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EDUCATION-ASIA: Girls Should Go to School, Stay There

Lynette Lee Corporal

KATHMANDU, Jun 11 2008 (IPS) - It is not enough that girls go to school – they must also remain in school and complete their education, a goal that educators, policymakers and communities all need to brush up on.

This was the consensus of education experts at the Jun. 11-12 regional meeting on 'Equity, Gender and Quality in Education' here, organised by the Global Advisory Committee of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI).

Representatives from 14 countries in different continents took part in this brainstorming session, looking at ways to narrow the gender gap and ensure that both boys and girls can have better and equal access to education.

"We need to use this forum and partnership not just to understand better where we are right now, but also where we're headed. It's about moving beyond the numbers and asking how we can better support young people in the Asia-Pacific region, and help make schooling a safer, enjoyable and more meaningful experience for boys and girls," said Frances Turner, deputy regional director for South Asia for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

UNICEF is the lead agency for UNGEI, which has 18 organisations in its Global Advisory Committee, including U.N. agencies, donor agencies like Britain’s Department for International Development to the World Bank, as well non-government groups like World Vision International and the Forum for African Women Educationalists. It has 14 other partner groups.

UNGEI is the ‘Education For All’ flagship movement to narrow the gender gap in primary and secondary education. It aims to see to it that by 2015, all boys and girls will be able to complete primary schooling and have equal access to all levels of education.

"No country has rid itself of poverty without investing in education,’’ Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) deputy head Tony Burdon pointed out.

"We don't listen to children enough and don't value their insights. Enrollment is not enough. It is not the end game. It's what they learn that counts," he added.

According to Burdon, while 30 million more children have been sent to school globally since 2000, there are still 72 million children, most of them girls, which remain out of school.

While girls' enrollment has increased to 89 percent from 84 percent a few years back, Burdon said more needs to be done especially for disadvantaged girls in countries like Nepal.

"Half of dalit (low-caste) girls drop out in Grade 1 and only eight percent make it to Grade 5," he said, adding that strong political leadership in this area is important.

But actually, "people want education today, even in the poorest of households and we need to build on this," said Rangachar Govinda of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi, who presented a paper titled ‘'Towards Gender Equality in Education: Progress and Challenges in Asia-Pacific Region'.

At the same time, many challenges have yet to be hurdled. According to Govinda, many countries still do not have a "systematic institutional mechanism" to implement and monitor the progress of quality education based on gender equity.

"Many policies related to education are still formulated in bits and pieces and incorporated based on existing projects," he added.

The problem of infrastructure also continues to hound the educational system in the Asia-Pacific. "Even now, a lot of schools have no drinking water, toilets and electricity. Teachers are also ill-trained and poorly motivated," said Burdon.

Other problems include the lack of textbooks, teachers, classrooms, and the proper medium of instructions.

"Discrimination based on caste, ethnicity, religion or disabilities also needs to be seriously addressed," added Burdon.

Sixteen-year-old Reshmi Chowdhary knows these problems only too well. A member of the Biratnagar Child Club, she has been a domestic worker since she was nine years old and goes to school at the same time.

"The lack of adequate facilities in schools forces us to drop out from studies. Usually, there is no toilet at all, or if there is one, it is in very bad shape. We have examples of girls leaving school after having menstruation, because there is no proper toilet for menstruating girls," said Chowdhary.

Sexual abuse and harassment on the way to and from school, she said, also compel girls to drop out of school.

According to the ‘Education For All Global Monitoring Report 2008’ countries such as Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands in the East Asia-Pacific region, and Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia, registered a mere 20 percent or even less of gross enrollment ratio for girls at the secondary level.

Nepal, Burma, and Lao PDR, meanwhile, have 40 percent of girls enrolling in secondary schools. India has only one out of two girls attending secondary school.

"We need greater engagement with the community to impact the demand and make them understand the value of education. The enrollment drive alone is not sufficient. Girls are coming to school but are dropping out at the slightest instance," said Jyotsna Jha, advisor for gender, education and HIV/AIDS of the Commonwealth Secretariat, also a member of UNGEI.

Govinda also stressed the importance of community ownership in a much-improved curriculum. "We have to understand that the curriculum needs to reflect local interests, priorities and local traditions," he said. "This will help in the deeper engagement with people, including marginalised groups."

Despite all these problems, he said, progress has been made, including a "much-heightened awareness about gender issues among policy makers".

"The recognition of the need to free and compulsory education is also a positive step," Govinda added.

For Burdon, improving gender equality in education is a continuing process. "We just need to keep pushing year after year. It's really all about people working together, thinking new ideas, but above all being relentless," he said.

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