Structural inequality impedes gender equality in education

2019 Gender Report

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Credit: Save the Children / Jonathan Hyams

Disparities in educational attainment and achievement are not random. Nor can these disparities be addressed only through actions within education. Rather they are often rooted in deep structural inequalities in societies that determine the education options of boys and girls, women and men.

Entrenched norms can weaken even political and legal commitments to gender equality, which are intended to provide political accountability in the protection of human rights, including the right to education for all. International recognition of gender inequality in education is based on the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which has been ratified by 189 countries. While most countries have ratified CEDAW, many have included reservations on some of its articles, thus undermining their commitment to truly eliminate discrimination against women and advance gender equality.

For instance, 12 countries have included reservations in Article 2 that calls on parties to the convention to adopt legal and policy measures to eliminate discrimination against women. India, the Federated States of Micronesia, Niger and Qatar disagree with Article 5 on challenging and eliminating gender stereotypes and discriminatory cultural practices, including those based on general acceptance of women’s subordination and disadvantage. Political and legal commitments to gender equality must be subject to no exceptions or reservations. They should be translated into concrete and effective actions to protect the rights of all, and particularly women and girls.


Gender norms are rules that apply differently to men and women, dictating expected behaviours or attributes (Heslop, 2016). They are based on power relations and traditional views of roles and positions of men and women in society. They shape social attitudes, behaviours and practices; affect laws and policies; and prevent changes in education.

CEDAW provides clear guidance on the type of actions and policies countries must implement to address gender- based discrimination, including in education. It stresses that the discrimination girls and women face in education is both ideological and structural. It calls on parties to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct that are based on ‘stereotyped roles for women and men’ (Articles 5 and 10c). Unless the negative gender norms, values and practices that permeate the very fabric of some societies are challenged, girls and women will continue to face discrimination, preventing them, as well as boys and men in certain cases, from exercising their right to education.

For instance, one common view is that women’s primary role is to be wives, housewives and caregivers. Such views influence education in several ways, including how boys and girls view school. Analysis of the sixth round of the World Values Survey, carried out between 2010 and 2014 in 51 countries, showed that half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that ‘when a woman works for pay, the children suffer’. The idea was widespread in India and in Western Asian countries such as Jordan and Palestine, where more than 80% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

The view that ‘being a wife is just as fulfilling as working for pay’ was held by 63% of respondents. More than 80% held this belief in countries of Central Asia, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; Northern Africa and Western Asia, including Egypt and Yemen; Eastern Europe, including the Russian Federation and Ukraine; and Eastern and South- eastern Asia, including Japan and the Philippines.

Such beliefs can lead to a vicious circle of reduced opportunities in employment and education. As the next section relates, Japan has one of the lowest shares of women in school leadership positions, further fueling unequal perceptions of gender roles. In the case of migration, there is an expectation that women who migrate, as many Filipino women do, should enter domestic or home care work, even if this results in a loss of skills ( Box 6 ).

Box 6: Migrant women face deskilling in many contexts

Many women who migrate to get married or join their spouses find themselves unemployed or underemployed (Morrison and Lichter, 1988). Analysis from Australia finds that while married migrant men are more likely to have prosperous careers, married women are more likely to experience a career cost (Preston and Grimes, 2017). Gender norms in society, such as expectations about domestic responsibilities and occupational segregation, determine women’s labour force participation and the extent to which their skills are used.

In India, analysis of four rounds of the National Sample Survey showed that 90 million women migrated for marriage between 1983 and 2008. They had low rates of participation in the labour force owing to a lack of adequate vocational skills and tertiary education, and a disproportionate burden of care responsibilities, especially in urban areas (Rao, 2017).

Most female migration for employment is associated with domestic work or the care industry. Migrant women are a growing share of domestic workers. In Spain, 60% of domestic workers were migrants in 2012, compared with 5% in 2000 (Gallotti and Mertens, 2013). In the United States, 30% of home care workers are immigrants, 87% of whom are women (PHI, 2019); among foreign-born female workers with no more than a secondary school certificate, one in nine works in an in- home occupation (Schierholz, 2013).

