“The Economist” Discovers Gender Inequality in Education

Please excuse the cheeky title. While it does represent my first reaction to these two articles from The Economist this week, it’s an unfair representation. Being somewhat more level-headed about it, I can view both articles as sort of primers for gender inequality in education. They’re targeting people who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs; they’re very “share-able” on Facebook and Twitter; and they’re great for increasing public awareness.

But let’s go over them a little more critically anyway.

In the first, “Making room for girls,” the author discusses in broad strokes the push toward universal enrollment in primary education and closing the gender gap, driven by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. They cite the reasoning behind this push as driven by a waste of human capital: failing to educate girls limits economic growth. Definitely true, but not nearly the only reason the global community is working to get every girl and boy in primary school. Don’t forget about the agreed basic human right to education, among many other reasons.

The article makes a great point that while the primary enrollment rate in Sub-Saharan Africa has gone up significantly (though not enough to meet the relevant MDG), enrollment in secondary and tertiary education has actually fallen. Some country-specific data are also highlighted, making the point that averages hide some pretty significant differences. I’ve embedded their graph on progress toward universal education here:

The issue that the article completely skips is the issue of quality. Even if every single primary school-age child is enrolled, what does that say about the quality of the education they’re receiving? If there are 100 children in a classroom with a single teacher, or that teacher changes every other year because the pay is so low, or the curriculum they’re using is out of date, or there are inadequate study materials, how much does universal enrollment really matter?

And what does universal enrollment say about the gender equality in the classroom? Do the girls have positive role models, examples of women doctors, politicians, and businesses owners to spark their imaginations? Do they have female teachers? Do their teachers, administrators, and fellow classmates treat the girls the same as the boys? There are 1000 questions to ask about gender equality in the classroom that go beyond how many students of each gender are there.

I understand the argument that quality might come at a second stage, that once we get everyone in the classroom, we can focus on how well they’re being educated. But that is unfair to the millions of children being poorly educated right now. They might be happy that their younger siblings or even their children will be better educated. But I bet they’d also feel cheated out of a quality education because their school, community, country, and the rest of the world came together and decided that it mattered more that they were sitting at the desk than what happened on the blackboard.

Maybe I’m hard on The Economist because I think of them as above the rest – somehow superior to the usual rabble on the internet and other media. I want them to be complex, to show at least glimpses into the many sides of the story. While the first article doesn’t live up to my expectations, the second one is an improvement. It doesn’t go in too deep, but provides a look into a key difference between girls’ and boys’ education. (It might be worth noting that the first is available only on the internet, while the second was written for the print edition.)

When education dries up” redeems The Economist for me (and I know their editors are breathing easy now that they’ve regained my approval). It focuses on a lot of the same issues as the first, but raises an important note: poverty impacts girls’ and boys’ education differently. In droughts in Uganda, the article notes, girls were pulled out of school at a higher rate than boys to support the family income. The boys were kept in school because their long-term job prospects were better, and that means higher income in the future.

This ties girls’ education to not only issues of poverty, but the job market, food security, and host of others. So the second article takes a deeper look, makes the reader think, and hopefully (from my perspective) inspires a few readers to go deeper into some of the challenges facing girls’ education, all without being too technical, too boring, or too long. I guess The Economist knows what it’s doing after all.


R., C. (2013, November 5). Gender inequality: Making room for girls. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2013/11/gender-inequality

The economics of sexual inequality: When education dries up. (2013, November 2). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21588927-new-research-hints-better-method-ensure-girls-africa-stay-school-when

Tanzania and Uganda Deal with Pregnancy in Very Different Ways

Sometimes, girls become pregnant. This probably isn’t a revelation.

I want to talk about two school systems in Sub-Saharan Africa that are dealing with the issue of school-age pregnancy in very different ways.

As reported by Tanzania’s Daily News16,999 girls there dropped out of primary and secondary schools between 2006 and 2009 due to pregnancy. Additionally, 30% of Tanzanian girls experience sexual violence before the age of 18 (of course not all pregnancies result from sexual violence, but the figures are obviously partly related). But how does the government respond to this problem? Did they increase sex education classes, provide counseling services, or even instruct teachers to work with the students while they were out of school giving birth?

Well, no. According to a report published by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Tanzanian officials responded to this issue by instituting mandatory pregnancy testing followed by expulsion for positive results. It is important to point out that this expulsion is not legally required, but an apparent reaction by the schools. Even after expulsion, there is a stigma attached to teenage birth, although I am not sure why, given that the report shows that 44% of adolescent girls in Tanzania have either given birth or are pregnant by the age of 19. One young woman, Tatu, has been out of school since 2010, because the school that expelled her refused to supply a transfer letter to her new school. On a positive note, the CRC published the report in order to influence leaders who are currently reviewing the national constitution. They are working to get their findings considered and this practice stopped, among other things. But as Evelyn Opondo, the CRC’s Regional Director for Africa, says, this “is a practice quite prevalent throughout Africa.”

In Uganda, there has been a very different response. New Vision, a Ugandan newspaper, reports that the government plans to give every woman of reproductive age condoms and birth control pills. This obviously includes girls in school, specifically aged 14 to 18. While this doesn’t respond to issues of girls having sex younger than 14, it is a major step to even discuss the point. Whether this actually happens remains to be seen (it would be a political battle in any country, and not inexpensive) is less relevant to my point. Uganda’s problems in this area are not inconsequential, though they are of a smaller scale than in Tanzania. Uganda isn’t tackling this problem from the perspective that pregnant girls get pulled from school and likely do not finish their secondary education, but to tackle the problem that 16 women die of pregnancy-related complications every day in Uganda, and 15 times that number develop complications. The article notes that this puts them significantly behind on the 5th Millennium Development Goal.

But whatever their reasons, Uganda is taking a radical step forward, while the Tanzanian system (however unofficially) is taking a significant step backward. Contraception supply and education, sexual education, and pre- and post-natal support are essential to not only reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, but to care for the girls and their children when they do happen. Try as anyone might, sometimes, girls become pregnant.