The virtues of education are uncontested. It is a multiplier right, it creates an empowered workforce and citizens, and perhaps most important, it leads to personal development and fulfilment. The Millennium Development Goals proudly proclaim that the world has achieved parity between boys and girls in primary education. This statement hides a multitude of problems for women and girls in achieving a high-quality education. A disproportionate number of girls remain out of school and illiterate. Even when women and girls receive an education, they still struggle to translate their learning into decent employment. It is imperative that efforts to achieve education for all learners do so with the particular challenges faced by women and girls in mind. The Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women’s General Recommendation No. 36 on the right to education for women and girls is a welcomed and much needed in-depth assessment of the intersection between gender and education.
General Recommendation No. 36 stresses that Article 10 of CEDAW (equal education) means girls need to have equal access to school; that teaching and learning need to promote gender equality and that education should positively shape women’s rights outside of the classroom. The CEDAW Committee stresses that the factors that prevent girls from achieving and enjoying these aims are inherently intertwined with gender norms.
First, poverty is a significant obstacle to realising girls’ right to education. Schools impose direct or hidden fees which ‘forces poor parents to choose which of their children to send to school.’ Families often choose boys. Due to structural discrimination in the labour force, educating a boy will likely have the maximum economic benefit to the family. Economic crises and austerity ideologies have resulted in a trend to privatize education. This also negatively impacts girls from poor families. Household poverty forces young girls into unpaid or poorly paid labour leaving little time or energy for studies. Poverty is not gender neutral and the CEDAW Committee draws attention to its gender dimensions.
Second, any measures to ensure equal education for girls must address gender-based violence. Girls are harassed on the way to school and, even more shockingly, at school. Heartbreakingly, the classroom is not necessarily safe for girls. Male students and teachers sexually harass and assault girls at school with impunity. During times of conflict, schools are often (unlawfully) targeted, increasing the risk of death and injury for all learners. There is an increased risk for girls of physical and sexual violence by armed forces. Out of fear for their safety, families will keep girls at home.
Third, gender norms in the classroom and community undermine the transformative potential of education. Women are excluded from management positions within education. Regardless of socio-economic status, girls and women continue to be ‘propelled into what is socially regarded as low-status occupations.’ Girls cluster in humanities, food and nutrition, cosmetology and clerical studies. Discriminatory gender norms also play out in classroom dynamics. Girls have unequal access to non-material status in teacher-student interactions: attention, grades, praise and classroom participation. Due to social stigmas surrounding sex, there is a devastating lack of sexual and health relationship education in the classroom. Girls are not given the tools to prevent early pregnancy, to identify gender-based violence, to shift norms on female genital mutilation and to stay safe from cyber-bullying and exploitation. Girls and women from minority backgrounds face even greater obstacles through intersectional discrimination.
The CEDAW Committee proposes innovative recommendations to tackle these obstacles. It calls for gender equality education throughout all levels of school; to re-evaluate expensive uniform and textbook policies; to teach sex education without stigma and shame on sexual relations; to increase the use of information communication technology to target rural girls and women; to penalize cyber-bulling; to use temporary special measures to ensure women are employed at all levels of education and to ensure that donor programmes uphold and further human rights commitments. In places the recommendations fall short, particularly around issues of structural transformation. Achieving education for all girls requires not just teaching families the value of girls’ education, but also addressing household poverty and ensuring decent work opportunities for girls upon graduation. Policies must be adjusted to include pregnant learners and learners with children, and new mothers must be supported throughout their learning with space and privacy for breast-feeding and affordable and accessible child care facilities.
General Recommendation No. 36 is an important stride forward in international human rights law. Education policies cannot be gender-blind, and must recognize the unique obstacles girls face. They must push beyond access to education and examine the larger context both inside and outside the classroom. The CEDAW Committee provides meaningful guidance to states, CSOs and policy-makers in operationalizing the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve education and gender equality.