Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behavior, activities and attributes that a given society at a given time and place considers appropriate for men and women, and boys and girls and the relationships between them.


What is gender inequality?

Gender defines and differentiates what women and men, and girls and boys, are expected to be and do (their roles, responsibilities, rights and obligations).

While there are very distinct biological differences between boys and girls and these can create different needs and capacities for each, these differences do not in themselves lead to or justify unequal social status or rights. The distinct roles and behaviors that are defined for boys and girls, and men and women in a society may give rise to gender inequalities, i.e. differences between men and women that systematically favor one group.

Gender can be a key determinant of who does what, who has what, who decides, who has power, and even who gets an education or not. In many societies, boys are seen as the ones who should be educated, while girls are not.

UNICEF states that Gender equality means that women and men, and girls and boys, enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections. Gender inequality arises when one group is seen in a society as having more rights than the other.  International declarations such as CEDAW promote and defend women’s rights, and therefore, today, gender equality promoted as a fundamental condition for the full enjoyment of human rights by women and men. This right is recognized as a condition for growth and development and global organizations promote gender equality in their work.

Nevertheless, gender inequalities persist in a wide range of areas. Overcoming gender inequalities requires profound transformations in social structures and relationships between men and women.

Why do gender practices act as a barrier to enrollment and participation?

The table presents an analysis by UNICEF (see further reading). It shows why girls usually loose out to boys when barriers require family and community decisions on the participation of children in school.

Household and community-level barriers The gender dimension
Direct costs of education such as fees, clothing, shoes, books and supplies If a choice has to be made between sending a boy or a girl to school, the boy will usually be given precedence.
Indirect costs of education, such as the opportunity cost of not using child labor Traditional division of labor often disadvantages girls (more likely to have to work in the home, care for siblings etc.).
Attitudes and cultural practices, such as traditional beliefs, gender stereotyping, lack of knowledge on benefits of education, gender-differentiated child-rearing practices Early marriage, low status of women, and intractable patriarchal societies often result in lower priority on education of girls. Content of education may reinforce gender stereotypes and, thus, discrimination is perpetuated.
Health-related issues, including poor nutrition and HIV and AIDS Girls often more likely to care for family and work. Girls without family stability more vulnerable to exploitation. Boys often receive more food than girls.
Situations of crisis and instability Girls more frequently required to head households; boys more frequently recruited into military service.

How pervasive is it?

The state of girls' education has improved significantly. However, girls continue to lag behind boys, in many areas of the world, in terms of access to education, completion of education, and acquisition of basic skills such as literacy.  In 2009, around 35 million girls were out of school compared to 31 million boys.

Globally, there is still a large gender gap in youth literacy rates, although the gap has been shrinking over time.
Graph: Youth literacy rates for boys and girls.

Four of the nine countries with lowest female youth literacy rates for the period 2005-2009 are EAC priority countries:   

  • Niger 23%
  • Mali 31%
  • Burkina Faso 33%
  • Chad 39%
  • Benin 43%
  • Sierra Leone 48%
  • Guinea 54%
  • Senegal 56%
  • Central African Republic 57%

Examples of EAC partners are addressing gender inequalities

The NGO Educate Girls has developed a comprehensive model in India that leverages existing resources from the government, village and school levels and creates community ownership for school reform. Educate Girls ensures that teachers, the government, parents, and girls become active participants in the process. It systematically challenges structural, cultural and socio-economic barriers through a combination of community mobilization strategies and child-centered learning and teaching techniques.

Educate Girls builds a cadre of village-based youth leaders to work as champions for girls' education and catalysts for school reform. It works in the schools as well as village communities spreading awareness about girl-child education. It boosts enrollment, retention and learning outcomes for all girls.

Girl Child Network (GCN) in Kenya works to improve the status of children in Kenya with special emphasis on the girl child. GNC works in poor Maasai, Pokomo, and Somali communities of Kenya where girls are greatly disadvantaged and subjected to cultural practices that inhibit their development and participation in education. Some of the barriers that keep girls out of school in these areas include early and forced marriages, nomadic lifestyles and a preference to not educate girls since they will marry and leave the family.

Further reading