure for boys

2.11 For the poorest households, education may be a lesser day-to-day priority than basic survival. In cases of extreme poverty, children may contribute up to 40% of family income. Girls in particular contribute unpaid labour, mainly in domestic and agricultural activities. Thus direct and indirect costs can make education prohibitively expensive, while lack of access to a school or the poor quality of education on offer may discourage those parents who might have been willing to bear these costs. Where poor children do manage to enrol in school, poor nutrition and health can hinder their full participation and learning.

2.12 Formal education systems are often inefficient in recognising and addressing the special circumstances of working children. The International Labour Organisation (ILO)22 estimates that there are up to 250 million children working full or part-time in the developing world. UNICEF23 estimates that 140 million of these are between the age of 6 and 11. Around 23% of these children enrol at school but 77% of those subsequently drop out.

22 International Labour Organisation, Bureau of Statistics (1996), Geneva.

23 UNICEF (1998), State of the World’s Children. New York: UNICEF.

Gender inequality results in widespread educational disadvantage

2.13 In most societies, men and women differ in the activities they undertake, their access to, and control of, resources, and in participation in decision-making24. The position of women is often characterised by unequal power relations, limited mobility, restricted access to political power, confinement to domestic and subsistence spheres and inequality before the law.

24 DAC (1998), DAC Guidelines for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Development Co-operation. Paris. OECD

2.14 Girls contend with a complex mix of barriers to their right to education. Patriarchal systems of social organisation, a high value on women’s reproductive role linked to customary early marriage (and pregnancy), and relatively low regard for the value of female life in some societies, are all formidable obstacles. Poor parents may not be willing to incur the direct and opportunity costs of educating their children, particularly girls. Where decisions to send children to school are weighed against labour contributions, girls are often the last to be sent to school and the first to be withdrawn. Parents sometimes anticipate that their investment in a daughter’s education will be lost when she marries into another family. Girls who do go to school are more likely to be withdrawn for seasonal labour. Legal inequalities, the lack of female role models and limited job opportunities for women, allied to the lack of policies to eliminate gender discrimination within schools and more widely, compound the range of challenges confronting girls.

2.15 Of the 880 million illiterate adults, some 600 million are women. This is a direct consequence of their not having been able to benefit from a primary education. The prevalence of female illiteracy is a good guide to gender inequality at school level and the disadvantage of girls.

2.16 Thus, home background has a strong influence on opportunity at school. Illiterate parents are severely disadvantaged in assisting their children in developing literacy and numeracy skills. Those who have been excluded from educational opportunities themselves may have had less opportunity to assess its potential for their children. Research studies indicate that women participating in adult literacy programmes are more likely to send their children to school and keep them there, than illiterate mothers. They are also more likely to encourage their children to read and study at home25.

25 World Bank (1999), Education Sector Strategy. Washington: World Bank.

Social exclusion denies the possibility of UPE

Minorities and socially excluded groups

2.17 Exclusion from education takes many forms. Children may be disadvantaged due to their class or caste, or because they belong to an ethnic, linguistic, cultural or religious minority. Migrant families and nomadic communities face specific difficulties. In multi-language societies, the choice of language for initial instruction may privilege majority groups, either more numerous or more powerful, and disempower minorities.

Children with disabilities

2.18 Children with disabilities have the same right to education as other children, and these are enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. While education data on children with physical or learning disabilities are poor, it is clear that very few, perhaps less than 2% globally, are in school. Boys with disabilities are more likely to attend school than girls. Literacy rates for people with disabilities, particularly women, are very low.

HIV/AIDS is a serious threat to sustainable progress in education

2.19 HIV/AIDS is having a devastating impact on poor people. In sub-Saharan Africa, the UN has declared that it “is a problem that dwarfs all other problems in the region”26. The prolonged sickness, and death, of those infected, in addition to the human tragedy, exacerbates and deepens existing poverty, through the direct costs of illness and the loss of labour. The effect on young adults of child-bearing age has increased the dependency ratios in poor communities and left many children orphaned. At least 95% of AIDS orphans (children who have lost at least one parent) live in Africa. In Zambia, for example, 30% ofchildren are likely to lose at least one parent by 2010. In many countries infection rates continue to increase, and even where these are beginning to be checked (e. g. Uganda) the impact will continue to be severe.

26 Gachuhi, D. (1999), The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Education Systems in the Eastern and Southern Africa Region and the Response of Education Systems to HIV/AIDS. New York: UNICEF.

2.20 HIV/AIDS is a very significant challenge to achieving UPE, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Where traditional community safety nets are disrupted, children may become heads of household, be cared for by relatives or neighbours or be kept at home to care for sick family members. Increasing numbers of children are taking to the streets. Where attendance at school is possible, it is likely to be disrupted, and there is clear evidence of declining attendance rates of girls in particular. These direct impacts, the more pervasive deepening of poverty and the increased sense of irrelevance of much traditional formal schooling in the context of HIV/AIDS, combine to work against progress in education. The impact of HIV/AIDS on performance of education systems is dramatic. High sickness and attrition levels among the teaching force threaten to undermine efforts to improve the quality of schooling.

Conflict threatens educational development

2.21 Conflict has severely disrupted education, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Afghanistan, Colombia, the former Yugoslavia and parts of the former Soviet Union. Schools are often targeted and teachers put at risk in conflict situations. The supply of educational materials may be affected along with the disruption of education management, and the school environment may become unconducive to learning. Widespread and severe conflict may result in the collapse of formal education systems; where conflict is confined to a specific part of a country, it will likely result in increased inequity in national development.

2.22 Education may actually contribute to conflict through language policies which discriminate against minorities or through a curriculum which prejudices their standing in society. Unequal national development, including education provision, may also exacerbate conflict in less well served districts.

2.23 The effects of war on children, including massive violations of their rights, are well documented. Children are vulnerable to death, rape, mutilation, unlawful recruitment, displacement and separation from family, disabling injury and malnutrition. Adolescents are at extreme risk; girls are especially vulnerable, as are children with learning disabilities. They may be put at risk of HIV infection. The impacts of conflict can be long lasting and need to be addressed as part of any education programme with war-affected children.

2.24 Globally the number of children who are displaced is around 30 million. In Africa alone, there are over 23 million refugees, returnees and displaced persons. Effective responses which include education require accurate and timely information on war-affected children which is disaggregated by sex and age. There is a lack of a systemic approach to data collection which affects subsequent resource planning and mobilisation.

Addressing the challenge

2.25 The magnitude of the challenges set out here underlines the importance of learning from the experience of governments and funding agencies; both what has worked, and what has not. A number of broad lessons are discussed in the next chapter. Some of these may not, in themselves, appear dramatically new, but it is in their combination that they become important.