This has been viewed as a ‘global care chain’, where migrant women, notably from countries such as the Philippines, take care of children or the elderly in high-income countries, using their wages to support their households, including caregiving, in their countries of origin (Cortes, 2015). In domestic work globally, 73% of migrant workers and 81% of national workers are female (Gallotti, 2015). A preference for female labourers in some manufacturing sectors is linked to stereotypes that they may be more pliable and docile and may work for lower compensation even in exploitative conditions (Caraway, 2007).

Female migrants face higher levels of deskilling. An analysis of brain waste of high-skilled immigrants in the United States estimated that between 2009 and 2013, 32% of foreign-educated women and 27% of foreign-educated men were underemployed or unemployed, compared with 21% of US-educated men and women (Batalova et al., 2016).

Deskilling is common in the care industry. In the United Kingdom, an analysis of 60 migrant women found that all felt they had been deskilled. Many migrant women who were once professionals become downwardly mobile, for instance by becoming care assistants, and are discriminated against and sometimes penalized because of perceived or real language challenges (Cuban, 2013).

There are few interventions to develop migrant women’s skills. In Argentina, a programme was launched in 2006 to teach migrant domestic workers vocational skills and make them aware of their rights. In Nepal, private training institutions offer women 2-day orientation sessions on human trafficking laws and regulations and 30-day skills training programmes (Tayah, 2016).

Patriarchal norms that place little or no value on girls’ and women’s education restrict their chance of equal access to education. About 27% of World Values Survey respondents agreed that ‘a university education is more important for a boy than a girls’, with shares ranging from 2% in Sweden to 56% in Pakistan and 59% in Haiti ( Figure 12 ). On average, men were about 10 percentage points more likely to agree with the statement, rising to 19 percentage points in countries including Algeria and Palestine, even though women are by far the majority of graduates. In the two countries with the most negative views of girls’ education, there was no gender gap in opinions held in Pakistan but a 35 percentage point gap between men’s and women’s views in Haiti.

Such discriminatory attitudes can constrain girls’ education opportunities, though the relationship is not straightforward. Some of the strongest negative beliefs are indeed held in countries with highly unequal access to tertiary education, such as Uzbekistan. But they are also held in countries that have recently expanded education opportunities to women, such as India. In other words, a move towards equalizing education opportunities in societies with unequal norms may or may not be a lever for shifting these norms.

Challenging gender norms means working with adolescent girls and boys on gender role issues. In Haryana, India, a multi-year secondary school-based experiment aims to change adolescents’ gender attitudes and erode support for restrictive gender norms. The programme involves regularly holding classroom discussions on gender equality, with some sessions teaching communication skills to help students convince others, or, for example, to persuade parents to let them marry at a later age. A randomized controlled trial showed that the programme had improved adolescents’ gender attitudes. Participants reported more gender-equitable behaviours, with boys reporting that they helped out more with household chores (Dhar et al., 2018).


Child domestic workers are among the most vulnerable to exclusion from education. In 2012, around 17.2 million children and adolescents aged 5 to 17 were in paid or unpaid domestic work in an employer’s home, two-thirds of them girls (ILO, 2017c). In more than half the countries with data from the Demographic and Health Surveys and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys over 2010-2015, the percentage of 12- to 14-year-olds involved in domestic work at least 28 hours a week was less than 2%. However, the percentage rose to 19% in Benin and 16% in Chad in 2014. In most countries, girls are more than twice as likely as boys to be involved in domestic work. The gap is larger in countries where the overall prevalence of child domestic work is high, such as Senegal (12%), where girls are 3.5 times more likely to be domestic workers, as well as in countries where the prevalence is low, such as El Salvador (1%), where girls are 7 times more likely to be domestic workers. Girls who spend 28 hours or more per week in domestic and care work spend 25% less time at school than those involved less than 10 hours a week (ILO, 2009). Protecting child domestic workers requires various policies and interventions, including protecting their right to education via awareness campaigns, ensuring high-quality public education and social protection, and carrying out interventions to curb child labour and prevent entry into hazardous work (ILO, 2015, 2017a). This applies particularly to poor rural girls who migrate to cities out of poverty, often unaccompanied, end up in domestic work and see their education opportunities compromised (Box 7).

