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World: Gender Gap In Education Narrows

By Annie Hillar

Washington, 20 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A new study says that the worldwide gender gap in education has been reduced with an increasing number of girls attending school.

The study, titled Educating Girls: Gender Gaps and Gains, was conducted by Population Action International -- a private, non-profit organization advocating voluntary family planning to slow population growth. The study covered a 10-year period beginning in 1985.

The study of 132 countries looked at school enrollment rates for girls and boys at both primary and secondary levels to evaluate the global gender gap in education. Twenty-three countries from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and the nations of the former Soviet Union were included in the study.

Several countries were even found to have a reverse gender gap: secondary level enrollment rates were higher for girls than for boys in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

But, worldwide, 16 percent fewer girls than boys are enrolled in school.

Muneera Salem-Murdock, deputy director of the Office of Women in Development at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said during a briefing on the study in Washington on Friday that 25 percent of girls do not go to school, a fact that is of global significance.

She says: "Given the mounting evidence of the correlation, strong correlations, between girls' education and increased earnings, reduced birthrate, increased status, you can imagine the tremendous cost that implies not only for these girls, their immediate and future families, but also for their communities, for their nations and for us all worldwide."

Shanti Conly, director of Policy Analysis at Population Action International, said at the press conference that girls still lag behind boys in education for a number of reasons. She says: "I think both culture and poverty contribute to the gender gap in education. But these are often intertwined."

She said girls have a lower social status than boys in many countries, and often leave school early to get married or because of unplanned pregnancies. She said some parents see little direct economic benefit to educating their daughters because girls often work in the home or care for younger children. They do not earn an income.

Conly also said that although enrollment rates for both boys and girls have risen worldwide, several former communist countries have seen a decline in enrollment.

Conly said that enrollment rates at the secondary level since 1985 plunged in Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, reflecting the economic dislocations and civil conflicts those countries have been experiencing since the end of communism.

In 1985, Albania had over 75 percent enrollment for both sexes. By 1995, 35 percent of boys and girls were enrolled at the secondary level. Bulgaria and Romania's enrollment rate, which was at around 100 percent in 1985, is now at 70 percent.

She also said she was surprised that few countries which emerged following the communist collapse in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have achieved universal enrollment. She noted, for example, that the number of children enrolled in school was especially low in Georgia, Uzbekistan and in Yugoslavia.

A possible reason for the low enrollment rate, Conly said, is that investment in education has fallen sharply in many countries facing economic transition. This results in the lowering of the quality of education and in enrollment rates for both sexes.

Amy Coen, president of Population Action International, said the study found a strong link between girls' secondary school enrollment and teen birthrates. The study says girls who are less educated are more likely to become mothers as adolescents. According to the study, the majority of countries with high female enrollment rates had less than 30 pregnancies per 1,000 students. An exception is the United States, where the birthrate among teenage girls is 64 per 1,000 students.

But, in some of the former Soviet Republics, more school enrollment does not necessarily mean fewer pregnancies. With over 90 percent of its 15 to 19 year old girls in school, Armenia has 61 births per 1,000 girls. Ukraine has 43, and the Russian Federation has 37.

Conly, who co-authored the study, said narrowing the gender gap in education will cost time and money. She estimated that it will take $9.5 billion to close the gender gap by 2005, and even that figure is very conservative.

But, she said, Americans spent that amount last year on athletic footwear, and Europeans and Americans together spend more than $12 billion a year on perfume.