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Gender Disparity in West African Education

Gender Disparity in West African Education

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Published by D Hernandez
Research paper done for a course on gender and change in Africa and the Afro-Latin American diaspora
Research paper done for a course on gender and change in Africa and the Afro-Latin American diaspora

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Published by: D Hernandez on May 18, 2013
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Hernandez 1 WGS231 Prof.

Lebon Danielle Hernandez April 12, 2013

Gender Difference in West African Education In the United States, equality in public education has been an important goal for schools. As women and men become less stratified in our society, so does their education. Yet gender often plays a very different role around the world. In a number of West African societies, gender roles in society affect how the education of male and females differ in their modern education system. Background West Africa has its own unique history in regards to both gender roles and relations and education. Of course, there are enormous differences region to region and country to country and to generalize gender and education for the entirety of West Africa would be erroneous and egregious. In certain countries, women have a history of being powerful and of their societies being matrilineal. In others, they have roles that are more reflective of the European division of public versus domestic. Similarly, various countries have different formal education roots which directly affect how they interact with modern-day education systems. In Sierra Leone, the highly gendered education structure that emerged from Christian Missionary schools was not foreign. This country had gendered education with roots in gender segregated secret societies. In fact,

Hernandez 2 there was a time in the mid 1900‟s when coeducation was extremely unpopular. 1 Other societies in West Africa did not have a background of formal education systems and parents saw such a system as something that only hindered personal family responsibility and cultural traditions.2 It should also be noted that the purpose of education in many indigenous systems is different than in modern systems. Bray, Clarke, and Stephens note that African culture‟s tendency to be community-focused led to many indigenous systems focusing on education as a tool to serve the community as a whole which is very different from the elitist and competitive nature of European education.3 Many more issues regarding gender disparity in schools are not related to traditional education at all. A lot of the issues are related to geography, extracurricular responsibilities, societal values, and some are global education dilemmas. Where is the Disparity? Gender disparity is something that is largely acknowledged in West Africa but is also something that is difficult to explain. Of course, something difficult to explain is even more difficult to solve. In a 2012 study that appeared in the Journal of Economic Studies, economics professor, Barnardin Senadza, from the University of Ghana used a traditional economics tool to measure gender disparity in education in a quantitative form. The Gini coefficient is a measurement often used to identify disparity in economics, but here, Senadza has synthesized gender and the AYS (average years in school) to apply it to the gender disparity in West African schools. The coefficient is based on a scale that ranges from 0 to 1- 0 signifying total


Greg A. Wiggan & Charles B. Hutchison. (2009). Global issues in education : pedagogy, policy, practice, and the minority experience. Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Education, c2009., 151-166.
2 3

Wiggan & Hutchison, 131-150. Jonathan Nwomonoh. (1998). Education and development in Africa: a contemporary survey. United States of America: International Scholars Publs., 25-40.

Hernandez 3 egalitarianism and 1 signifying complete stratification. In his research Senadza also paid special attention to geographic effect on education and the AYS for both males and females. He noted patterns of, for instance, higher levels of the AYS for both genders in urban areas and very low levels of the AYS in savannah regions. These geographic dimensions are very complex as you become more specific, as well. For example, although the previous statement about the AYS and geographic location holds true, it is also true that the AYS will be higher in urban savannah than in rural forest or coast areas. Regardless of geographic location, Senadza discovered a clear pattern in Gini coefficient. He discovered a strong positive association between gender disparity and the AYS which simply gave statistical proof that female students were spending fewer years in school on average than their male counterparts therefore bringing the coefficient between 0.82 and 0.30 for specific geographic zones and 0.47 on a national scale. This quantitative research sets the stage for other studies and offers proof of the existence of a problem and a need to find a solution.4 Interestingly enough, there is quite a significant amount of qualitative research that can be seen as factors of the statistical disparity found in Senadza‟s research. Two main points in education where the number of women enrolled drops significantly is in junior secondary (what we would consider junior high school or intermediate school) and in tertiary education (higher education such as university or trade school).5 In Children’s Geographies, Gina Porter, et. al., found some interesting issues that probably contribute to the former. In all geographic locals, primary schools are the most numerous and therefore easily accessible to all students. These


Barnardin Senadza. (2012). Education Inequality in Ghana: Gender and Spatial Dimensions. Journal Of Economic Studies, 39(5-6), 724-739.


