Gender inequality is increasingly at the forefront of talks and forums in the development sector, but how can we evolve from simply discussing the ideas of gender inequality to actively implementing long-term change? The short answer is education. As of 2014, girls made up 53% of the 61 million of children out of school. 15% of the population is illiterate, and women account for 63% of these illiterate adults. Education can help. We all deserve the same playing field, whether it be while practicing a hobby or in the professional sphere.
A recent report commissioned by UNESCO, the ‘Global Education Monitoring Report’, explored the state of education across the globe, and the steps which need to be taken in order to achieve free, equal primary and secondary education for both boys and girls by 2030. Within this document, a gender review discussed the substantial progress that has been made within schools to tackle gender inequality. However, in order to achieve this goal, we must all double our efforts.
But why is education important to gender equality? Firstly, it will help fight gender stereotypes. Every day, women and girls are faced with barriers as to what they can and can’t do. Whether this is being a firefighter, or a CEO of a big corporation, women and girls are orientated away from these positions towards a more ‘suitable’ field. Education can help girls understand that a specific job or hobby does not need to be limited to gender.
Secondly, education provides literacy. Illiteracy is a form of insecurity, and often results in women and girls following a pathway defined by society around them. Literacy is an efficient way of improving gender equality as women and girls can learn, discuss and use evidence to fight for their everyday rights, whether this be property rights or basic human rights.
Thirdly, education substantially reduces the risk of early marriage and pregnancies. Girls with no education are three times more likely to marry by 18 compared to those with a primary and/or secondary education. The skills and knowledge acquired throughout the years of schooling can allow girls to make better informed decisions about their future. Additionally, as the NGO GirlsNotBrides argues, a girl in school reinforces the perception that she is still a child and too young to get married.
Primary education as a starting point
Despite the huge disparity in dropout rates between boys and girls going into secondary school, promoting equal education in primary school is a strong starting point to incentivize girls to carry on their school and develop their skills further. But, this means much more than simply having the same number of boys and girls in a classroom. Azza Karam argues that education should adopt a rights-based approach, as stressed by the post-2015 development agenda.  This means that the curriculum and the methods of teaching must be in line with human rights and promoting equity.
SeeBeyondBorders is not an NGO specifically targeting gender inequality, but serves as a perfect example of the power of education and the simple steps that can be taken within an education program to provide both quality education and gender equity simultaneously. SeeBeyondBorders is country specific and thus able to implement programs which are both pragmatic and relevant to Cambodia at a local level. By focusing its work on Cambodian education, SeeBeyondBorders has been able to develop its expertise and better understand gender inequality. SeeBeyondBorders’ Conditional Cash Payment (CCP) program, which provides vulnerable children with the possibility of attending school regularly, has been successful because of the organisation’s understanding as to why vulnerable children are not attending school. Whilst not specifically targeted at girls, 81 girls out of 191 cash payments were made in 2015. This allows children with limited resources (either a lack of financial support or transport to get to school) to attend school more regularly. By targeting these children, SeeBeyondBorders not only focuses on children who are near schools, but rather, allows all children to attend school.
Girls in poorer areas are those most likely to be forced into an early marriage, and work from a young age. We must therefore work in poorer areas, and not limit ourselves to the ‘easy’ option. Perhaps most importantly, SeeBeyondBorders prioritises teacher quality. This enables the children to have access to an excellent quality of education, empowering them further. By giving the teachers adequate training it allows them to develop their knowledge, and confidence to teach. They are thus provided with the teaching tools to teach in a gender sensitive manner and promote gender equality, whether this be through their teaching methods or their understanding of gender equality.
Primary education therefore serves as an ideal starting point to implement change in the long-term. Through a gender-aware approach and a focus on excellent teaching quality, both girls and boys will grow up with the notion of gender equity.
Perhaps the biggest struggle in fighting gender inequality is ‘gender socialisation’, a term coined by Oakley in the 1970s. UNICEF defines the term as a ’process by which people learn to behave in a certain way, as dictated by societal beliefs, values, attitudes and examples.’ An example of this is the perception of menstruation in Cambodia. A recent article in the Phnom Penh Post discussed the experience of one girl who received her information about periods from her mother. Menstruation is perceived as taboo and dirty, something which continues to restrict the behavior of women and girls. Many girls and women in Cambodia believe they are not allowed to swim during their period as this is said to spread disease, or shower regularly as it affects the beauty of their skin. Girls and women also have dietary requirements, to avoid menstruation being ‘blocked’.
Education is key to changing these negative perceptions of menstruation and can thus empower women to openly talk about periods without feeling ashamed. Additionally, studies carried out in East Asia showed that girls on their periods were more likely to miss school, often due to the unsanitary conditions they face, where about half of Cambodian schools lack a reliable water supply. SeeBeyondBorders is also trying to tackle this issue by renovating, and building gender specific toilet blocks, with locks and a constant water supply, to enable girls to safely use the bathroom in a clean environment.
Addressing these issues will be a long and difficult process. However, a good starting point is identifying key individuals in the community and work alongside them to spread the message about the importance of education and gender equality. SeeBeyondBorders works closely with community chiefs and teachers, to enable the community to understand the importance of education and its long-term benefits, not only for gender equality but development more broadly.
Whilst I do not pretend to have the answer to solving gender inequality, education is the variable I deem most able to bridge the gap between gender inequality in the long-term. Unfortunately, education is not given the attention it deserves and is continuously neglected by governments and humanitarian aid providers. However, progress is being made as the education community continues to stress the importance of education and its role within development. Most notably, education now has a stand-alone goal within the Sustainable Development Goals. It comprises subsections tackling issues such as gender equality, or promoting early child schooling. This was previously not the case as the Millennium Development Goals focused on primary education. Change begins with education, and if gender equity is ever to have a chance of being accomplished, quality education is the way forward. By providing children with quality education and by working alongside communities, we can promote gender equality and empower the girls of the next generation.
 ‘Global Education Monitoring Report: Gender Review, Creating Sustainable Futures for All’, p.10
 Karam, A, ‘Education as the pathway towards gender equality’ in the UN Chronicle, (Vol. 50 No. 4, 2013) https://unchronicle.un.org/article/education-pathway-towards-gender-equality
 Bell, S, ‘Keeping girls on schedule: perceptions of periods in the kingdom’ in The Phnom Penh Post, (2016), http://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-weekend/keeping-girls-schedule-perceptions-periods-kingdom