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Gender equality: A critical component in achieving quality education for all

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) set out by the United Nations in 2015 identified quality education as their fourth goal. SDG 4 aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Despite global initiatives such as The Global Campaign for Education aimed to increase access to education, the world is not on track to meet SDG 4 by 2030. Lack of access to formal education disproportionately affects developing countries, and gender disparities in education continue to exist. The persistence of global gender inequality is reflected in SDG 5, which aims to empower all women and girls. Despite a specific SDG to target gender inequality, a gendered lens should be applied to SDG 4 as gender equality is intrinsically linked to the right to quality education for all.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already slow progress to achieve quality education for all by 2030. The pandemic increased learning inequalities between developing and developed countries. In low- and middle-income countries, the share of children living in learning poverty, already over 50% before 2020, will rise sharply, potentially up to 70%, given the long school closures and the varying quality and effectiveness of remote learning. A study by the ONE campaign shows that over half the world's 10-year-olds could be unable to read by the end of 2021, with Africa’s children struggling the most.

Furthermore, global access to quality education remains gendered. As of 2020, 90 % of males are literate compared to a little over 83 % of women worldwide. On average, males are more literate than females among youth and adult populations. Between 2012 and 2018, gender disparities continued to disadvantage girls in primary education in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The current pandemic resulted in more girls dropping out of school due to household poverty, domestic work, parental preferences, early marriages, adolescent pregnancies, and school-related gender-based violence. Social and economic policies need to be centered around the experiences of the most marginalized and vulnerable citizens to bring about effective interventions. Gender equality in education is necessary not only to meet the objectives of SDG 4 but the overall SDG agenda. For instance, SDG 1 aims to end poverty in all its forms. For this goal to be reached, women must have equal opportunities to escape poverty by accruing the necessary skills to enter the workforce. Gender gaps create barriers to effective, sustainable development and livelihoods by limiting or restricting women's access to resources and decision-making opportunities.

Formal education rights for all children are necessary to achieve quality education for all. However, social and economic policies must complement these legal rights to make substantive quality education more accessible to girls. Measures that can improve access to quality education and subsequent opportunities for girls include: (1) Addressing financial barriers; (2) Promoting social and cultural norms that encourage girls’ education; (3) ensuring safe and inclusive learning environments; (4) eliminating gender biases in curriculum and introduce gender-sensitive language; (5) prioritizing and promoting girls’ empowerment, skills developments, and social programs. Gender equality is significant across all SDGs to drive sustainable development. Women and girls make up almost half of the world’s population. Thus, those benefits will reverberate across society when their position is improved. Unless the progress of gender equality in education is accelerated, the global community will fail to reach SDG 4 and prevent significant obstacles to achieving the rest of the SDG agenda by 2030.


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