Credits: Global Partnership for Education (Flickr)
Credits: Global Partnership for Education (Flickr)

Education’s Promise for Gender Equality (2/2)

published 2017-04-29 updated 2017-06-05

Gender equality is a stand-alone goal under the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but is also a key aspect of the SDG 4 Quality Education. In light of the forthcoming 2018 World Development Report (WDR) and the influence of the World Bank in shaping global narratives on education and gender equality, it is important to take a moment to consider how the World Bank envisions the role of education, and the education of women and marginalized groups in particular, in reducing poverty and promoting shared prosperity. This is the second of two brief analyses on the 2018 WDR Concept Note focused on human rights and gender equality.

In the 2018 WDR Concept Note, education is positioned as a tool for “excluded groups” to “acquire relevant skills” to meet the needs of the global economy. This instrumentalist approach to education for skills acquisition to meet employment and productivity demands –demands determined not at a local level based on the needs of individuals and their communities, but based rather on global labor needs–is not aligned with education as a human right nor is it fundamentally part of an equity agenda as the Concept Note claims.

For example, the Concept Note rightly speak to persistent inequality in access to education, stating that, “Within countries, particularly in low-income countries, there remain large deficits in school participation of girls, children from poor families, and other groups that suffer from exclusion” (p. 8). However, addressing barriers in access to education is not the only necessary step toward reducing gender inequality more broadly. A rights-based approach to education recognizes not only rights to education. Any effort to address marginalization and exclusion must also pay attention to rights within and through education. In order to undo unequal relationships within broad social, political and economic systems–which not only exclude women and other marginalized groups in the first place, but continue to marginalize and exclude once access is gained–education must work to transform and transcend barriers to equal access while ensuring that women are also treated equitably and have rights within systems and institutions.

The Concept Note fails to envision how a rights-based education can encourage necessary social transformations, including addressing the barriers to gender equality based not only on one’s assumed sex, but also based on the intersection of gender, class, location, ability and numerous other markers. The 2018 WDR Concept Note states that “Education can do only so much for women’s empowerment if the law discriminates against them, or if social norms prohibit them from using their skills” (p. 6) and that “barriers to women’s employment may constrain the returns to education” (p. 2). Here, education is positioned as a vehicle for arriving at a skilled global workforce predominately. However, the potential of education to transform such legal and social barriers to women’s empowerment, as might be encouraged by a rights-based education, is not taken up in the Concept Note. Again, the Concept Note does not appear to conceptualize education as a human right in its fullest sense - of rights to, within and through education - and thereby restricts the transformative potential of education in meetings the World Bank’s own goals of “eradicating poverty and promoting shared prosperity”.

The Concept Note acknowledges that, “Both the learning crisis and proximate causes most afflict children who are already disadvantaged, whether because of poverty, gender, location, ethnicity, or disability. But because reliable measures of learning and proximate causes are often lacking, this problem becomes has aptly been labeled a ‘hidden exclusion’” (p. 11). While designing and deploying metrics to guide reforms is one of the four themes of the Concept Note, current metrics tend to stop at gender parity, or equal access. These measures usually fail to take into account what goes on within schools–for example, harassment of girl learners, lack of appropriate facilities, or curricula that enforces gender stereotypes. Further, the Concept Note fails to consider how multiple marginalities often overlap in complex ways, and their implications for measuring and making visible the “hidden exclusion”.

The 2018 WDR Concept Note should be applauded for considering education’s promise. It provides an opportunity to consider where the international community stands in terms of its commitments to the 2030 UN SDG for education and gender equality. The Concept Note falls short though of conceptualizing educations promise as being one of fundamental change to social, political and economic structures, institutions and system that are unjust and oppress based on gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, religion, language, ability, and other markers.  As discussed in Part 1, more of the same metrics and monitoring based on an instrumentalist approach to education is not likely to result in closing gender gaps for the most marginalized. To address some of the legal and social limitations for women’s empowerment that the Concept Note points out, mentioned earlier, the report co-authors might consider a rights-based approached to measuring educational outcomes and to disaggregate data in a way that might shed a light on the intersection of multiple exclusions. Ensuring rights within and through education are important for changing the logics of thinking and action required for gender justice both within and beyond school.  

The World Bank must do more than pay lip service to education as a universal human right by recognizing that rights within and through education are essential to what the 2018 WDR Concept Note refers to as an equity agenda. The aims and purpose of education must extend beyond equal access or meeting the needs for the global economy for a skilled workforce. As mentioned earlier, equal access to fundamentally unequal institutions is not the only necessary condition for women’s empowerment. Rights within and through political, economic and social institutions, like education, are essential to an equity agenda. It is up to human rights advocates, activists, critical educators and academics to be sure that happens by following the progress and engaging in the formative stages of the 2018 WDR. The 2018 WDR Concept Note can be found online at http://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/wdr2018. Questions, input and ideas on the forthcoming World Development Report can be emailed to [email protected]