Background

Every child should have the same right to go to school and gain knowledge regardless of colour, race, ethnic group or tribe, religion, age, sex, physical state or disability, and nationality. Still, Africa and Asia are a site of controversy. Gender-based discrepancies are familiar with a bias towards the men, despite a global gender ratio of nearly one woman for every man and polices to reduce the imbalances.

The extent of gender bias is negligible in More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs), but worth attention in Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs). Africa and Asia are the continents with the highest proportion of LEDCs, with Africa on top of the list. Most developing nations in these continents are not prioritising a lion’s share budget specifically to make safe, accessible, and gender-sensitive schools.

This article explores the gender-based discrepancies in Africa and Asia, their effects and recommendations to address the natural imbalance, ahead of the 11 October 2020 International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC).

Gender-based discrepancies affecting the girl child in Africa and Asia

1. Customary preference of the male child over the girl child

Customary beliefs in most African and Asian societies often regard the boy child as a valuable child, leading to less preference for the girl child. This disparity is the root cause for all suffering encountered by the girl child on these continents. News headlines always report cases of gender-based sex selection in many countries with parents taking extreme measures to avoid girl child pregnancies, inspired by immense customary pressure to have firstborn children being boys. Some resort to prenatal sex selection involving but not limited to using sorted sperms for Vitro fertilisation, intentional abortion of female foetus and post-natal preference such as female infanticide.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA, 2005), suggests that these practices are the causes of sex imbalances in Asia: China and India in particular. The occurrence of these malpractices increased to alarming rates in China after the enactment of the one-child policy. In India, they consider the girl child as an economic burden, since the girl child contributes little on the family table and may cost a family fortune in the form of dowries paid to the in-laws during the marriage. The 2004 UNFPA report revealed that at least 60million girls went missing in Asia because of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. 

In Africa, husbands often abandon wives who cannot conceive or give birth to a boy child, leaving them with little or no choice than to commit infanticide or shorter breastfeeding period on the girl child. Doing so gives them another chance to conceive for a boy-child to satisfy the husband and his entire clan. 

Customary beliefs treat boys as the lifelong breadwinners; an investment that will keep parents at old age and provide grandchildren to sustain the family genotype. In comparison, women get married, leave their parents and begin a new life with their husbands and in-laws. For this reason, parents regard it as a waste of resources to invest in women. As a result, the girl child suffers from discrimination and unfair treatment before and after birth because of customary beliefs.

2. Religious and customary beliefs which address women as inferior to man

Most customary or religious beliefs encourage the submission of women to men. For instance, African Christians root their guide from the biblical standards, which requires every wife to submit to her husband. “For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the lord”, Ephesians 5 verse 22 (New Living Translation) and verse 24 reads, “As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.” Colossians 3, verse 18 also reads, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting for those who belong to the Lord.” The Bible introduces the man as the head of the wife: “For a husband is the head of his wife…”, Ephesians 5 verse 23. So because of religion and customary laws, women’s submission to men in Africa and Asia is not a matter for cheap debate.

In the setup for a marriage, it is the man who proposes a female for a relationship and makes a proposal for marriage, not the women, which is an unfair practice which deprives women of the right to choose a spouse of their liking as men do. Besides, after marriage, it is the wife who leaves her home and becomes married to the family of the husband, leaving her with little or no option than to abide by the rules of the husband’s family. The girl child also assumes the family name of the husband after a traditional court or church wedding. After bearing a child, the child carries the family name of the husband. In the death’s event of the male parent, customary laws usually allow the male children to inherit property, and the girl child, including the surviving female parent, gets nothing. In India and most African nations, women also suffer from malnutrition because of beliefs which priorities man to eat before women, including the children.

