PlanED Episode 5: Planning for gender equity in and through education

If education is to be truly transformative, it must leave no one behind. However, girls do not always have the same access to education as boys. While striving for parity is one part of bridging the gap, education actors must consider more than just numbers when addressing gender, equality, and inclusion. For International Women's Day 2024, IIEP-UNESCO's Fabricia Devignes and Jihane Lamouri explain how the Gender at the Centre Initiative is working with countries like Mauritania and Nigeria to step up progress for gender equity in and through education. We also hear from Augustina Apakasa, the Assistant Director for the Gender Branch in the Federal Ministry of Education of Nigeria, on turning policies into reality in Nigeria.

Full transcript:

Alexandra Waldhorn: If education is to be truly transformative, it must leave no one behind.

However, girls do not always have the same access to education as boys. And while striving for parity is one part of bridging the gap, educational planners must consider more than just numbers when addressing gender, equality, and inclusion.

Jihane Lamouri: Mauritania is a good example of a country who almost managed to achieve parity in primary and lower secondary access at the National level. But where regional disparities persist, and there are significant differences between boys and girls within some regions. And also, the environment outside education is not conducive to gender equality, with several discriminatory laws, limited reproductive rights and health, and strong gender gaps in political and economic sphere of power.

Alexandra Waldhorn: This is PlanED, a podcast from UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP). I’m Alexandra Waldhorn, thank you for listening today.

IIEP’s mission is to strengthen the capacities of countries – primarily through ministries of education –to plan and manage their education systems.

The world has made significant progress in educating girls, but they remain at a disadvantage, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where 34 percent of lower secondary-age and 47 percent of upper secondary-age girls are out of school.

And for those in school, girls are often at risk of school-related gender-based violence and experience gender-biased teaching. Their situation worsens as their gender intersects with other sources of exclusion and vulnerability - poverty, disability, ethnicity, religion, or displacement status. Gender-blind education systems also impact boys and reproduce harmful gender norms.

Jihane Lamouri, a gender-sensitive educational planner, with IIEP-UNESCO’s regional office for Africa, based in Dakar, supported the Mauritanian government to develop an education sector plan that addresses gender issues.

She says working on gender has to take into account many other aspects, and in Mauritania, as in many other countries, it’s a sensitive issue that requires a whole-system approach that addresses the root causes of gender inequality both within the education system and beyond.

Jihane Lamouri: The term gender has been controversial since 2016, largely due to a law on gender violence, that never passed. And it has stirred up new controversies in recent months. And also, the status of women and girls can vary dramatically from one community to another. So analyzing gender issues in Mauritania really requires an intersectional perspective. Gender is a sensitive issue, but also ethnicity and languages. And so, the way gender equality is introduced and discussed matters a lot.  It's not just about discussing parity between girls and boys, or disparities in schooling and learning outcomes. But the whole education environment- the dynamics and how gender intersects with other elements of inequities and/or vulnerabilities. And so to address these challenges, what our team believe is that it's crucial to try to understand the root causes.

What we saw in Mauritania is that even when there are no strong gender differences on certain indicators, let's say on school dropouts, an analysis of the cause of non-access or dropouts reveals marked differences from a gender perspective. So, for instance, some reasons affect only girls, for instance marriage or pregnancy, while other impacts almost exclusively boys.  So it's essential also to understand what those quantitative analysis means and to contextualize them in the specific context.

Alexandra Waldhorn: IIEP works with education ministries - as well as their partners and local communities - to help them understand why exclusion persists - and it develops customized solutions to place equity and gender at the heart of education planning, policies, budgets, and reforms.

Fabricia Devignes is the Programme Manager of the Gender at the Centre Initiative (GCI), which is co-coordinated by IIEP-UNESCO and the UN Girls’ Education Initiative. Launched in 2019 by the G7 Ministries of Education, GCI empowers education ministries in African countries to embed gender equity issues into their planning and mainstream gender issues in budgets and policies so that all girls –and boys— experience a full, high quality and gender-transformative education.

Fabricia explains that the initiative encourages educational planners to take a ‘transformative’ approach to planning - to recognize the challenges facing women, girls, and marginalized groups in their countries and to find ways to support them.

Fabricia Devignes: A transformative approach is an approach that transforms the underlying social structures, policies, and broadly held social norms that perpetuate gender inequalities. So for education that means that we must move beyond striving to achieve parity in education, But instead, we must work toward addressing the root causes of gender-based inequalities.

