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Gender Inequalities In Education Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2929 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Education has the unique ability to promote social change and personal wellbeing, whilst simultaneously "contribute to building a just and democratic society" (Aikman & Unterhalter, 2007). The Western world would consider education a fundamental human right to promote personal freedoms, and with it the power to choose one's own individual future, but also the future of the country within which they reside (the collective power). Weiner states that "education has long been one of the most decisive of our life's chances, the key to equal opportunity and the ladder to advancement, since men first learnt that literacy and communication in the hands of the few meant power, government and control of many" (Weiner, 1986). However, even as the above statement demonstrates (referring to 'men'), persistent and extensive gender inequalities, characteristic of economic (capitalist) development, work against education for girls. As such, women are suppressed in variety of ways, restricting the own potential and that of their nation. Research by the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative reported that two thirds of the world's population without access to schooling were women and girls, an estimated 142 million females worldwide (UNGEI, 2002). Initiatives to improve access for girls most commonly refer to 'gender parity' which focuses on equal enrolment ratios of boys to girls. Countries such as Bangladesh and Malawi are showing a move towards parity, whereas, in "Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Pakistan, Chad, Yemen and Ethiopia...the gender gap in favour of boys is wide" (Aikman & Unterhalter, 2007). However, while gender inequality has historically been regarded an issue of access, the importance of promoting equitable processes has been overlooked. In 2000, the United Nations Millennium Summit responded to the shortcomings of the access approach by setting two Millennium Goals addressing the lack of equality and empowerment in girls' education. Thus the following goals (table 1) have created a more holistic approach to education in an attempt to transform policy and practice.

Table 1. Source: UN, 2000

Although equitable access is a key component of girls education, the fact that gender parity in primary and secondary education has not been met by 2005 (MDG 3) demonstrates the importance of content and quality of education. What critics of the access approach call the 'failure to look beyond the school gate', and therefore related to the framework proposed by Women in Development (WID).

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Before we digress into the shortcomings of access, we must acknowledge the various feminist perspectives and conceptual frameworks which shape the principles behind educational initiatives, past and present across various political, economic and social conditions. Liberal feminist strategies involve "concepts of equal opportunities, altering socialization practices, changing attitudes towards women's roles and discrimination" (Acker, 2004). Reluctance to challenge the patriarchy power structures of society, liberal's believe women and girls have the ability to attain equality through political and legal reform. On the other hand, socialists argue that liberation will only come when we challenge the source of women's oppression under capitalism. Radical feminism goes a step beyond the socialist perspective by attempting to overthrow the domination of men. Acker (2004) states that "two major concerns characterize this body of literature: the male monopolization of culture and knowledge, and the sexual politics of everyday life in schools. Although their differences are significant, all three perspectives question women's subordination in education.

Acker (2002) summarises these perspectives:

From here, we can make connections between each of these perspectives and wider frameworks of feminism which have been concerned with gender, education and equality since the 1970's. The two main feminist frameworks up for discussion and analysis are Women in Development (WID) and Gender and Development (GAD). The WID framework has the "longest history [established prior to the 1980's] and the most powerful advocates in governments, inter-government organisations and NGOs" (Aikman & Unterhalter, 2007). This approach to gender equality stresses the importance of women's access to education as a driving force towards the economic growth and development of their country, not for themselves. In essence, education is for the 'greater good' of the nation, rather than empowering women (which is closely related to the GAD framework). As Weiner (1986) states, "[WID] is defined in terms of equalising current school resources and educational benefits rather than in any deliberate attempt at positive discrimination in favour of girls". Prior to the established of the MDGs (in Table 1), the aim was for public policy to 'get more girls into school'; increasing enrolment statistics and making it seem (albeit empirically) as if changes were taking place.

With strong links to Liberal feminism, the WID access model is subject to the same criticism. Firstly, improving the provision makes no substantial changes to the system of suppression and therefore only creates short term solutions to the problem. For instance, research undertaken in 1994, from the rural village of Maharashtra in India, demonstrates how even though increases in education (and economic development) were evident throughout the community and "especially among young girls, [this] did not seem to be related to improved quality of education" (Vlassoff, 1994). Using the WID framework, one would assume that increased participation in primary education leads to changes in the attitudes of unmarried India girls. However, research showed that although India girls in Maharashtra were considered more knowledgeable, they still remained inferior to boys. Their societal culture is such that women's "rewards from education were considerably fewer, their motivation related to marriage prospects than broader societal goals" (Vlassoff, 1994).