3. Unequal access to employment

The girl child suffers from gender norms, which deprive her of specific employment opportunities. Social conceptions of non-masculinity fuels low intake of the girl-child in fields such as defence forces, law enforcement agencies, heavy and light industries, including but not limited to the construction industry, metalwork industry, engineering and technology. The rife discriminatory and limiting gender stereotypes exposes the girl child to inferior and non-paying opportunities in life. For instance, doctors are male, while nurses and general health workers are female, pilots, captains, truck and bus drivers are male, while they only leave the female to drive small vehicles. Most presidents, ministers, and other senior government positions are male positions while the female dominates the least class. In the education sector, you find most university chancellors, principals, heads of schools and department leaders being male candidates, and most of the least positions occupied by female candidates. In the farming sector, most commercial farmers are men. The few female commercial farmers in existence may be counted, but the unfortunate part is that most do not own the land. 

4. Unequal access to education

The girl child learning crisis is the most significant global challenge to preparing children and adolescents for life, work and active citizenship. It is not a point of contention to say that the girl child has fewer years of education and little chance of reaching tertiary schooling levels in Sub-Saharan Africa and most parts of Asia. The fate of the African and Asian girl child accumulates over time and throughout her entire learning journey. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), global gender disparity in education increases with levels. Only 66% of countries in the world have achieved gender parity in primary education, 45% in lower secondary and 25% in upper secondary. One hundred and thirty-two million girls are out of school, 34.3 million of which are of primary age, 30 million of lower-secondary age and 67.4 million of upper-secondary age. In conflict areas, the number of girls out of school is more likely to be double those in non-conflict areas.

ABC’s news fact report highlighted that nearly 17 million of the girl child of primary level out of school would probably never attend school in their lifetime. Sixty-one percent (61%) of the 123 million young people between 15 and 24 years who can neither read nor write are girls. Global statistics, however, do not tell the actual story because the girl child attends higher schooling levels with more success compared to the boy child in most developed countries, compared to less developed countries.

‘Our world in data’ statistics shows that Sub-Sahara Africa has more than half the global number of out-of-school children of primary age. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Sub-Saharan Africa has the most considerable rate of girls out-of-school children. The gender divide of children out of school is tiny in Primary level (29% for girls and 27% for boys), but significant at higher levels, for instance, the lower-secondary completion rate for boys is 42% compared to 36% for girls.

There is no guarantee of school completion for the girl child after enrolment in Africa and Asia, mainly because of poverty, discrimination, emergencies and culture. This result in girl child exploitation, abuse and being disregarded in these continents. Parents have a first preference to invest in male children over the female child for reasons mentioned before. Not only is there a bias in enrolment at higher levels, but fewer female students enrol for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) diploma or degree programmes.

Key reasons the girl child is out of school

a) Child marriage

Most families priorities to let their daughters get married in exchange for bride price, making them mothers while they are still children. An estimate of 15 million girls under 18 years of age get married every year, causing them to leave school and the majority never return. Every continent records child marriages every year, but in comparison, records of Africa and Asia are alarming, with Niger (76%), Chad (68%) and Central African Republic (68%) recording the highest rates in the world. After being sold, traded, given or promised, the girl child doors for opportunities close as childbearing begins. The most disappointing part is that the immediate parents, family, and community take part in the entire child marriage process. They impose the girl child regardless of her consent, thus undermining her ability to make an autonomous decision about her own body and future.

b) Pregnancies at School

Most schools in Africa and Asia expel students who get pregnant while enrolled at school. The school rules, stigma, lack of childcare facilities, fees, and the lack of flexible school programmes usually keeps the pregnant girl from ever seeing the classroom door after delivery. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number of girls between the age of 15 and 19 who give birth every year is roughly 16 million, and the majority is in African and Asia. According to the same source, nearly 1 million under 15 aged girls give birth every year.

c) Poverty

Experts regard to lack of funding as the chief cause for girl-child drop-out in most African and Asian countries, with girl child education under the least of priorities. The patriarchal society values girl child education low and considers the prospects of the girl child not abiding by the customary or religious expectations high when educated. The boy child is, therefore, often prioritised instead.

