On the Issue of Gender Equality in Schools Around the World
On the Issue of Gender Equality in Schools Around the World

On the Issue of Gender Equality in Schools Around the World

Men and women have come a long way in achieving equal access to education. Young women achieve more years of education than young men in most countries today.

Worldwide, men and women have come a long way in achieving equal access to education. Young women now achieve more years of education than young men in most countries today. This is in stark contrast to just a few decades ago. But COVID-19 threatens to unravel much of this progress.

In the year of the epidemic, the effects on schooling have been enormous. Two billion people worldwide were enrolled in formal education, but at the peak of the lockdown in April 2020, more than 80 percent of these students were out of school. Hundreds of millions of children do not attend face-to-face education even today. Moreover, most of them are not getting any instructions or trying to learn remotely without adequate resources. These disruptions have already caused a significant learning loss in areas such as reading and mathematics during the pandemic, and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimated that up to 100 million children are expected to fall short of minimum standards in these basic skills.

Continuing the way back to school can be particularly difficult for girls. Researchers estimate that up to 20 million girls will not be able to go back to school due to increased social and economic stress factors and other challenges from the pandemic. Increased exposure to gender-based violence at home, malfunctions in birth control and reproductive health services, and increases in child marriage are disturbing consequences of the pandemic that may affect schooling, especially for girls.

As many as 100 million children are expected to fall behind minimum standards in fundamental skills

COVID-19 is not the first public health crisis to affect women’s education. During the Ebola outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer girls returned to school than boys, and many experts are concerned that the COVID-19 outbreak will occur similarly.

However, it will be difficult to fully understand the impact of the pandemic on schooling. There is frustratingly little good data on children’s return to school during COVID-19. Household surveys and censuses typically used to track educational attainment take years to compile, delay too much to quickly show sudden changes, and the pandemic interrupted many of these data collection efforts, delaying them further. Rapidly generated reports from government agencies or NGOs often do not provide information categorized by gender.

A girl, who missed her online classes due to a lack of internet facilities, listens to pre-recorded lessons over loudspeakers in Maharashtra, India on July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Prashant Waydande
A girl, who missed her online classes due to a lack of internet facilities, listens to pre-recorded lessons over loudspeakers in Maharashtra, India on July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Prashant Waydande

Researchers are developing new and promising ways of collecting data, including surveys conducted through smartphone apps and other non-traditional platforms. These provide some early indicators of how the epidemic is developing in a gender-based manner.

For example, among the millions of US adult Facebook users surveyed in February through the US COVID-19 Symptom Survey conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi Research Group, men and women were equally likely to report their children returning to school. This was also true when children attended school face-to-face full-time or part-time. However, significant gender differences emerge between families participating in distance education. 11 percent of women reported their children not being able to reliably access computers and the internet, compared to 7 percent of men. The contrast was more pronounced in single-adult households; 16 percent of women who are single adults in their household reported that their children do not have good access.

In-School and Distance Learning Among School Children in the USA

More women than men reported their children not being able to reliably access a computer and the Internet.

Note: Data on children returning to school come from survey data collected from users of Facebook in the month prior to February 21, 2021. Data on students who are distance learning come from the U.S. Census Bureau Pulse surveys collected during the 2020-2021 school year.
Chart: CFR Source: IHME / Thinkglobalhealth

In the United States, it is too early to say with certainty whether the differences between boys and girls at school will be similar to those seen between male and female parents. But these early data tell us that even in a high-income country where women largely outperform men at school, we need to pay attention to gender to understand the impact of the pandemic on education.

Differences Between Years of Education Between Men and Women

Estimated difference in access to education between men and women aged 25-29.

Note: Estimated difference in educational attainment between women and men age 25-29. Estimates are modeled from thousands of survey and census datasets.
Chart: CFR Source: IHME / Thinkglobalhealth

In the same vein, a recent study in India found that men own 71 percent of cell phones in homes and are much more likely to share with boys than girls. Boys were about 50 percent more likely to report access to mobile phones than girls in the same household. These studies remind us that the empowerment of girls through education continues to be closely linked to the wider gender attitudes of their parents.

Investments in interventions compiled by gender can help ensure that girls continue to learn remotely and re-enroll in schools when they reopen. These include policies such as ensuring that schools have separate and adequate bathrooms, comprehensive sex education and free birth control, prohibiting child marriage, and encouraging and subsidizing girls’ access to mobile phones and learning materials at home. Other tactics such as the abolition of tuition fees, the extension of compulsory school years, and the provision of wages and meals at school have been shown to be particularly important for girls in low-income families.

A girl attends class in Dakahlia province, Egypt on February 7, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A girl attends class in Dakahlia province, Egypt on February 7, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Of course, these policies must be combined with effective monitoring to monitor and address gender inequalities in schooling as they emerge. This monitoring will require investment in rapid data collection and analysis. During the pandemic, new forms of rapid and even daily data reporting were pioneered to track COVID-19 cases and deaths; Similarly, rapid data on education should be prioritized, including information categorized by gender, race / ethnicity, income level and immigration status, if possible.

Growing inequalities in education for girls and women can ripple into other aspects of well-being. We know that a person’s education is one of the most important factors affecting his income and social mobility later in his life. Therefore, investments made to help girls return to school will have tremendous benefits over the next decades.

“Investments made to help girls return to school will have huge benefits for decades to come.”

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are reasons for optimism. As recently as 1980, boys in every major region of the world received more education than girls, but the last few decades have seen this trend reversed dramatically. Yet in some countries – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa and the Middle East – women’s education has lagged significantly even before the pandemic. In these places, proactive monitoring and interventions will be even more important to encourage and facilitate girls’ return to school.

Still, most girls surveyed in these countries are as likely as boys to report planning to return to school. The global health community must do everything in its power to equip them with the resources they need to learn and continue to thrive now and in the post-pandemic recovery.