Hernandez 4 schools are usually very local and quick to get to by foot. However, junior secondary and secondary schools are often not as accessible to all regions and often requires travelling to another town. In primary school, girls often end up being late because of all the domestic chores they have to do even before the school day begins. This involves tasks as simple as preparing their siblings for schools to tasks as difficult and time-consuming as carrying loads to the market for their mothers. Girls‟ punishments for being late are also far harsher than those for boys. Most female students don‟t think the punishment is worth it and will sometimes, as one young girl said, skip school completely on days- such as market days- when they know they‟ll be late. Penalty for being late includes acts of positive punishment such as caning, sweeping, weeding, or cleaning bathrooms. One proposed solution to this problem is in the establishment of an area of Intermediate Means of Transportation- or rather, a large public transportation system. The hope in doing so is that it might lessen the manual labor involved in moving loads back and forth to markets since this task is usually done by foot and is difficult, time-consuming, work left to the girls. Hopefully, a system of buses or trollies, etc. would lessen the burden of the task and, therefore, encourage boys to help and therefore lessen the amount of morning chores required of young girls.6 Porter, et. al. also proposed the issue of sexual safety as a barrier between girls and a junior secondary or secondary education. Not only does their distance make lateness even more inevitable for girls, but it also means that girls will have to travel far distances, often on her own or with strangers. Without the protection of her hometown, girls risk encountering sexual assault on the road. This is a reality that they are faced with if they aren‟t blessed with families willing


Gina Porter, et. al. (2011). Mobility, education and livelihood trajectories for young people in rural Ghana: a gender perspective. Children's Geographies, 9(3/4), 395-410.

Hernandez 5 to have her board in the town where a secondary school exists. Proposed solutions to this problem include overall support for girls‟ education, better options for room and board, or the pricey task of building more secondary schools. In fact, the number of secondary schools across Africa has increased significantly in recent years, but there still is a need for far more.7 This fear of sexual safety is also largely the thing keeping women out of tertiary education, as well. Not only is there a high risk of sexual assault, but there is a sexual stigma attributed to women who choose to pursue higher education. Louise Morley published her study on this topic in the Cambridge Journal of Education in 2010 and her findings were shocking. It seems that there is a mentality that all women who are doing well academically at such a high level must be getting there by sleeping with the professors. Although this is an egregious assumption, it is unfortunately not very far off from reality. In a comment that caused much uproar around the world in 2009, a male professor in the United Kingdom was recorded stating, “Most male lecturers know that, most years, there will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays. What to do? Enjoy her! She's a perk.”8 This mentality is extremely prevalent in West African universities. Although to us education is a female-dominated field, it is still very male-dominated in Africa (and higher education is maledominated globally). This is largely linked to cultural values which will be discussed later. In higher education in Africa, there is a sense of male entitlement and “sexually transmitted grades”- as it was coined- are commonplace. Many women take advantage of this to their benefit and those who don‟t tend to not achieve as high as their male counterparts for fear of being harassed if they tried to take a legitimate place in the male-dominated classroom. Because of this


Porter Louise Morley. (2011). Sex, grades and power in higher education in Ghana and Tanzania. Cambridge Journal Of Education, 41(1), 101.

Hernandez 6 fear, female students also often don‟t report unwanted sexual advances “for fear of victimization and stigmatization.” It was clear from this study that men in Africa still very much hold true that men are intellectually superior to women. Although, we know this to be untrue given women‟s achievement in academics globally, men in Africa‟s higher-education system actually do not see a way for women to achieve academically without using sex as a main driver. It can be seen through areas of study, as well, that women are considered less capable academically. Most majors in higher education have very small enrollment numbers and only management and secretarial fields are female dominated. What, perhaps, is most shocking and telling is that, when you look at these statistics, even educational studies, which are usually considered femaleoriented, are male dominated in African universities. 9 Clearly, this is very disturbing, too, because it nearly ensures the continued gender disparity in education- especially higher education. If there are such an insignificant amount of female educators, administrators, etc. as is the case now and most likely in the future, how can the system ever shift to being one in which female students feel safe and included? One fascinating view of this issue was given by one female university student in a postfeminist perspective. She admitted herself that this can be a legitimate choice in a woman‟s educational journey. She offers that the avenue is open if you want to choose it. But the most important point of all this fear and sexual conflict is that most women would rather not have to deal with that and most choose not to go on to tertiary education. 10 As mentioned earlier, cultural values also affect inequity in education. Although genders are valued differently in different regions of West Africa, a study conducted in The Gambia and

Morley, 101-115. Ibid.


Hernandez 7 Ghana revealed an interesting connection between such values and the lower overall AYS of female students. This finding was published in 2008 in Geoforum and focused on gender and poverty in relation to education and work in urban areas. Here, again, parents seem to be made out as the culprits in keeping girls from advancing in school. Due to both their cultural background and economic necessities, education is simply valued more in boys than it is in girls. The participants in the study lived in areas where the job market for youths was already very competitive and parents realized that a son with an education was a better investment than a daughter with one due to gender discrimination in the workplace. Also, families needed financial capability to further sons‟ educations and, therefore, girls were often forced to leave school after the compulsory primary level so that they could get jobs doing thinks such as waitressing and housekeeping to help pay for their brothers‟ educations. It was also not uncommon to see parents retire at this point in time and have their daughters take over financial support of the family completely.11 Solutions It is clear that many studies all reveal that there is a real problem that must be solved in regard to gender difference in modern-day West African education. Most importantly, there is a want for more formal education from students- both male and female. Just for some of the reasons parents don‟t support formal education, children want it. Although parents may rely on their children for their manual labor12, children see formal education as a very appealing


Gareth A. Jones., & Sylvia Chant. (2008). Globalising initiatives for gender equality and poverty reduction: Exploring „failure‟ with reference to education and work among urban youth in The Gambia and Ghana. Geoforum, 40(Themed Issue: Globalising Failures), 184-196.