Box 7: Migrant child labourers, poverty and education should be considered through a gender lens

Poverty is often a push factor for internal migration. It leads not only adults to move to find work, but also children, whose education is disrupted. In Ethiopia, a study of nearly 5,300 out-of-school girls from six regions found that, on average, they migrated unaccompanied at age 14. Few attended school after moving; most entered paid employment (Erulkar et al., 2017). In Indonesia, about 59% of child domestic workers in Jakarta and other metropolitan areas were girls from rural areas. More than half had primary education only; a further 26% dropped out at grade 7 or 8 (Patunru and Kusumaningrum, 2013). In Peru, over 95% of domestic workers were women, and most were rural to urban migrants who migrated at a young age. Ethnographic research in Lima noted that young girls viewed domestic work as a way to leave rural areas and continue their education. But their workload often prevented them from doing so, limiting future employment prospects (Alaluusua, 2017).

In some countries, fees can restrict access to school for poor migrant children. In South Africa, when migrant parents cannot benefit from the fee exemption opportunities available to other poor families, it can have a disproportionately negative effect on girls (Baatjes et al., 2012). In Shenzhen, China, parents made more effort to obtain the right paperwork for boys’ education and were more likely to pay to send their sons to state schools geographically distant from migrant communities. As a result, girls were much more likely to be attending lower-quality migrant schools (Goodburn, 2015).

It is important for children to be informed of their rights. In collaboration with the International Labour Organization, a trade union in the United Republic of Tanzania set up child labour committees in villages as watchdogs for children recruited into domestic labour (ILO, 2013, 2017c). Trained teachers can also help protect child domestic workers’ education rights. Anti-Slavery International, an NGO, developed focused teacher education programmes in Peru and India. In the Philippines, it established regular school visits to raise teacher awareness and school-based liaison officers for child domestic workers (Anti-Slavery International, 2013).


Globally, some 650 million girls and women today were married when they were children. In 2010–2017, 21% of women aged 20 to 24 were married before age 18. In 2018, 16% of adolescents aged 15 to 19 were married before age 18 worldwide, compared with 19% in 2012. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence of child marriage: 38% of women aged 20 to 24 married before 18. Next is the Southern Asia subregion (30%), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (25%) and the Eastern Europe and Central Asia subregions (11% each) (UNICEF, 2018b). Unless trends accelerate, it will take more than 100 years to eradicate girls’ child marriage (OECD, 2018). To achieve the SDG target of ending child marriage by 2030, progress would need be 12 times as fast as the rate observed over the past decade (UNFPA and UNICEF, 2018).

In many low-income countries where child marriage is prevalent, girls are withdrawn from school to get married once they reach puberty. They then face practical barriers to education, including stigma, forced exclusion from school, and social and moral norms that confine them to their homes. Most countries with high early marriage rates are fragile, experiencing humanitarian crises and displacement. In such contexts, the early marriage trap is perpetuated because families see it as a way to protect their daughters, while going to school exposes them to risks, and the outcomes of schooling are highly uncertain (Box 8).

Box 8: Child marriage risk rises in displacement settings

The context in 9 of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage is fragile (Women’s Refugee Commission, 2016). While adolescent boys may drop out of school to work, the lack of economic opportunities for girls makes them more reliant on men, which can increase their likelihood of early pregnancy and early marriage (Steinhaus et al., 2016). Many adolescent girls escaping conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not attend school. Some were raped and married the perpetrator. Others were forced to seek marriage for stability and lack of other options. In Lebanon, Syrian female refugees are more vulnerable to school dropout and child marriage due to challenges such as distance to school, school fees and lack of transport. In Jordan, 25% of Syrian refugee marriages registered in sharia court in 2013 were of 15- to 17-year-old girls, almost twice the rate for Jordanians (Women’s Refugee Commission, 2016).

Paragraph 2 of CEDAW Article 16 prohibits forced and child marriage, but 20 countries – including many with a high prevalence of child marriage, such as Bangladesh and Niger – have reservations on the article (United Nations, 2014). In Bahrain, where Ministerial Order No. 45 of 2007 fixed the minimum marriage age for Shiite Muslims at 18 for boys and 15 for girls, conservative lawmakers argued that increasing the marriage age violated sharia (Freedom House, 2010).