Effect of poverty on girl child’s education is not only seen at the household scale but also national scale. The world’s poorest countries are in Africa and Asia, and can not afford to send all their children to school. The developing nations cannot build enough schools, support the schools with enough qualified teachers, teaching resources and basic social needs such as access to clean water and hygiene facilities and cannot provide subsidies or free education for all. All this presents a learning challenge which keeps many students, girls in particular, from attaining the required knowledge. According to UNICEF, the world has more non-learners in school than out of school; about 617 children cannot reach minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics.

d) Child Labour

11% of children, which is nearly 168 million, are child labourers, and the majority are girls serving as domestic servants, taking care of house chores and light farming work, deprived of their right to education. If they enrol at school, schooling does not lead to learning because the students often reach school tired and hungry, especially where culture discriminates women from eating first, as in India and Africa.

e) Dangerous routes to school

Most families in Africa and Asia’s rural areas travel somewhat long distances to school, which parents end up considering unsafe for the girl child. Along the dangerous routes, the girl child often suffers from sexual violence, abduction, intimidation and harassment, especially in times of armed conflicts, which leaves parents with little option than to keep their girl child-safe home. According to UNICEF, approximately 48.5 million children are out of school in the war or conflict regions; About 13 million, which is roughly 1 in 20 girls between 15 and 19 years, have experienced forced sex; Adolescent girls face the highest risk of gender-based violence.

f) Poor sanitation

Majority of girls, especially of the menstrual age and whose parents can not afford essential sanitary wear, often stop going to school for several days during their menstrual periods, mainly because of lack of proper hygiene facilities and clean water. The worst-case involves unavailability of private facilities at school for the girl child to use during her biological times.

g) Lack of female teachers

Because of the gender inequalities so mentioned, there are fewer female teachers in most Asian and African schools. The setup exhibits a less friend environment for the girl child, who could otherwise be at ease if female teachers who practically understand their biology were dominant.

h) Disability

The fate of the African and Asian disabled girl child is hard to explain. These children suffer from both physical and psychological trauma of discrimination because of their disability, augmented by the same gender disparity facing every girl child. As a result, only a few disabled girls make it to the tertiary level. The society often neglects their unique needs, leaving everything under the care of the biological parents. To worsen the matter, reports of male parents who divorce their wives for failing to bear normal children are rampant, which means the disabled child will live in the hands of the mother alone, without support from both parents.

i) Natural disasters

Catastrophic events such as earth quacks, floods, droughts, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, tsunamis, landslides and droughts have adverse effects in the education of every child. Still, the extent is more pronounced in the girl child education. After the occurrence of a natural disaster, it leaves families with little or nothing, exposing the girl child to opportunists who take advantage of their desperate situation to lure them for sex for little goodies or engage them into early child marriages. Besides, the poor parents reserve to send them back to school. This happens even if a few schools in nearby societies survive the natural disaster.

Why girl-child education should be a family, national and global priority

1) Competent future generations raised

Experts believe that investing in a nation starts by investing in girl-child education, which is a fact because women are vital in managing children’s education and social needs better than man. The African words of wisdom say, “If we educate a boy, we educate one person. If we educate a girl, we educate a family–and an entire nation.” The proverb is true because educated girls are more likely to send their children to school, with a positive influence in their lives from health to protection from HIV/AIDS, exploitative labour and trafficking, which is essential for girls. After all, they are more easily infected with HIV during sex than boys.

2) Enhanced socio-economic growth

There is great potential for socio-economic growth at both national and global scales because of the women’s capacity to raise educated future generation if given a chance to educate themselves. Without education, we suppress their potential and poverty circle continues. If educated, nations can benefit productivity from an extra competitive hand that would otherwise be idle at home, thus raising the living standards of the families, communities and nations. Besides, there will be social, economic and political inclusion as educated women take part in local, national, regional and international decision-making processes, which creates a more balanced outcome.

3) Decreased child marriages

Research shows that keeping a girl child at school reduces her chances of getting married young. Leaving a girl-child out of school cultivates a favourable environment to early marriage as she spends idle time without useful things to do. Besides, an educated girl knows her rights and advantages of not marrying early, so she priorities to pursue life-changing goals instead.

