The Girl or The Boy?

October 15, 2013

Why we must rethink how we are bridging the gender gap

In my community, people say that ‘a child is a child’ – meaning that it does not matter whether a child is a boy or a girl; all children are valuable. If then you are a mother with secondary education as your highest level of education, what are you likely to aspire for your children? My guess is as good as yours; beyond secondary education. These aspirations are true for fathers as they are true for mothers regardless of the child’s gender. However, this may not always be true in all cultures. The fact is higher education attainment for the household heads positively improves the schooling and education decisions they make for their children.

Children at a school in Korogocho, a slum in Nairobi.

In Africa, more than three decades ago, household heads schooling decisions were biased against the girl-child. Consequently, opinion makers fronted the push for ‘girl-child’ education to bridge the gap resulting from the bias.

Interestingly, almost 30 years down the line, many development practitioners still use the same old strategy to close the opportunity gap between girls and boys, which is; create more opportunities for the disadvantaged girls, including setting aside more resources for them. Well, it’s not a bad strategy, after all it has been proven to work. Besides, its successes have led to opportunities for visibility of gender related activities, has had great fundraising power, and the girl-child movement has grown stronger. These very good successes need to be consolidated and translated into longer term gains for girls especially those born in cultural environments that slow down their potential. However, the push for the wellbeing of girls risks being crowded out by short-term benefits, while in fact the aim should be to go for longer term gains.

What am I talking about? In many cultures in Africa, and particularly those that provide limited opportunities for girls to excel in schooling and education, the household decision-making process is a male driven affair. With the gender movement consciously or unconsciously ignoring the boy-child, the next generation of household decision makers are guaranteed to remain less educated than their female counterparts. Two implications emerge from this scenario:

  1. The gender crusade has more work to do, (and perhaps this is an opportunity to attract more funding) as the less educated male household heads continue to make decisions that disadvantage the girls;
  2. Girls who are born in these next generation households that will be led by less educated males have poor chances of realizing their potential. This creates a dependency syndrome because the gender movement must then come back to “rescue” them.

I know you are at this point wondering where I am going with all this. My point is, how do you break this dependency syndrome, this vicious cycle if you like? One way of dealing with it is to consciously focus on both the girls and the boys because as my people say, ‘a child is a child’. This way, you increase the number of next generation male household heads who have more education. With more educated male household heads, who inherently are the custodian and gate-keepers in their slow transforming cultural environment, more girls stand a much better chance of realizing their potential. Girls born in a household with an educated male head will have a better chance of realizing their potential and will not require to be ‘rescued’. However, as in any society there will always be exemptions and there will be instances where this will not hold.

To cut a long story short, in cultural environments that are slow to transform, girls will be the main beneficiary in the longer term if the gender movement deliberately targets both the girl-child and boy-child in its education agenda.

By Dr. Moses Ngware is a research scientist and head of the Education Research Program at APHRC. Please follow him on Twitter @mngware