A second shortcoming of this approach is that equal treatment between boys and girls in the form of access to resources does not necessarily mean equal outcomes. For instance, Herz (1999) explains the importance of socialization for girls studying science in Kenya. These girls are encouraged by their parents to study science; however their interests lie with domestic housework. Whereas, boys interests in studying are maintained by the opportunities of future employment.

"Access is not much concerned with the content of what girls learn, how they learn, or whether gender inequalities face them after their years in school are over" (Aikman & Unterhalter, 2007)

This socialization and subordination may significantly restrict girls in terms of courses they would be able to enrol. In the pastoralist schools of Mali, for instance, girls are more likely to follow practical modules (whether by choice or lack of alternatives) such as 'familial economy' (Sanou & Aikman 2007). As Stromquist explains that the concentration of women in 'traditionally female' fields can be explained in terms of "the influence of the patriarchal system that inculcates upon women the value of domestic responsibilities, with the consequence that they choose careers that tend to be extensions of domestic roles or those that will not conflict with them" (Stromquist, 1990). Therefore, in simply focusing on access, such revelations of reality would remain unapparent to the equality debate. Yet, although the WID approach tends to rely heavily on quantitative improvements (particularly gender parity), it has attracted huge recognition and funding from governments and inter-governmental organisations (mainly because it is easily quantifiable) which have led to numerous policies being put into practice. But its strength is also its weakness, as quantitative approaches severely lack analytical complexity.

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Thus, although less recognised by government institutions, Gender and Development (GAD) provides a number of alternative approaches to women's and girls' education, emphasizing variations within schools with regard to quality and type of education. The Elimu Yetu Coalition (2003) indentifies a range of 'in-school factors' which fall under the umbrella of quality education, such as sexual harassment and girls being perceived weak or more vulnerable than boys; lack of women teachers and suitable role models for girls; gender-stereotyped curriculum and learning materials; and inadequate sanitary facilities resulting in stigma being attached to girls. Even for those who overcome obstacles of attendance, these factors have a serious impact on girls' literacy rates, severely damaging social recognition for employment opportunities which may follow after schooling. The overwhelming focus on access neglects basic literacy resulting in more than 800 million illiterate adults in 2002, of which 63% were women (Aikman & Unterhalter, 2007; UNESCO, 2003). "This pattern is amplified when the differences between urban and rural areas are considered" (Ames, 2007). Yet, even literacy rates alone are poor indicates of women's emancipation, as even where literacy has improved, the challenge of overcoming women's subordination still remains. It is common in rural Kenya that women are "able to sign on the dotted line of labour contracts but not to challenge and question the terms of the contract itself" (Patkar, 1995).

The obstacles which work against girls in school are a combination of gendered inequities; however, the rarity of female teachers has shown to be significant, particularly in the semi-arid districts of Tharaka, Kenya (EYC, 2003). Female teachers not only have the ability to educate children collectively (i.e. both boys and girls), but also in a gender-sensitive manor, specific to girls' individual needs. Firstly, the presence of female teachers boosts confidence in the system by acting as figures of security for parents, and role models for girls who may otherwise avoid male dominated and potentially violent environments. Women teachers have the knowledge and experience to help girls deal with the onset of puberty, preventing them from dropping out at the age when it is vital for them to stay in school. Teaching techniques have the ability to influence classroom conditions, for instance, attributing productive roles to both sexes, therefore challenging the domestic roles which would naturally be given to girls in the classroom. Teacher training can give women the ability to recognise their own detrimental gendered practices. However, teacher training and technical approaches cannot be considered a solution for gender disparities for what is a political problem. Thus, teaching techniques and behaviours must also be supplemented by the appropriate curriculum and teaching resources. In 2003 the UNESCO Education For all Report began to address the issue of gender disparities "through interventions in curriculum and pedagogy" (Unterhalther, 2005; UNESCO, 2003). In Mali, modules of home economics teach school children practical skills intended to be gender-sensitive, however the "FAWE insists that both the module and women in the textbooks 'fail to empower girls and will in the long run contribute to gender inequalities'" (Sanuo & Aikman, 2007). Within the access approach to girl's education, gender roles are recreated through the production of sexism and the subordination in textbooks and course materials. Thus a qualitative alternative approach requires using teaching aids which break traditional stereotypes of women working hard in the background whilst men occupy the foreground doing little or nothing. Although this reflects the reality for many women in the Third World, alternative approaches must challenge contemporary stereotypes through various forms of academic media. Bista (2004) recommends that the EFA address "the diversity of school curriculum, revise material to avoid gender bias, present male and female figures in a balanced manner and purposely show women in more positive and strategic roles in all learning materials".