4) Decreased female genital mutilation

Genital mutilation violates women’s rights to bodily integrity, yet over 200 million women succumbed to it. Educating the girl child ensures they understand the adverse effects of genital mutilation, a procedure involving alteration of their external genitalia for non-medical but customary reasons. The effects include infection, cysts, pain during sex, immense birth pain, panic attacks and infertility.

5) Decreased domestic and sexual violence

Educated girls know their rights and can distinguish between what is right and wrong; they do not tolerate any form of abuse and can report such acts to law enforcement agents.

6) Decreased fertility rates

The primary reason most countries are in poverty is high fertility rates. Families grow too many children than they can support, leading to resource deficit. Educating the girl child enables her to marry later in life and bear a few children, which they can provide support, thus raising the standards of living.

7) Decreased maternal mortality

An educated girl child has potential to gain sufficient health care knowledge required for safekeeping of the mother and the unborn child until delivery. Besides, they bear few children, which reduces their chances of dying during pregnancy, delivery or post-delivery. Educating women ensures availability of more experts who can assist with maternal health care services.

8) Decrease infant mortality rate

Children born of educated mothers are better nourished and get sick less often. Education is the best defence against diseases, especially HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 without vaccines. Besides, the chances of an educated HIV or COVID-19 positive mother not taking necessary precautionary measures to prevent mother to child transmission is meagre, compared to the uneducated parent.

9) Reduced acts of terrorism

Educated women do not support acts of terrorism or militancy compared to uneducated female or similarly educated man.

The way to go

Every child should have the same right to go to school and gain knowledge regardless of colour, race, ethnic group or tribe, religion, age, sex, physical state/ disability, and nationality. Developing nations should prioritise a lion’s share budget specifically to make safe, accessible, and gender-sensitive schools. Subsidies or free tuition should be mandatory. Education should also target parents to inform them about the rights of children, the legal consequences of breaking the law, and the advantages of keeping the girl child in school. UNFPA wrote in support saying, “She is NOT a commodity to be traded; Not an object of desire; Not a burden to discard.”

Governments should enforce quality learning by providing highly qualified and motivated teachers who can assist children in understanding education concepts in a safe and friendly learning environment. The provision should include fair access by those children in humanitarian and emergencies. Governments should make incentives available for women to enrol in STEM fields and open up employment possibilities for women after school.

Governments and humanitarian organisations should change implementation strategies and adopt a radical approach to help eliminate gender disparities because business, as usual, is not providing the speed required for the attainment of the intended outcomes. In most African and Asian nations, offenders still subject hundreds of millions of girls to child marriages, genital mutilation, sexual abuse, selective abortion and other acts that the entire world recognise as human rights violations. Nations should address the root cause of gender stereotyping, starting with family, community, books, and media where children see and experience gender inequality every day.

There are several ways to address the issues of religion and culture, such as constructive teaching of the doctrine people believe. For instance, the Bible has many areas which address Christian man to love their wives with the love of God, which they deliberately not preach with more emphasis as they do to scriptures which require women to submit to them. Ephesians 5 verse 21 addresses man to submit to their wives also, “And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The golden rule is another example which requires men to love women as they love themselves. So with these scriptures put correctly with emphasis, gender should define no work; men should assume the responsibility of caregiving and chores out of love.

Governments and humanitarian organisations should promote girls from all walks of life to join women-led movements to learn and boldly raise their voices against gender inequality. The move should include social networks and applications to enable them to report any form of abuse or violence, to access safe places, receive menstrual health, COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS education, and psychological support. Support should also include programmes targeting the girl child to build their entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership skills. Every girl and caring men should be part of women-led organisations such as Empower Women and Wocan, to mention but a few.

Last, Governments and humanitarian organisations should find ways of addressing both the short-term and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic at hand, on the young generation, girls in particular.

Author: Tonderai Muchemwa

Article Editor: Tapiwa Masikati-Mudzamba