Alexandra Waldhorn: how receptive have countries been thus far to the activities of the Gender at the Center initiative, as well as other projects to accelerate progress for gender equity?

Fabricia Devignes: Governments are more and more in demand of integrating gender equality in their policies and reforms. But of course, the journey towards transforming gender norms has not all been plain sailing.

Resistance is found at different levels and manifests itself both internally within institutions- within schools, within local education authorities, and central government departments. But externally, also, in our societies and amongst our politicians and decision-makers. And strategies to combat resistance to the promotion of gender equality must start with an informed understanding of the reasons behind it, which are often complex. We have learned about the value of investing time and resources to elicit this understanding and develop strategies to counter them.

Augustina Apakasa: The new Minister of Education is very much; he wants to promote gender education.

Alexandra Waldhorn: Augustina Apakasa is the Assistant Director for the Gender Unit in the Federal Ministry of Education of Nigeria. Nigeria has a new road map for education until 2027, which includes a chapter dedicated to gender education. Called Girl Child Education, this has been embraced by the minister.

Augustina Apakasa: We're able to convince him for gender to have a chapter in that document. Now we're going to start implementing it with the state actors. For us to see how they can also develop their own road map and also have a chapter that is dedicated to girls’ education  

Alexandra Waldhorn: What led you to start focusing on girls’ education and gender equality and equity in education?

Augustina Apakasa: Well, maybe because I'm a woman, and then because of what I have done in the ministry, the management felt like, you know, I should be the best person to be in that position. And we have found out in Nigeria that our women, our girls in Nigeria, are kind of being marginalized. You know, they're not giving that priority that they give to the boys. And then- then we also find out, apart from what is being out of school, also have series of girls that are out of school, you know. And then there is need for us to bring, make sure that they are returned to school. There's a saying that if you educate a girl child, you educate a nation. That's our slogan.

Alexandra Waldhorn: In terms of implementing policies for gender equity and equality. Do you have any advice or insight into what can really help turn a policy into reality?

Augustina Apakasa: Like somebody would say, in Nigeria making the policy is not a problem, but sometimes to implement that policy becomes a problem. The road map to education sector in Nigeria, before it was developed, the Minister considered the committee, and the committee involved so many people, so many stakeholders in education. You know, they involve lecturers in the universities, they involve traditional rulers.

They involve the people in the community. Because we know that at the end of the day, this document will have to be taken to the states for them to implement.

So, my advice is, if there's any document that is going to be developed, before the development, they should be series of meetings with the people that are involved. If it is possible, you go to the community and get even the girls to be part of that meeting. And I want to applaud the federal Minister of Education for doing that. He got so many people involved and that is why to implement this document it won’t be difficult for us.

Alexandra Waldhorn: How can budgeting with a gender lens help ensure implementation and progress?

Augustina Apakasa: In the past, there was no budget for gender. But as we speak, we have one for this year, and I know it will continue. While I don't know what will happen when I leave as a budget officer, but I hope that the new person that will come in will also fight and ensure that budget is given to gender activities in the ministry.

Alexandra Waldhorn: And how has the Gender at the Center Initiative supported your work in the Ministry of Education in really accelerating progress for girls’ education and gender equality?

Augustina Apakasa: They were able to train permanent secretaries from 7 states in Nigeria on gender issues. Before their training, they didn't have gender desks in their ministries. After the training they go back to their different states, I think they were able to establish gender desks.

Before the training, they didn't know the importance of having the gender desk officer. But they were trained on the need for them to have the gender desks in their various ministries. It was very important and necessary.

Alexandra Waldhorn: Raising awareness is a large part of the work of the Gender at the Centre Initiative. Jihane Lamouri, an IIEP-UNESCO Gender sensitive education planner, worked with Mauritania to develop its Education sector analysis - or ESA - and its education sector plan - the ESP.

Jihane Lamouri: So our work was really to build capacity to mitigate all the barriers, whether social controls or, you know, gender as other issues often seem like it competes with a lot of priorities. So our role was also to really be data-focused, to prove that this is an issue that impacts the whole system. And lastly, I would say that our role was also to identify the allies that were really willing to carry this issue within the whole process.

Alexandra Waldhorn: Can you tell us a bit more about what was IIEP's role working alongside the Ministry of Education in Mauritania to develop the ESA and then the ESP?

Jihane Lamouri: Yes. So, on the one hand, we set out to mainstream gender into all the traditional chapters of an ESA: Access, quality, financing, all the sub-sectors such as higher education. And on the other hand, we have developed a specific chapter on gender equality. So one might ask what added value, what would a gender-specific chapter bring if gender is already mainstreamed throughout the traditional ESA chapters?

