We must target the root causes of gender bias in the classroom

“Despite girls’ education having been advertised as a priority for decades, top aid agency education investments have rarely targeted the underlying barriers girls face”

Recently, the UK launched their new International Development strategy. Almost at the very top of their priorities is girls’ education—“every girl receiving 12 years of quality education”—and women’s economic equality–“improve economic security for girls and women.”

The strategy talks about the specific barriers that girls face: violence in school, early marriage, unintended pregnancies, as well as issues that are likely to disproportionately impact girls, like poverty and disability. Tackling these issues is a crucial step in the right direction, and is something which has been overlooked in the past.

More than a quarter of girls aged between 15 and 19 years old in Africa’s biggest countries report having experienced physical or sexual violence, with figures as high as 46% in places like Uganda. In Niger, nearly 30% of girls are married by the age of 15 and more than 75% are married by the age of 18. In countless countries, girls experience more subtle forms of gender bias in their classrooms from peers and teachers, through curricula and textbooks, and as they transition from school to work.

Despite girls’ education having been advertised as a priority for decades, top aid agency education investments have rarely targeted the underlying barriers girls face in going to school. If girls’ education – and women’s equality – is to be a serious priority for aid donors like the UK, this has to change.

For a new study on girls’ education and women’s equality, I worked with others to analyse more than 900 project documents from FCDO and the World Bank over the last two decades to see whether and how these two prominent education donors have actually supported girls’ education. While most of these documents note girls’ education as a priority, this has translated into concrete interventions targeting girls (e.g., empowerment interventions, girls’ clubs, preventing gender-based violence) less than half the time.

Just 5% focused on reducing gender bias in classrooms, and less than 20% focused on girls’ empowerment, access, health and safety, or advocacy.  In one extreme example, a World Bank project document in Nigeria mentioned girls’ education and gender more than 30 times without a single intervention or indicator reflecting efforts to actually target girls’ education or the underlying challenges girls face in going to school. Moreover, projects targeting girls’ education are not always located in the places where things are worst for girls.

There have been improvements over time – the World Bank efforts to provide gender disaggregated data, for instance – but there is still much to be done to ensure that aid truly supports girls’ and strengthens the link between girls’ education and women’s equality.

Of course, girls often benefit from interventions that aren’t explicitly targeted to them, and, we know boys need support too. But without addressing the gender-specific barriers that keep many girls from achieving 12 years of quality education: gender bias in the classroom, gender-based violence in and around schools, pregnancy and child marriage. There will always be girls who are left behind.

It’s great to see an increased focus on violence, early marriage, and pregnancy in the UK’s new strategy, what we need next is finance for these priorities, as the strategy makes no mention of replacing previously cut resources supporting gender equality. Estimates suggest that FCDO cuts resulted in a 1.9 billion reduction in resources for programs supporting girls and women, the same programs they identify as a priority today.

If rich countries are going to make girls’ education an aid priority, in hopes it translates to gender equality later in life – they need to do things differently.  We need to see explicit efforts to identify and target the root causes of systemic gender inequities. We need to see project plans, financing, and outcomes that are disaggregated by gender, reflecting additional categories (like disability or ethnicity) where appropriate.

We also need to see other donors follow the example of FCDO and the World Bank in transparency around this work so the world can see how they’re doing in fulfilling the promise of quality education for every girl and economic opportunity for every woman.

The UK’s strategy for international development has many of the right words: highlighting both girls’ education and women’s equality, as well as many of the underlying barriers. Let’s hope these make it into the actual projects for the UK and other donors.

 About the author: Shelby Carvalho is a senior policy analyst with the education team at the Center for Global Development, an advanced doctoral candidate, Presidential Merit Fellow, and Fulbright recipient at Harvard University. She is a lead author of a new report analysing recent aid to girls education, and whether this is translating to broader equality.