Has gender become just another word for girls?

Cross-posted from UNICEF’s Back on Track Ask the Gender Expert blog.

Reviewing CAP (Consolidated Appeals Process) Education Cluster Response Plans and associated projects recently, it struck me that despite my constant mantra to education practitioners that ‘gender’ is not just another word for girls, it may have come to be erroneously understood as such.

Let me explain: The analysis in this particular CAP indicates that 22 – 40 per cent of children (boys and girls) attend school and less than 25 per cent of girls are enrolled. You’ll agree that this is a pretty dismal picture for both girls and boys, with girls marginally worse off than boys in most regions of the country. However, with no explanation of what prevents girls and boys attending and staying in school, 10 of the 20 projects in this appeal included, what I see as, meaningless phrases, such as ‘with particular attention on girls’ enrollment’; ‘with special attention to girls’; ‘with more emphasis on girl-child enrollment’, etc. (By the way, that’s not to say that the other 10 projects contained meaningful gender analysis and response; unfortunately some of them were just entirely silent on the issue altogether!)

There is absolutely no doubt that the challenges for girls’ enrollment and retention in school are plentiful and, depending on the particular context, may include cultural beliefs and practices, including son preference; early marriage or pregnancy; social attitudes; practical issues related to non-segregated classrooms and appropriate toilets and hand wash facilities; ; the lack of female teachers and teaching assistants; protection issues related to the journey to and from school and within school grounds (sexual exploitation and abuse); to name but a few. BUT, the challenges for boys, while different. are just as plentiful. Again, depending on the context, these may include recruitment to armed groups, greater risk of arbitrary arrest, harassment, detention and extra-judicial killings, child labour, agricultural chores such as pastoralism, and the lack of positive male role models in schools, etc.

Now, I’m not saying for one moment that there shouldn’t be targeted action on girls’ education. We have any number of organizations – UNESCO, UNICEF, UNGEI, – and initiatives – The Girl Effect, Half the Sky Movement – who remind us in no uncertain terms of the life-cycle and inter-generational merits of getting girls into school. What I am saying is twofold: firstly, that we cannot allow the important focus on girls’ education to distract us from ensuring that we look at the often very different constraints to access, drop-out and learning achievement for boys in basic education too, i.e. we must complete a gender analysis; and, secondly, that we cannot allow ourselves to believe for one moment that phrases like ‘particularly for girls’ tick the gender box because they clearly do not – saying it doesn’t make it so!

Siobhàn Foran is the Gender Standby Capacity (GenCap) Advisor with the Global Clusters and is currently working from Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Somalia, Nairobi.



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