Wiggin & Hutchison, 131-150.

Hernandez 8 alternative to the drudgery of farm work and other labor-intensive chores. 13 A number of steps have been proposed or are being taken already to try to increase educational opportunities for all students in West Africa and attempt to close the gender gap. The largest-scale push for gender parity comes from the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) which is an initiative that was created by the United Nations. One goal of the MDG was to completely close the gender gap in education on a worldwide scale by 2015. As time has gone on since its implementation in 2000, however, it has become clear to all studying the topic that the goal is unrealistic.14 There has certainly been improvement in closing the gap, but there needs to be a more comprehensive plan to achieve that sort of goal in West Africa. One aspect of MDG that does seem to be making a difference in west Africa is the implementation of complementary education programs (CEP) in hard to teach and hard to reach areas. These are alternative and non-formal school programs that are more flexible (which is excellent for girls who would otherwise be late to school) and offer more authentic curricula for specific communities. The pedagogy is more learner-centered and decentralized. One successful CEP in West Africa has been the School for Learning (SFL) in Ghana in which all curricula and activity was culturally appropriate and relevant.15 Local governments have also been implementing change. In The Gambia, for example, they have been taking a very active stance in trying to increase the AYS of female students. In response to parent complaints about lack of segregated bathrooms in schools, for instance, the Gambian government began to set up “girl-friendly schools” in 1982. Since then, the government along with a variety of NGOs have also begun setting up a number of vocational training
13 14

Porter Senadza 15 Wiggin & Hutchison, 131-150.

Hernandez 9 schemes to increase job opportunities. The Gambian Department of Education has even set up fee waivers for girls who want to go on to upper basic (junior secondary) education, has established scholarships for girls, and has run workshops to encourage girls to take on traditionally “masculine” subjects such as mathematics, sciences, and technology.16 In Cameroon, the government is combatting the problem of secondary schools being too far away by allotting one fifth of its entire national budget to schooling. This obviously means that more schools will be established in more areas and the sexual danger and time constraints that keep girls from secondary education will be lessened.17 Individual institutions have also been implementing their own policies to encourage women to continue their educations. One public university in Tanzania created a sexual harassment policy specifically to stop the fear that was interfering with women‟s academic advancement.18 Conclusion It is difficult to create a general image of what education has done to gender roles in West Africa since communities are very diverse in their indigenous gender roles and education goals. Some societies have more gender disparity than others and is clearly linked with the particular region‟s history and societal values. There are some areas in Africa in which belief that women are intellectually inferior are completely incompatible with gender roles. For instance, in areas where there are matrilineal societies, girls are often held in favor and, therefore, it would be critical that she receives an education over her brothers. She would be the one continuing the family‟s lineage. Many other regions in Africa, however, have gender roles and societal
16 17

Jones & Chant Nwomonoh, 93-101. 18 Morley

Hernandez 10 structures that remind us much more of our own Western society. In addition to cultural differences in collecting information on this topic, there is also something to be said for the heavy reliance on qualitative data. Other than statistics and the one piece of research that used the Gini coefficient, there is little quantitative data used to clearly show the disparity and even less being used to assess possible solutions. Qualitative data, also, tended to be small in sample size with each researcher using only a few interviews and observations to draw conclusions about the issue. In the end, one thing is clear- that gender disparity does exist and is an issue that can be worked on and is being worked on actively. There has been improvement and continues to be. Although the Gini coefficient remains above 0, there has certainly been a great deal of discussion and action implemented on the global, national, local, and institutional level to try to resolve the gender disparity in West African education.

Hernandez 11 Works Cited

Jones, Gareth A. & Sylvia Chant. (2008). Globalising initiatives for gender equality and poverty reduction: Exploring „failure‟ with reference to education and work among urban youth in The Gambia and Ghana. Geoforum, 40(Themed Issue: Globalising Failures), 184-196. Morley, Louise. (2011). Sex, grades and power in higher education in Ghana and Tanzania. Cambridge Journal Of Education, 41(1), 101-115. Nwomonoh, Jonathan. (1998). Education and development in Africa: a contemporary survey. United States of America: International Scholars Publs. Porter, G., Hampshire, K., Abane, A., Tanle, A., Esia-Donkoh, K., Obilie Amoako-Sakyi, R., & ... Asiedu Owusu, S. (2011). Mobility, education and livelihood trajectories for young people in rural Ghana: a gender perspective. Children's Geographies, 9(3/4), 395-410. Senadza, B. (2012). Education Inequality in Ghana: Gender and Spatial Dimensions. Journal Of Economic Studies, 39(5-6), 724-739. Wiggan, G. A., & Hutchison, C. B. (2009). Global issues in education : pedagogy, policy, practice, and the minority experience. Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Education.

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