As the lack of access to education is a symptom of wider gender and power relations, it is unlikely to be overcome if tackled in isolation. A first step will be to look at how girls are considered in society, and why girls are not in school. This will involve working with a wide range of different groups (girls, women, boys and men); to enable them to reflect on their prejudice and the influence they each yield on girls’ education. This will include work in and outside the school system. It involves creating a safe and supportive space for girls to meet, to share their experiences, and to discuss and critically analyse their situation.
A female teacher or female community leader who has received specific training (on rights, budget, training, education planning, HIV/AIDS and formal health issues, facilitation skills, confidence building techniques, etc.) could lead the group. They (the group leader and girls) should have access to a wide range of information and materials concerning their rights. For example, one should look at how the rights of women and girls are protected in the national constitution, and repackage and share relevant pieces of information as a way of initiating discussion. If there is no national constitution, or if women’s rights are not specially mentioned in general or in relation to education, one might want to share information about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Violence against Women.
There are various discriminatory practices which occur within the school which prevent girls from accessing education. These might include the attitudes and behaviour of others in the school, the school’s physical environment (such as whether sanitation facilities exist), or the content of learning materials. Issues such as school location and timetabling may also impact on girls’ ability to secure their right to education. Different responses are needed to address different issues, though each should be the result of a participatory and inclusive process, with the central group – the girls – playing an active role. Often discrimination against girls is so pervasive that those involved in perpetuating the discrimination are not even aware that this problem exists. This means that a first stage of the process is to get those involved to reflect on the stereotypes they hold about girls in general, and girls’ education in particular.
Monitoring girls’ enrolment, retention and completion rates
In many countries the ratio of boys to girls is similar in the early school grades but reduces as you move up the school. By monitoring this one can look at when girls drop out of school, and follow up to look at why this might be and what strategies could be put into place to encourage girls to stay in school
Capacity building and awareness-raising
Capacity building for teachers and pupils on gender relations and gender sensitivity should be participatory and empowering, enabling children and teachers to reflect on their experiences with regard to gender – in the home, with their peers, and in the school itself. Through linking discussions to personal reflection, people are more likely to see the connections and start a process of behaviour change. This should be accompanied with textbooks and pedagogical tools to support teachers to implement what they have learnt.
Schools should introduce special measures to encourage girls into school – this could include reviewing the school environment (infrastructure, textbooks, teaching staff) as well as setting up counselling and support services for girls, or creating spaces for girls to meet and discuss. It could also include an outreach programme, to encourage out-of-school girls into school.
Campaigning and advocacy work
Schools are also in a good position from which to reach out and influence other actors to consider girls’ education. This could be through their relationship with the district education office, or through linking with other schools in the area – sharing innovations and strategies to enhance girls’ education.
Textbooks often describe ‘real life’ situations as a way of posing problems, encouraging reading, discussion and analysis. Unfortunately these ‘real life’ situations are often highly stereotyped and may reinforce existing gender and power relations. An interesting exercise could be to look through text books used in schools across a variety of subjects. Questions to ask include:
Is gender-specific language used? What is the impact of this language?
How are boys and girls portrayed in the book? What are they doing? What about women and men? What roles do they play?
How might these pictures influence the children using the books?
What are the books saying about acceptable behaviour, roles and attitudes for girls/women and boys/men?
At first it can be quite hard to see gender discrimination in textbooks, as stereotyping may be so pervasive in society that textbooks are not seen as portraying anything abnormal. This may be overcome by a wider discussion about gender roles in society, perhaps brainstorming the types of work men and women do, or using a daily routine chart to look at the workloads of women and men in the local community. Exploring the impact of these different roles should include an analysis of power relations and rights, looking at how specific daily routines affect peoples’ ability to enjoy their rights.
The wider community clearly has a role to play in supporting girls’ education, and education can often be used as an entry point to discuss other social and cultural issues which define gender relations and expectations of girls. Gender relations cannot be changed overnight but through strategic engagement with the wider community, and through strengthening girls’ education, it is hoped that they will change gradually. The aim of work at the local community level is to gain support for girls’ education, and from this basis encourage the local community to design strategies and actions to make girls’ education a reality. The community can also play a role in engaging with the school to ensure that it is respecting girl’s rights, and that teachers are acting responsibly and accountably.