Last month, the 2018 Gender Review of the GEM Report focused on the universally acknowledged fact that girls face many more barriers in education, especially in the poorest countries. Yet, this fact often overshadows another concern, which receives a lot less visibility, yet is important in equal measure: that gender norms affect the education opportunities of boys as well of girls.
The GEM Report unveils its latest policy paper putting the spotlight on disaffected boys and young men, often from marginalized or poor backgrounds, whose educational development and life chances are compromised.
Much of this stems from gender norms that continue to condition the identities and expectations imposed on boys and girls in classrooms and which have ramifications for their relationships with their families, teachers, peers and communities.
Poverty is a key driver of boys’ disadvantage in education
Meeting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development depends on offering equal opportunities for all. Yet, in a large number of countries boys persistently lag behind. Reversing this is no easy feat. Boys in Latin America and the Caribbean have been less likely than girls to enroll in upper secondary education for at least 20 years.
And the situation is worse for the poorest. In Honduras, while only 65 males completed upper secondary school for every 100 females in 2011, just 27 poor males did so for every 100 poor females.
In some parts of the world, gender norms call on boys to enter the workforce earlier and to hold a paying job more frequently than girls. When a poor family’s income drops, a common response is to withdraw their boy from secondary school to earn money. In Brazil, a sudden fall in family income had a 46% larger effect on the probability of dropout for boys from poor households compared to those from wealthier households.
In another example, in southern African countries including Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia, boys routinely leave school early to herd cattle.
And if poor boys can readily access unskilled jobs, which are not very different to those they could access if they completed secondary school, they have less motivation to stay in school.
School environments may also lead to boys’ disengagement
The school environment itself can be a factor that loosens boys’ ties with the education system and ultimately pushes them out of it. In some cases, gender norms add pressure on boys to disengage from school and to place less value on academic achievement and sustained effort.
Explicit or implicit condoning of violent behaviour places boys at greater risk of becoming both perpetrators and victims of physical violence and bullying, both inside and outside school. In India, corporal punishment is used to enforce gender norms and cultural expectations that boys should ‘toughen up’. In the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, two-thirds of boys had experienced corporal punishment from teachers, compared with just over half of girls.
Authoritarian schools, which tend to use punishment methods such as expulsion more frequently on boys, can have a negative impact on their motivation to attend and complete their schooling. In southern parts of the United States, where females have a 10% greater chance of graduating than males, expulsion is one of the factors associated with school dropout, alongside involvement with the juvenile justice system and poverty.
Empowering young people
Bringing about change invariably involves making sure the allure of the classroom outweighs the drive to make money, often out of necessity. Yet few countries have adjusted their social protection and cash transfer policies to the fact that it is boys who are most likely to drop out of secondary school.
Likewise, a range of approaches can help raise boys’ engagement and achievement by promoting a school ethos of cooperation, respect for students and action against gender stereotypes. Approaches have included curricula, resources, teacher training and access to youth-friendly advice.
If we are serious about tackling disaffection and exclusion in education for both girls and boys, it is time we started thinking of the relationship between the genders in a different way. This matters not just for meeting the Sustainable Development Goal 4 commitment to leave no one behind and ensure all boys and girls fulfil their right to complete 12 years of education of good quality. Actively addressing boys’ disadvantage in education could be transformative in promoting gender equality, reducing violence and protecting youth from risk factors that distort their futures.