A human rights-based approach to gender responsive public schools


© América Solidaria
David Archer - @DavidArcherAA
8 Septiembre 2017

In recent decades some good progress has been made in improving gender parity in primary education around the world - but superficial gains hide some shocking truths. In low income families in Africa, for every 100 boys only 83 girls complete primary education, only 73 girls complete lower secondary and only 40 girls complete upper secondary. In practice, for example, this means that girls from the lowest income families in Mozambique and Tanzania have just a 2% chance of completing secondary education. Poverty, location and ethnicity are all crucial factors in layering exclusion – so for example, in Nigeria, whilst 99% of rich young men in the South East can read and write, only 4% of poor young women in the rural North-West can do so. Patriarchy in education is clearly still alive and kicking.

Indeed, public schools display a gender bias in multiple ways, fed by widespread stereotypes, social norms and entrenched practices which perpetuate discrimination and the particular disadvantaging of girls.  In doing this public schools are simply a reflection of the patriarchal and unequal societies where they are located. By default, without conscious intervention, public schools will serve to reproduce and reinforce social and gender inequalities – playing a ‘domesticating’ role.  But as Paulo Freire argues, schools can also be places of ‘liberation’ - where deep-rooted values are contested and we can start to build another world. Developing a comprehensive alternative requires a positive vision of a rights-respecting and gender-responsive public school.

In the past few years, ActionAid, together with the Right to Education Initiative, has built a framework called ‘Promoting Rights in Schools’ based on ten core dimensions of the right to education - each drawn from international human rights treaties. ActionAid has used this core framework in thousands  of communities across 25 countries, helping parents, children and teachers to do rights based assessments of local schools, developing rights-based school improvement plans and compiling district and national level Citizens’ Reports that lay out people’s priority agendas for educational reform.

However, until now we have not done enough to make explicit the gendered dimensions of each of the core ten rights in this framework.  Doing so provides a powerful starting point for defining the range and diversity of issues that a truly rights-respecting and gender-responsive public school would need to address. Of course this is only a start: there is a huge gulf between beautifully written statements in high level documents and people’s lived experience – but these frameworks can offer a strong sense of direction for practical engagement and policy reform. Below is a brief attempt to draw out the gender issues in each of the ten core rights – followed by a short assessment of how such a transformative vision could be financed in ways that are themselves gender-responsive.

A gender perspective on ten core education rights

  1. Right to free and compulsory education

Perhaps most crucial here is the word ‘free’ as there is compelling evidence that when fees are charged, girls are often the first to be excluded. The biggest gains in gender parity in primary school enrolment were associated with campaigns for the abolition of user fees in the early 2000s. However, fees remain a major obstacle for girls accessing lower and upper secondary education – and the perpetuation of such fees is a major factor in the continuing disparities. Further work is needed also on making sure that free means free – that this extends to exam fees, textbooks, basic learning materials, uniforms, school maintenance and a host of others things that parents are too often charged. Equally important is to ensure that there are no hidden or coercively collected ‘voluntary contributions’ – as these will often make it harder for girls to stay in school relative to boys. Any suggestion that fee-charging is acceptable needs to be challenged – and this extends to so called ‘low fee private schools’ or supposedly ‘affordable schools’ – not least because this almost invariably exacerbates gender inequalities.

‘Compulsory’ is also crucial in the context of communities that may not value the education of girls as much as boys – though there is much diversity about the number of years of compulsory education (when it starts and when it ends) and how this compulsion is enforced. Girls sometimes gain more from starting early (including with early childhood education) especially in contexts where there are pressures for early marriages and early pregnancy. When girls start primary school at 7 or 8 years old it becomes more difficult for them to complete before they enter puberty. However, it is equally important to use the nature of ‘compulsory education’ to insist on the rights of girls to return to school after giving birth – and to ensure alignment and enforcement of laws relating to early marriage.