At least 117 of 198 countries and territories allow children to marry (Pew Research Center, 2016). In 153 countries and territories, reaching the age of majority is ostensibly required before marriage is legal, but many exceptions to that requirement exist; for instance, in Uruguay, children can legally marry if they have parental permission. In all but one of the 38 countries where the minimum age differs between boys and girls, the lower age is that for girls.

In the United Arab Emirates, while the legal age of marriage for both women and men is 18, child marriages continue to occur due to deeply rooted cultural and tribal traditions (Musawah, 2015). However, numerous efforts have been made to address the issue, and preventive programmes and strategies have been implemented to facilitate education and employment for girls and women before they enter into marriage and family life (CEDAW, 2015). In addition, Ministry of Justice regulations prohibit marriage officers from issuing marriage licences to underage girls and boys (OHCHR, 2015).

Since 2014, 15 countries have strengthened their legal frameworks to delay the age of first marriage (OECD, 2018). Gambia’s Children’s Amendment Bill of 2016 criminalized child marriage and child betrothal, with conviction carrying a prison sentence of up to 20 years. In Ghana, a national campaign to end child marriage led to the establishment in 2016 of the Child Marriage Coordinating Unit of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection. A 10-year national strategic framework, which included the Ending Child Marriage Campaign, was launched. But even when legislation exists to protect women’s and girls’ rights and advance gender equality, it can be weakened by the existence of plural legal systems. Both Gambia and Ghana, as well as countries such as Mauritania and Nigeria, have customary and religious laws that continue to allow early marriage (Bouchama et al., 2018).

Bangladesh is another case where norms contradict and oppose international and even national commitments. The country has ratified CEDAW, but with reservations on Articles 2 and 16 (para. 1), as they conflict with personal law, which governs family matters and differs within each of the country’s religious communities, Muslim, Hindu and Christian. Personal law contradicts the legal marriage ages of 18 for women and 21 for men, established by the Child Marriage Restraint Act, and thus Bangladesh tolerates child marriage despite it being a legally punishable offense. When the government sought in 2017 to amend the act, the parliament adopted a controversial amendment with a provision allowing child marriage in ‘special circumstances’, making it de facto legal (De silva de Alwis, 2018).


In addition to social norms and values, institutions can include or exclude women as regards resources and activities, and can protect them from or expose them to discriminatory practices. Achieving gender equality in education will not occur without a strong political commitment at the institutional level.

Where political and legal commitments to gender equality are not translated into real change for girls and women, this is often linked to lingering discrimination within social institutions. The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) is an attempt to document discrimination in social and economic institutions. It focuses on four dimensions: Women’s rights in the family (e.g. child marriage), physical integrity (e.g. female genital mutilation, violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights), access to productive and financial assets (e.g. access to land, workplace rights) and civil rights (e.g. political representation). SIGI looks at the extent to which laws, attitudes and practices fail to respect and protect women’s and girls’ rights (OECD, 2018). Its value ranges from 0%, when the same rights are guaranteed to men and women, to 100%, when there is profound or deep discrimination against women and girls.

The 2019 edition classifies 120 countries by their level of discrimination in social institutions, from Switzerland (8%) to Yemen (64%). It shows that one-quarter of countries had high or very high discrimination levels, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Guinea and the Philippines. In most of these countries, women are even more discriminated against than the 2014 edition indicated. The countries are characterized by highly discriminatory legal frameworks, very poor implementation measures, and customary practices and social norms which weaken and deny women’s rights. SIGI also covers discrimination in family codes: Half the countries in its database have high or very high levels of such discrimination, with scores in excess of 40%, and 23 have scores above 80%, including Bahrain and Qatar at 92% (Bouchama et al., 2018). The persistence of discrimination in social institutions inevitably permeates education systems, including tacit understanding of what may be acceptable in curricula and textbooks. Abolition of discriminatory laws is critical given the backlash against gender equality observed in many countries and regions, including countries in central and eastern Europe such as Austria, Romania and Slovakia. In Poland, a parliamentary group called Stop Gender Ideology was formed in 2014. Among its targets was a pre-school teacher education guide on gender equality. Institutions providing education on gender equality have experienced harassment and hostility from local authorities (Juhasz and Pap, 2018).