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16 Jan 2024
Antara Ganguli, Martha Muhwezi and Anna Murru

Transforming Education: Leaders Should Invest in Gender Equality, Not Just Parity

In this blogpost, Antara Ganguli, Martha Muhwezi and Anna Murru make the case for gender-transformative education as a catalyst for societal change.

In Zambia, Anna chose her school subjects based on what was considered acceptable for a girl, rather than following her passion, impacting the course of her future. “I wanted to be a builder or an architect, but my father told me I could not because I was a girl, so I gave up technical drawing and rejoined the home economics classes”.

Sadly, often learners like Anna are considered lucky just because they’re in school. Many girls and women are denied this opportunity. Significant disparities in access to education persist. Globally, less than half of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. At the upper secondary level, the gap widens to less than a quarter (24 per cent) having achieved gender parity. But gender parity — which measures the ratio of boys and girls in school, with the goal of having an equal balance — is only one part of the equality puzzle. Quality of education is another.

Education systems, intended as equalisers, often reinforce harmful gender norms by dictating acceptable behaviours and subjects for boys and girls. These biases often lead girls to drop out of school early, not acquiring the necessary skills to enter the job market and perpetuating cycles of poverty. Boys too face obstacles when their interests deviate from traditional notions of masculinity or when pressure mounts for them to financially provide for their families. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Education systems that are ‘gender-transformative’ hold huge potential to change the course of such inequity.

A gender-transformative approach, starting from early childhood, has the power to break harmful gender norms and promote fairness. According to UNICEF, including girls in quality education could boost developing countries by $112 billion yearly. Beyond economics, this shift could support social justice, reduce gender-based violence, and empower women in decision-making.

Gender-responsive and gender-transformative approaches in education call for a fundamental reset of education systems to truly uproot inequalities — going beyond simply improving access to education for girls and women and encouraging those involved at all levels of education such as teachers, principals, parents and wider community members, to reflect on gender roles, practices and power dynamics that prevail and limit learning.

Globally, biases against women persist, with staggering statistics revealing nine out of ten people of all genders hold biases against women. Nearly half of the world’s people think that men make better political leaders than women, and a quarter believe it is justified for men to beat their wives. These biases permeate classrooms too, where educators, often unknowingly, propagate gender stereotypes. From subtle guidance steering girls away from certain professions to simple requests for “strong boys” to carry heavy objects, these actions perpetuate societal limitations.

Early intervention is pivotal; The World Health Organization’s Global Early Adolescent Study finds that gender stereotypes largely become entrenched before the age of ten. While gender norms can affect all children, they disproportionately affect girls and LGBTIQ+ children. For girls, boys and gender non-conforming children, stereotypes can also increase the likelihood of experiencing violence. However, promising initiatives such as gender-responsive pedagogy interventions have shown encouraging results.

In South Africa, VVOB – education for development conducted a pre- and post-intervention study among 230 early childhood development practitioners, mapping the direct effects of a gender-responsive pedagogy intervention on teachers’ beliefs and practices as well as the indirect effects on young learners and the supportive school climate. The results show promising effects on early childhood development practitioners’ beliefs regarding gender stereotypes. For example, teachers’ beliefs on there being “some jobs that only men or women should do” or that “a boy should not behave like a girl” changed.

The study further indicates significant small to moderate effects on teachers’ gender-responsive classroom practices. Additionally, practitioners reported a significant increase in gender nonconformity among the children compared to the preintervention study. Significant small effects were also observed on institutional practices of school leaders to promote gender-responsive pedagogy in the classroom.

In a powerful learning brief released this year by UNGEI, research from 11 countries also shows that programmes which tackle harmful gender stereotypes can have significant impact. In India, global rights organisation Breakthrough’s programme Taaron Ki Toli addressed gender norms and stereotypes through interactive sessions which had a profound impact on increasing girls’ access to health services, dialogue between adolescent girls and their families and the age at which girls marry. The Gender-Transformative Programme of UNGEI/UNICEF India demonstrates that including such approaches in the curricula leads to changes in knowledge and attitude of primary grade children in a very short period of time.

Gender-transformative education is also crucial in challenging traditional norms and stereotypes that contribute to the discrimination of pregnant and parenting adolescents who face additional barriers in accessing education. Preliminary findings from a study conducted by the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) across eight African countries revealed that, despite different countries having policies that provide for the re-entry of parenting girls to school, implementation remains a challenge.

Awareness of the policy provisions by the implementors, parents, and child parents is varied, and there is limited or no financial and childcare support to enable parenting girls to return to school. Furthermore, stigmatisation of parenting girls by their peers, as well as teachers, also hampers their return to school. Training of teachers and education providers on gender-responsive pedagogy remains crucial in promoting safe and supportive learning environments.

FAWE, in partnership with the UNESCO IICBA and UNICEF, recently launched a digitalised gender-responsive pedagogy training to equip teachers with the requisite skills to understand and address the specific learning needs of both girls and boys in the classroom. While much more scaling of, and research in, gender-transformative education is needed, the existing evidence cannot be overlooked. There is a need to bring work on gender to the forefront of the early stages of child development when children develop gender norms and identities that will have an impact on their future lives as well as continue it right through to the completion of the school system.

Gender-transformative education isn’t just about enhancing access; it’s a catalyst for societal change, empowering individuals to confront and reshape ingrained gender biases. Leaders must recognise the urgency of investing in gender-transformative education. It’s not merely an option; it’s critical to building a more equitable and progressive world for all learners.


About the Authors:

Antara Ganguli has been the Director of the UNGEI Secretariat since 2021. Prior to this role, Antara led the gender portfolio for UNICEF India, UNICEF’s largest non-humanitarian office where she led programmes on addressing harmful gender norms in education and health systems.

Martha Muhwezi is the head of the FAWE Regional Secretariat, overseeing the organisation’s day-to-day management. With over 20 years in the civil society sector, Martha is a seasoned development specialist. and is currently pursuing a PhD in Gender Studies at the University of Nairobi.

Anna Murru, as a Global Strategic Advisor Partnerships at VVOB – education for development, supports VVOB countries in Africa on strategic partnerships. She has been involved in teacher education and school leadership in early education programmes as well as in the development of a gender transformative toolkit for early education with FAWE and UNESCO IICBA.

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