  1. Right to non-discrimination

Girls face discrimination in access to education in many contexts – whether arising from child marriage or child pregnancy or simply to the burden of domestic and care duties imposed on them. Girls also face discrimination inside classrooms in many different ways as a result of gender stereotyping. Girls may be sitting at the back or on the floor whilst boys sit at the front or on chairs. Teachers may have different expectations of girls:  what they should and should not do (be quieter, ‘behave themselves’ differently to boys, sit in certain ways), what they are capable and not capable of (e.g. maths and science) and what roles they should take on in helping out around the school (e.g. cleaning). Girls are often confronted with similar stereotypes in the textbooks they read, framing their views of what are expected or accepted roles. LGBTIQ students and teachers may face even more systematic challenges, with homophobic bullying rising in many countries, reinforced by regressive media and legislation.

Comprehensive work needs to be done with curriculum developers, textbook producers, teacher trainers and teachers themselves to ensure that all dimensions of discrimination, conscious and unconscious, are challenged.  This needs to be informed by an inter-sectional approach – recognising that gender discrimination is often compounded by other axes of discrimination based on class, caste, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or disability. It should be noted of course that there is potential for discrimination under all the other rights that are documented here – so this is both a standalone absolute right and something that cuts across all the other rights.

  1. Right to adequate infrastructure

When school infrastructure is inadequate girls are often the first to suffer. This is most directly obvious in the case of sanitation facilities – unless there are safe, decent and separate facilities for girls and boys the impact can be to push girls out of school either permanently or on a temporary basis. There is growing evidence that adolescent girls in rural schools without decent sanitation will avoid attending school when on their periods.  Moreover, badly located or designed toilets and changing facilities are all too often locations of bullying and harassment or abuse. More broadly inadequate infrastructure can affect girls in other ways – when classrooms are over-crowded, girls are often the most cramped and the least likely to be heard – and when there are no boundary fences around a school, girls can face particular dangers. Too often parental fear of girls losing their ‘honour’ lead them to withdraw girls from school against their will – and these pressures will only be addressed when school premises are made more safe and secure. Adequate infrastructure of course also plays a crucial role for accessibility of girls with disabilities.

  1. Right to quality trained teachers

The teaching profession is often highly gendered. In some countries there is a tendency towards more female teachers in the early years and primary schools (linked with a more nurturing role) and more male teachers in secondary (more academic and ‘serious’) – and this can be associated with unfair pay differentials. However in many low income countries and particularly in rural schools the profession is male-dominated at almost every level. The lack of female teachers can mean girls lack positive role models and patriarchal attitudes are more likely to be perpetuated. There is of course a cycle here – fewer girls completing secondary education or graduating means there is a smaller pool of women who can become future teachers. Those women whom could enter the profession are often deterred from doing so, particularly in rural schools, for the lack of safe accommodation – as they struggle to travel back and forth to school and to juggle their own gendered family roles. The traditional form of entering the teaching profession, through three year residential initial teacher training colleges, is not always as easy for young women as young men – so changing entry requirements and models (with more in-service support) can help to ensure a better balance. This should not however lead to a loss of quality or de-professionalization (downgrading of the teaching profession disadvantages everyone in the end). Nor should it lead to excessive categorisation – with different streams of teachers on different career paths / salary scales – as these can serve to disguise discrimination against female teachers.

The content of teacher training also plays a crucial role - and gender-sensitivity in training needs to be much more integral than it often is. A quality trained teacher should be understood as one who is aware of gender issues, recognises their own inevitable prejudices and works actively towards transforming their biases and behaviours. As noted by Education International: ‘Teachers must be trained to deal with the dynamics of sexism, racism, and homophobia in the classroom’.

  1. Right to a safe, non-violent environment

Girls (and boys who don’t conform to traditional gender norms) are often at greater risk of facing physical and psychological violence in school, around school and on the way to school - so fulfilling the right to a safe and non-violent environment can be particularly crucial for making schools gender responsive. Evidence on good practice to address violence in schools and among young people suggests that dialogue between peers, with community members and within schools; and raising critical consciousness on the norms, values and beliefs that shape gender relations and violence is effective. These can be facilitated via single sex or mixed groups and through clubs - providing a safe space for girls and boys to explore issues of sexuality, positive relationships and recognising and reporting abuse.  Creating safe spaces for girls to meet in girls’ clubs, is particularly crucial – so that girls themselves can build a network of support and be in the forefront of determining the wider changes that are needed. In working with teachers, interventions that have focused on building the confidence of teachers to address gender-based violence and facilitating teachers to reflect on their own values, beliefs and experiences of gender inequality and violence have shown promise in addressing the root causes of gender based violence.  

