Turning Promises into Progress for Gender Equality and Women's and Girls' Rights

The Beijing Conference on Women marked an important moment in the struggle for gender equality and the rights of women and girls but, twenty years on, what’s changed?

For a start, gender is now firmly on the agenda at least here in the UK. Internationally too there is more talk of gender equality than in previous decades.  But, sadly, talk is often all there is.  The plethora of international commitments has not really translated into the achievement of gender equality.

There have been some successes, most notably where the MDGs brought new funding and some political pressure; more girls in school, more women in parliaments.  But we still live in a world where one in three women will be subjected to sexual or intimate partner violence in their lifetime, where women continue to earn less than men for doing the same work and are more likely to be living in poverty, and where women are excluded from meaningful decision making whether at home or in international negotiations.  In every country in the world women and girls still face discrimination and the denial of their rights simply because of their gender.

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, and fifteen years after the ground-breaking United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 recognised the importance of women’s full and equal participation as actors for peace and security, we at the Gender and Development network have joined with colleagues at Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) and the UK Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) network to produce a new report Turning Promises into Progress.  Combining our expertise enabled us to look in more depth across eight issue areas central to gender equality (women, peace and security, violence against women and girls, sexual and reproductive health and rights, political participation and influence, education, economic justice, unpaid care and discriminatory social norms) to consider the advances made or, more often, not made.

Throughout the report we have made concrete recommendations which we hope can inform development thinking in the future.  In particular we suggest how to begin tackling the causes of gender equality to make real progress in the decades to come for example by building women’s ability to make their own choices, supporting women’s rights organisations and collective action, promoting positive social norms, and rethinking government approaches to the economy. 

As we reflect on the landmark anniversaries and look forward to the implementation of the post-2015 agenda we can perhaps allow ourselves some cautious optimism.  Technical expertise is greater and the women’s movement is growing stronger; organisations around the world have marked the Beijing anniversary with calls to action that are both practical and inspiring.  The question now is whether we can garner the necessary political will and resources over the coming decade to secure the rights of women and girls and achieve gender equality.

Quality Education for All: Improving girls’ experience of education, rather than simply their access


Abu Shouk, Sudan. Photo credit: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

Are girls taught that they are not as clever as boys? Are they taught that they can’t do maths and science? Do they learn that women should be subservient to men because all the pictures in the textbook depict them this way…?' - (Learning for Life, Plan 2012)

The right to education does not just mean sitting in a classroom, but also includes the right to actually learn something of value whilst sitting there. Among the world’s 650 million children of primary school age, 130 million are in school but are failing to learn the basics (UNESCO 2012). Soaring enrolment rates since the inception of the millennium development goals (MDGs) have generally had a negative knock-on effect on teaching and learning in the classroom in developing countries, as teachers struggle to manage crowded classrooms with scant resources. As a result, there is growing pressure from all quarters to ensure that this ‘learning crisis’ becomes the central focus of educational development – and as such, that all students have equal opportunities to fulfil their capabilities and reach their potential once sitting in the classroom.

While poor quality education adversely affects learning outcomes for all students, research has shown that girls are more likely to be negatively impacted than boys (Unterhalter 2005). A 2011 baseline study by Plan UK across nine developing countries, for example, found that girls who sit national exams are less likely to pass those exams than boys. Following on from these findings, Plan UK commissioned The Girls’ Learning Report, to look beyond the issue of gender disparity in enrolment, and to explore the inequality of experience for schools in many classrooms that might be causing these disparities in attainment.  The report provides clear evidence for the importance of ensuring a good quality educational experience for girls.

Specifically, the report sought to analyse potential school-based factors that may impede girls’ learning.  While concerns exist about the quality of many national exams, that doesn’t deter from the fact that they are generally used as a screening device, acting as gate-keepers to further life opportunities such as employment or transition to higher levels of education.

One common motif that emerged from the research is that female teachers are more likely to act as role models for girls, and have a positive impact on both their enrolment and learning outcomes.  However, there is a lack of female teachers in schools, particularly at the higher levels and particularly in leadership roles. The report also found that traditional teaching methods, which are widely used in developing countries, leave little space for collaborative learning which has been linked to higher learning achievement, particularly for girls.

With the current push among education actors to ameliorate the ‘learning crisis’, it is important to remember that learning is not just about numeracy and literacy. Schools are a microcosm of wider society and as such transmit wider societal values and attitudes in relation to the role of girls and women. As the Girls’ Learning Report found, teachers’ negative pre-conceptions and expectations around girls’ capabilities can be highly gendered, which in turn can impede their learning.  Girls are more likely than boys to internalise negative comments, and teachers’ low expectations negatively affects their own expectations and aspirations. Compounding these issues may be curricula which reinforces gendered stereotypes.

A final school-based factor that can impede all students’ learning, but again particularly girls’, is violence in, and on the way to, schools.

What can we therefore take from the Girls’ Learning Report?  If quality education for all is to become a reality, we need to be looking beyond gender quality in enrolment to interrogate what happens at the classroom level. We need to be ensuring that students are not marginalised within the classroom, that teaching and learning processes and resources are inclusive, and that girls are given the same opportunities to fulfil their capabilities as boys. School based factors that impede girls’ learning must be removed if education is to truly promote gender equality, so that classrooms become places where all children are equally encouraged to learn, equally protected and equally provided with opportunities to reach their potential. 

