Basic education and gender equality

Equitable access

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2122/Tom Pietrasik
Students clap during a class activity in Namahal Vidyalaya Government Tamil Mixed School in Navalady Tsunami Resettlement Village, Batticaloa District, Sri Lanka.

There are currently an estimated 57 million primary school-age children who are not in school. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than one-half of all out-of-school children worldwide, with one in five primary school-age children never attending school or dropping out. Moreover, there has been little progress in keeping children in school. About 137 million children began primary school in 2011 but at least 34 million are likely to drop out before reaching the last grade. This translates into an early school leaving rate of 25 per cent – the same level as in 2000.

With progress towards universal enrolment slowing, even more children could be out of school in 2015. The current financial crisis has put extra pressure on stretched public funding. The aid to basic education has dropped by 6 per cent between 2010 and 2011 and six of the top ten donors to education reduced their spending over the course of the year. These out-of-school boys and girls are being denied their basic human right to quality education: without it, their future opportunities are dramatically limited.

Deeply entrenched structural inequalities and disparities are part of what keeps children out of school. These challenges are linked to many factors, including income poverty, exposure to child labour, conflict and natural disasters, location, migration and displacement, HIV/AIDS, disability, gender, ethnicity, language of instruction, religion and caste. In Nigeria, for instance, poor women from rural areas average 2.6 years of education while wealthy urban women receive on average nine years of education. In stark contrast a poor rural Hausa girl barely manages 0.3 year of education.  

Those affected by inequality, especially girls and children living in extreme poverty and isolated areas and belonging to socially disadvantaged groups, have less access to education because they live in areas where there are no schools, and if they exist they cannot cover the costs, or children do not relate to the content being taught, or simply are discriminated against.

UNICEF is deeply committed to creating a world in which all children, regardless of their gender, socio-economic background or circumstances, have access to free, compulsory and quality education. In education, UNICEF supports the Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals 2 and 3 to ensure that all children have access to and complete a full course of primary schooling, and to eliminate gender disparity in education by 2015. Other global goals echoing these commitments include the World Education Forum’s Dakar Framework for Action, which stresses the rights of girls, ethnic minorities and children in difficult circumstances; and the emphasis in A World Fit for Children on ensuring equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality.

UNICEF’s mandate to serve the most marginalized populations also focuses special attention on girls, who are the largest group excluded from education. UNICEF works to mobilize and provide resources to communities in need. In countries with low net enrolment rates for girls, programmes are implemented to help governments formulate policies, procedures and practices that will significantly reduce the number of girls who are not in school. UNICEF also leads on the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), which is the Education for All flagship for girls’ education: a partnership of organizations committed to narrowing the gender gap in primary and secondary education.

While UNICEF adapts its strategies to fit each situation, its interventions typically include outreach to identify excluded and at-risk girls and get them into school, policy support and technical assistance for governments and communities to improve access for those children who are hardest to reach or suffer most from discrimination, and programmes to eliminate cultural, social and economic barriers to girls’ education. As part of its equity strategy, UNICEF is working on identifying the bottlenecks that inhibit school participation and to understand the complex profiles of out-of-school children that reflect the multiple deprivations and disparities they face in relation to education. The School Fee Abolition Initiative enables countries to take pioneering steps to eliminate fees and other costs to address economic barriers preventing children from accessing basic education. UNICEF also provides development and implementation support, promotes educational quality and helps countries prepare for and respond to crises, in order to ensure that affected children learn in safe, stable and gender-sensitive environments.

Across the globe, UNICEF is committed to nothing less than full and complete access to free, quality education for every girl and boy. Universal access to quality education is not a privilege – it is a basic human right.



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