One of the most transformative interventions to reduce violence and abuse has been confidential reporting systems – where these have the confidence of those who suffer abuse and where there is a real link to enforcement – including with connections to specially trained police officers and the judicial system. Work with teachers and teacher unions to develop and implement professional codes of conduct is also important - so that if individual teachers do abuse their power (e.g. through demanding sex for grades) they will face punishment. In-service training for teachers (including on enforcing positive discipline - without violence) and working with parents / community leaders to reinforce positive aspects of social and cultural norms (based on principles of equality and human rights) can make a real difference, ensuring that all abuse, including among teachers and students, is challenged.

  1. Right to relevant education

For education to be ‘acceptable’ and ‘adaptable; it needs to be ‘relevant’ – whether that means teaching the early years in the mother tongue or ensuring learning relates sufficiently to the local environment and livelihoods – but we need to be careful when considering this in relation to gender. A relevant education in a patriarchal context could be used to justify the further entrenchment of traditional roles and expectations. Rather, relevance should be seen also to encompass other dimensions – not purely local but also national and global. There is universal relevance to ensuring girls and boys are prepared for active citizenship to advance the sustainable development goals (including SDG5 on achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls); or indeed to advance values of respect, tolerance and democracy. There is also an urgent relevance to girls and boys learning about sexual and reproductive health issues. Any education system that fails to provide comprehensive sex education can be seen to have failed to have addressed a crucial issue of relevance to the lives of young women and men. In broader terms there is a value to looking at both practical and strategic gender needs – ensuring girls (and boys) learn not just those things to survive in their immediate practical lives – but that they also learn strategically how to challenge and transcend gendered roles and stereotypes. Critical thinking and problem solving rather than rote learning of facts thus become central to a progressive view of relevant education – one that succeeds in developing the full human personality.

  1. Right to know your rights

The Convention on the Rights of the Child includes a specific commitment, signed up to by all but two countries in the world, that 'States Parties undertake to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike.' Schools play a pivotal role here and it means that girls should be empowered with knowledge of the protections offered under human rights law (and in most national constitutions). Again this includes sexual and reproductive health rights but goes far beyond that to full equality before the law. Respect for human rights, tolerance and equality of the sexes are all part of the aims of education as articulated by human rights law. Teacher training programmes ought to include human rights education and awareness.

  1. Right to participate

Girls and boys have an equal right to participate in decision making in schools – whether through schools councils or other mechanisms. In practice boys often dominate such spaces and the participation of girls is symbolic or tokenistic. Disaggregated tracking of who speaks in key forums and whose voice is given weight can help to ensure that biases are diminished and that the participation of girls in a democratic space in their schools can be a foundation for meaningful participation and leadership in wider society. Separate spaces for girls, including in girls clubs, can be important - and whilst boys clubs are also of value as spaces for addressing gender issues -  there is an additional dimension for girls to be able to build confidence and voice in ways which may be seen as counter-cultural. This can be important for shifting the norms of the day-to-day interaction in classrooms – making sure girls put their hands up, demand to be heard, speak up and are ready to challenge situations where teachers show a bias.

  1. Right to transparent, accountable schools

Gender imbalance is not just a problem within classrooms but also in school governing bodies and other community spaces that link with schools. School management committees are often dominated by men and have serious under-representation from women and parents with low incomes.  This can be the legacy of decades of a failed system that has left women from poor households unable to read and write and lacking in the confidence to engage in their local school. Yet these voices and perspectives are crucial for ensuring schools are rooted in the reality of the communities they serve. If many children return home to non-literate households the impact of this is enormous and the challenges involved need to be given a voice on school bodies. There is a strong case for women’s literacy and empowerment programmes that seek to increase representation on relevant bodies and thus effective accountability of schools. The requirement for schools to be fully transparent, including about how they use their budgets, can be transformative if widely understood. This will ensure that decision making is not left in the hands of a small (mostly male) elite and becomes open to scrutiny with more representative parents able to offer alternative priorities and ideas.