In Focus – School related Gender-based Violence in Sierra Leone.

A study of school-related gender-based violence in Sierra Leone found that violence is prevalent in schools and is often gendered affecting girls more than boys. This violence can take many forms:

·Nine in every ten students in primary and secondary have experienced at least one form of physical violence

·Sexual violence is widespread in schools - about two-thirds of the girls reported to have experienced at least one or more forms of sexual violence.

·The study also found various forms of psychological violence in schools, including insults and name calling, intimidation and threats – the main perpetrators identified are teachers.

Not only can gender-based violence have short and long term consequences on mental and physical health, but it can also impact negatively on attendance, drop out and learning when in the classroom.  Psychological violence can damage self-esteem and confidence, and can affect participation in the learning process.

Some quotes from girls from Plan’s Building Skills for Life mid-term review and SRGBV study:

 “My mathematics teacher asked me to fall in love with him, but I found it difficult for me to do that. This became a problem between us. Any small mistake or bad thing I did I am almost always punished. This was one of the reasons I hate school and dropped”. (Girl, FGD, Bombali).

“Some of our teachers harass us to give them sex for grades, and they will fail you when you do not give them, which is leading us to drop out of school” (Girl out of school, Bombali).

Anita Reilly, Plan UK

Anita Reilly is Plan UK's Education Advisor. 

For more information on what GADN is doing to support girls in education, check out our Girls' Education in International Development working group page. 

Is education the most powerful weapon in the fight against FGM?

Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.  I was reminded of this quote by the striking fact that only 19% of Kenya girls who have secondary level education undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) compared to an alarming 54% of girls who do not get a school education. This is one of the key findings from 28 Too Many’s report “Country Profile: FGM in Kenya” which was published on 8th May 2013. Coming from a family with four generations of teachers, I was intrigued about what exactly drives the reduction of FGM in educated girls and wondered if education holds the key to the global eradication of this harmful practice.

According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits. It is well researched that educating girls has a strong ripple effect leading to individual, family, community and national improvements. The benefits include better health, peace, security, economic growth and improved prospects for the next generation. So it is not a surprise that one of the benefits of educating girls is a reduction in FGM. During 2012 and 2013 28 Too Many researchers have visited Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mali and we have consistently seen evidence of the power of a good education in combating FGM.

So what exactly is making a difference?

Education challenges and changes perceptions about FGM - Educated women are more aware of the health risks of FGM and have a greater understanding of both the immediate and long term harm caused by it. Therefore they are much less likely to support the practice (Population Reference Bureau 2001) and are also less likely to have their daughters cut (UNICEF). The girls and women who have been educated are in turn able to influence their families and wider communities, teaching others about FGM and encouraging them to abandon the practice. In 2011 28 Too Many founder, Ann-Marie Wilson, met two women in rural Kenya who, through the power of their education, were not able only to avoid FGM themselves but have also brought about the end of the practice in their whole community. As a result of their campaign no girls in their village have had FGM for over seven years. 

Educated girls are better prepared to resist pressure to undergo FGM - When a girl is aware of the facts about FGM, this can help her resist if she comes under pressure to undergo FGM. Of course not all girls are aware that FGM is going to happen to them and may not have opportunity to discuss it in advance. However, when they do have the chance knowing exactly what FGM is, what harm it causes and that there is no health benefit or religious requirement to undergo it can make that critical difference and help the girls persuade others that FGM is not necessary. Being taught about FGM in school can also help girls who would not otherwise know how to recognise when they are at risk from FGM and enable them to seek help from people who can protect them.

Preventing early and forced marriage - Girls who attend school and do not undergo FGM are less likely to have early and/or forced marriages. In particular, girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children when compared to girls who have little or no education (DHS survey data). FGM is often a prerequisite for an early marriage and so keeping a girl in education not only means she is less likely to have an early marriage but also FGM is delayed until she is better able to resist any pressure to undergo the procedure. 

Promoting the value of education for all - When communities value a good education for all this also benefits the boys. It is just as important to ensure boys get a good education and are taught about FGM. This can help community reach a “tipping point” and recognise the benefits of abandoning FGM. The inspirational Masaai Cricket Warriors are a group of young men in Kenya who were educated about FGM and now campaign against the practice, using their sport to reach and empower other young people.

So Nelson Mandela’s assertion that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world seems to be true for making changes in FGM practising communities. Governments and NGOs working on FGM need to make education a central part of their strategy and programmes. This will help ensure a safer and better life for millions of girls at risk of FGM each year and is critical in bringing about the total eradication of this harmful practice.


Louise Robertson

Louise Robertson is Operations Coordinator at 28 Too Many. Louise began her career in human resources over 25 years ago and has worked in leading international companies. She has maintained a strong commitment to women’s rights and welfare since university and has undertaken voluntary work with charities including London Rape Crisis and Victim Support. Louise joined 28 Too Many in March 2012 and oversees policy, campaigns and communications. Since 2010 Louise has been a trustee and director for The League of Friends of Teddington Memorial Hospital which raises funds for a much valued community hospital.

This blog first appeared on 28 Too Many. You can see the original version here.