Initially, the ESA methodology was not intended to identify the root causes of gender disparities. And also, the ESA methodology did not cover gender norms and related educational phenomena such as school-related gender-based violence, or the observation of gender dynamics within the teaching and administrative staff.

So, this specific chapter complements the rest of the analysis and has three main objectives. The first one is to understand the enabling – or not – environment for gender equality, outside education: the economic, political, and social context. The second objective is to explore and categorize barriers: supply and demand affecting boys and girls, educational path, and experiences.

There are very few ESA that do categorize barriers in a gender-sensitive way. And the last objective was to provide a snapshot of an institutional analysis. This is really just a quick analysis that focused on these three questions: What is the gender balance of teaching staff at different levels of education?

We also looked to what extent do teachers and staff master or/and engage with gender issues. And we also looked at the mechanisms, the practices, and the attitudes that contribute to gender mainstreaming within the MOE.

And this analysis had a strong impact on the current education sector plan that is in its final phases. The final plan really tries to fight gender inequalities across at least three levels that are really holistic. So we try to fix the number. So the issue of underrepresentation of boys or girls, it has initiative measures such as scholarships or competitions. But it also tries to fix all the institutional barriers within school management, for instance, but also within how the strategy is managed to mainstream gender in the management of the next ESP.

And lastly, it's also tries to fix the knowledge that is taught in schools, but also within universities. So with the introduction of gender-sensitive pedagogy in teacher training and also the elaboration of a guide on sexual education.

Alexandra Waldhorn: As it turns out, one way to help girls - and all learners - stay in school and do well is to have female principals.

IIEP recently published a report showing the positive impact of female principals on student learning.

Fabricia Devignes, the Gender at the Center Initiative’s Programme Manager, explained that it was based on data from 14 French-speaking African countries, produced as part of IIEP/UNICEF’s Women in Learning Leadership project, and four revealed that female principals helped students succeed - in Benin, Madagascar, Senegal and Togo 

Fabricia Devignes: In these countries, being enrolled in a female-headed school is associated with higher results in reading and mathematics than students involved in a male-headed school. So it's possible that certain practices put in place by women contribute to creating an environment that is favorable to student learning. For example, organization of regular meetings with parents or tutoring or more rigorous record keeping of teacher attendance.

Also more collaborative climates when a women is in charge. And a female school principal creates a reassuring environment for girls who may feel more protected but better understood in relation to, for example, menstrual issues or harassment. So, we therefore need to encourage the adoption of these positive practices by both men and women.

Another aspect that we found is the under-representation of women in school management positions- on average, 22 percent of students in these 14 countries have a female principal.

So promoting the representation of female principals is an important step towards transforming social norms and gender stereotypes. And being in contact with a female principal is likely to change the aspirations of girls and their parents. And it can also change boys' perceptions of women's place in society.

Alexandra Waldhorn: What kind of progress have you observed in promoting gender equality in and through education, particularly through your involvement in projects across various sub-Saharan African countries?

Fabricia Devignes: Through our Gender at the Center Initiative, after four years of implementation, the impact has been significant. Around 1,000 ministry officials from 40 African countries have already been trained to gender-responsive education sector policies and planning.
Several GCI governments have included strong gender equality components in their education sector analysis and education reforms.

And also GCI reached an estimated 2 million people with information on girls' education and harmful gender norms, using community-based research, radio and TV communication, and also dialogs with students, parents and school staff.

Alexandra Waldhorn: What's next for IIEP in this continued fight for greater equality and equity in education?

Fabricia Devignes: So we will put an emphasis on more data- qualitative data and also intersectional data, so that we can better inform decision-making and policies. We will fully strengthen the links between the governments and civil society organizations because we found that it was helpful on the ground. And also, an emphasis on continuing and strengthening this movement towards gender transformative education.

Alexandra Waldhorn: The Gender at the Centre Initiative will soon be entering phase two, to continue its mission in supporting countries to rapidly step up progress for gender equity in and through education.

As Fabricia said, this will include a renewed focus on using data and evidence, as well as a continued commitment to developing the capacities of ministries and civil society organizations to foster dialogue and strengthen alliances between key actors, all while developing effective tools for gender-responsive policy-making and planning.

You can find more information on how we can accelerate gender equity through educational planning on our website:

Join us next time for more insight into the policies and strategies helping to create a more equitable and sustainable future, in and through education.