  1. Right to quality learning

There should be no reason for any marked gendered difference in learning outcomes in any subject. Any evidence of difference needs to be scrutinised to determine the cause and make corrections because some form of discrimination or bias will be at work – arising in one way or another from the sexist distribution of privilege and oppression that shapes access to opportunities and resources. In focusing on ‘quality learning; it is important to ensure that this does not become too narrowly focused on simplistic measures of literacy and numeracy – and that learning outcomes across a broad curriculum are valued and properly disaggregated. The myth that boys are better at science or ‘more suited to engineering’ needs to be challenged whenever it rears its ugly head! The ‘genderisation’ of subjects can have a lasting impact, disadvantaging girls at higher levels of education and affecting career opportunities. Of course there may be some difference in the initial motivation for girls to follow certain subjects owing to labels and stereotypes – but this should lead to proactive steps and positive discrimination to redress an obvious imbalance.

Gender-responsive financing of public education

Having a clear vision of rights-based elements that should be considered in building a gender responsive public school is a helpful starting point – but getting this embedded in national education sector plans and specifically financing this vision is perhaps the biggest challenge – and we need to ask: what gender-responsive financing for gender responsive schools would look like? Here there are four overall elements to consider: the share, the size, the sensitivity and the scrutiny of budgets:

Share of budgets

Progress on fully funding gender responsive public education will not be realistic unless countries are meeting the widely accepted benchmark of 20% of national budgets spent on education. We need stronger national coalitions on education, uniting with women’s movements to demand increased investment where governments are falling short

Size of budgets 

20% of a small pie is a small amount. Piketty calls for a minimum of 20% tax to GDP ratio for countries to be social states rather than mere ceremonial ‘regalian’ states. But how you build a tax base in crucial. There are regressive means, such as value added tax (VAT),which tend to disadvantage women unless there are exemptions for basic goods,  and progressive means, such as ending harmful tax incentives; more tax on high incomes and wealth; challenging aggressive avoidance. There are also questions of macro-economic policy that impact the overall size of the budget. Austerity policies tend to hit women hardest because when there are gaps or failures in public service provision this tends to increase the burden of unpaid care that is passed on to women.  Feminist macro-economists make the case for more expansionary macro-economic policies, including justifying more investment in education that can act as a force both for greater equality and for greater growth. There is a sweet spot to be found around expanding a progressive tax base In order to expand progressive investment in education – but we also need to ensure that resources are progressively spent for increased gender equality in education.

Sensitivity of budgets 

A gender responsive approach to budgeting would look across the ten rights above and ensure investments are made to minimise any violations. It would ensure women’s organisations were strongly involved in the budgeting process and that all policies and investments were scrutinised for their gendered impact. There would be more investment in areas of education that have perhaps been historically under-regarded – such as early childhood education – where the impact on increasing equality (and reducing the burden of women’s unpaid care) can be dramatic.

Scrutiny of budgets

There is no point having a sizable budget, fairly shared out and allocated in gender sensitive ways if it is not scrutinised in practice. Education budgets can all too easily go astray, or decision making over how budgets are used locally can end up in the hands of a small (often male) elite. Addressing the ten rights outlined above will help, making sure there is transparency and greater accountability to representative bodies, and encouraging reflection on the gendered outcomes of different investments in practice.


Human rights frameworks – and the ten core elements of the right to education outlined above - provide a rich foundation for defining what a gender responsive public education should look like and for devising practical policies and interventions. Education has the potential to be the most powerful equalising force in any society if efforts are made to ensure that education systems are equal. If systems are highly stratified, the outcomes will be. If systems are patriarchal, the outcomes will be ever more patriarchal societies. We should not tolerate schools being sites for the reproduction of social and gender inequalities - though we must also recognise that it is not easy to change the gender norms in schools when gender and social inequalities are still entrenched outside the school gates.  Building truly gender responsive public schools will always be challenging but some of the directions are clear and, if realised, schools can be powerful levers for wider transformation.


David Archer is Head of Participation and Public Services at ActionAid. He is also chair of the Right to Education Initiative's executive board. 






This post orginally appeared on UNGEI's blog

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