Teaching techniques and course material aside, the school environment may also subject girls to certain treatments and experiences which create an uncommon to boys. Conditions for girls are significantly worse during the onset of puberty where toilet facilities in school severely lack basic hygiene impacting the amount and quality of education. In Nepal, inadequacies lie in the condition and location of girls' toilets which often face the front of schools, resulting in hardly any usage as girls' will generally stay at home to prevent any negative stigma during menstruation. All of this takes considerable time away from learning in the classroom. Girls may also be the subject of harassment from boys, albeit teasing at first, leads to more violent acts of sexual and physical assault. In the majority of Muslim cultures this is the result of perceived attitudes towards women as being weaker and more vulnerable than men. Yet, Ames (2007) suggests that the school environment is "not a wholly negative place for girls, who created their own strategies to minimise uncomfortable situations", such as sitting together at the front of the class and collectively defending against abuse from boys. The reality being that integration with similar sexes creates cohesion where technical solutions may fail. Nonetheless, girls are disproportionately the victims for sexual violence and harassment. The majority of the time sexual abuse being the sole reason why girls underachieve at school or drop-out altogether. In Kenya, and at the most extreme end of the gender-power dynamic, it is not uncommon for teachers to seek sexual favour from girls. With such alarming amounts of sexual abuse, offering HIV/AIDS as part of the curriculum will no doubt bring significant gains to gender equality. For many young men at school having several sexual partners is considered the norm. In addition, violence is regarded "as an appropriate 'punishment' for the 'bad behaviour' of their girlfriends, and this attitude has been internalised by many girls too" (Thorpe, 2007). One could argue that such gender inequalities in education are in fact driving the HIV/AIDS pandemic in much of the developing world.

With particular reference to HIV/AIDS, the importance of non-formal education should be acknowledged as a method to empower girls who would otherwise be suppressed in formal schooling. The idea of popular education from a grass-roots perspective, aims to empower marginalised women through the use of both, technical and political solutions. Hernandez et al. (1985) defines the rational of popular education as "a social behaviour which situates itself within a framework broader than that dealing exclusively with education and which aims at the popular sectors, so that persons in these sectors will become self-aware political subjects" (Hamilton, 1992). Such programmes aim to empower women by providing information relevant to the fulfilment of their daily needs. For instance, girls are provided with information regarding the consequences of unprotected sex. In Kenya, popular workshops for HIV/AIDS illustrate the importance of creating neutral spaces where girls can "explore, reflect, debate, and ask questions" without the presence and pressure of male influence (Aikman & Unterhalter, 2007).

It is evident that there are a number of multifaceted approaches towards women's education, the most implicit distinction being between access and content of education. However, as this paper demonstrates, those which aim to empower women are those which shall produce the most significant gains. As the report by the UNESCO righty states; "there is no tool for development more effective than the education for girls" (UNESCO, 2003). However, increasing the number of girls attending school is a narrow focus for education, unlikely to challenge gender stereotypes. It therefore requires alternative approaches 'look beyond the school gates', as there "are no quick fixes to the deep-rooted and often widely accepted forms of gender discrimination" (Aikman & Unterhalter, 2007). Yet the best and most efficient solution requires the participation of women in decision making, appropriately placed in senior position within schools. This will not come without its difficulties, as men will be unlikely to give up seated power so easily. It is hoped that through the holistic framework set by the United Nation Millennium Summit, gender equality shall began to make its mark on the Third World. There are a number of scenarios through which the MDGs can promote empowerment and gender equality. The first being what Aikman & Unterhalter (2007) call "business as usual", thus continuing with the WID historical approach to education and primarily focusing upon access. Although this approach has significant shortcomings regarding gender equality, it has received substantial recognition and funding from governments and inter-governmental organisations which cannot be over looked. The second scenario involves education for all, whilst also emphasizing the importance of gender equality within the formal education system. This is considered only half the process, a platform for wider societal change which can be considered the final and most empowering scenario for women in the Third World.


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