Three years ago, more than 160 countries attending the World Education Forum in Senegal pledged to achieve gender parity in education -- equal enrollments for boys and girls -- by 2005. Most of the Central Asian republics are at risk of not achieving this goal. According to a UN report published today, discrimination against girls in access to schooling has been a growing phenomenon in some parts of the region during the past decade.
Prague, 6 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Gulnoz Ahmadova is one of the lucky women in Tajikistan. She is studying at a university in the capital, Dushanbe. But she says parents often refuse to invest money in the education of their daughters because they know they will only leave the family after marriage.
"A lot of parents think and are concerned about where they are going to find [the] huge amount of money [required] to provide girls and boys with education. Some parent think it is better that -- instead of spending money for girls who are likely to become wives -- it is better to invest in boys because boys will have to support their family and parents," Ahmadova said.
Ahmadova's sentiments are confirmed in a new UN report, published today, that finds that women still face discrimination in getting an education in many parts of the world. The report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reveals discrimination in access to education for girls in 54 countries -- 16 of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The former Soviet republics of Central Asia are also singled out for their gender disparity.
For decades, Moscow promoted a policy of gender equality across the Soviet Union in which women were encouraged to study and work. Since independence, the five Central Asian republics have continued to publicly support the same concept.
Nevertheless, Christopher Colclough, director of the report in Paris, says gender parity in the primary level of education has not been reached in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
"Countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have had some deterioration in the proportion of enrollment, particularly at primary level, held by females over the last decade," Colclough said.
The report finds that Kyrgyzstan has reached gender parity in secondary education only because so many boys drop out before graduation.
However, in Tajikistan, the proportion of girls at the secondary level is decreasing. Two-thirds more boys complete secondary schooling in Tajikistan than do girls.
Kazakhstan is the lone success story in the region. The report finds that it has reached gender parity in both primary and secondary education.
For Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the lack of data prevented researchers from establishing any gender trends.
Iveta Silova is a senior education adviser for the Open Society Institute in Central Asia. She says Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are probably the two countries with the widest gender gaps in education.
"This is where even state statistical information shows big emerging gender gaps. And in these two countries, you can see gender gaps increasing as you go higher up in the education levels. As you go to secondary education and higher education, there are less and less women there," Silova said.
In Tajikistan, Silova notes, women constitute only one-quarter of all students in higher education. In Uzbekistan's universities, women constitute only 30 percent of the students.
Many parents in these countries say they cannot afford to finance their children's studies, although primary school continues to be free across the region. At the same time, conservative views prioritizing marriage for women above education influence many parents, particularly in rural areas of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, as this Tajik mother confirms: "Boys have more responsibility in life. They have to feed their family and children."
Another Tajik mother explains that Tajik families simply have no alternative: "We do not have a choice. We have to push our boys to study, rather than girls. We cannot offer girls conditions to study because it is too expensive, because we have to pay for every university."
Kayerkhan, a 15-year-old Kazakh boy studying in Almaty, says he believes boys and girls should have equal chances of receiving an education: "In general, I think that in Kazakhstan all girls and boys are equal. And nobody, including the government, has the right to give priority to anyone."
A recent report on youth in Central Asia by the International Crisis Group says parents themselves need to be taught about the benefits to both boys and girls of having a proper education. It adds that religious leaders should also be included in a wider policy promoting and valuing education for girls.
As UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura concludes: "Gender parity in education is a priority not only because inequality is a major infringement of fundamental human rights but because it represents an important obstacle to social and economic development."
(Khiromon Bakoyeva of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Merkhat Sharipzhanov, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report.)