Privatization exacerbates gender discrimination in education, because parents favour the education of boys over girls

education-not-for-saleThe United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recently held a general discussion on girls’/women’s right to education in the context of privatization of education. The workshop brought together advocates from 12 different countries (Belgium, Brazil, Ghana, India, Kenya, Lebanon, Morocco, Philippines, Senegal, South Africa, Spain, UK, and USA), representing networks from Africa, Asia- Pacific and Latin America and from civil society organizations, including teachers, working at a global level. The following report, prepared following the consultations, acquires  significant against the context of Indian government authorities as also some high-profile NGOs like Pratham in India advocating that privatization of education is a panacea to achieve universal  primary education. Excerpts:  

The proposition that ‘private schools provide real choice for parents including the disadvantaged’ needs serious qualification. Choice may indeed exist for the relatively affluent and mobilized but this is counterbalanced by the seeming structural exclusion by private schools of the very poor, girls and marginalized groups. In turn, private schools risk entrenching economic divisions, deepening gender discrimination and institutionalizing class inequalities. These are troubling trends which have specific gendered impacts, and we believe that – especially given the increasing trend towards privatization in and of education – these impacts should be addressed.

Privatization in many cases exacerbates gender discrimination in the area of education, in part because in many countries parents favour the education of boys over girls. As quality education becomes more costly, studies show that boys are often given priority over girls. This problem is also further compounded by other issues which emerge within the context of privatization, such as poor regulation and oversight of private education providers leading to, in some cases, lack of accountability for sexual assault of girls by school teachers, colleagues and administrators; promotion of gender stereotypes; and lack of access to sexual and reproductive health education, which also have disproportionate impacts on girls.

In order for women and girls to be able to realize their right to education, as well as their rights to non-discrimination and equality more broadly, it is imperative that education be seen as a public good, and not as a commodity. This is in line with a human rights-based understanding of the right to education, and it also underscores not only a state’s obligation to protect, but also to fulfill the right to education.

The negative consequences which are borne when education is privatized, such as systemic discrimination against girls when education becomes marketized, cannot be adequately redressed through increased regulation of private actors alone. Quality free public education is the key to demolishing structural barriers to girls’ access to education, so that parents are not forced to choose between their sons’ and daughters’ education. Thus, a renewed emphasis on a state’s obligation to fulfill the right to education is needed in order for women and girls to enjoy their right to education in practice, and so that education is truly transformative as a human right.

The United Nations estimates that 123 million youth ages 15-24 lack basic reading and writing skills, and 61 per cent are young women and girls. UNESCO has stated that “Gender- based discrimination in education is both a cause and a consequence of deep-rooted disparities in society.” The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) similarly shows that “[w]omen’s low status in the family is linked to reduced educational attainment and economic outcomes for women and girls.” Conversely, girls’ education also has well known benefits – it is empowering and valuable in and of itself, and it also leads to other social gains. For example, UNFPA has highlighted that education of girls is closely related to improvements in family health and to falling fertility rates, and that girls who are educated grow up to have more healthy children themselves.

Still, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education (V Muñoz Villalobos) has noted: “[r]hetoric in favour of girls’ rights has not prevented education from continuing to be one of the lowest budget priorities and one of the least favoured areas in public policy” (UN Department of Public Information MDGs Factsheet, ‘Goal 2 – Achieve Universal Primary Education,’ September 2013).

The Special Rapporteur has also said that stereotyping at school and within educational curriculum is a major problem, reporting inter alia that: both men and women teachers have low expectations of girls’ intellectual skills, that teachers often give girls less feedback and frequently report that they enjoy teaching boys more than girls; that girls have lower and fewer expectations of themselves in and out of school and think that their future consists primarily of being wives and mothers; that low expectations are reinforced by textbooks, curricula and assessment material, in which no female figures appear; that prizes won by girls and girls’ achievements are not as widely reported or publicized as boys’; and that there is a clear tendency to use sexist language within schools and within curricula.

UN Rapporteur’s view

In terms of helping to develop the content of the right to education from a gender equality perspective, the Special Rapporteur made a range of specific recommendations aimed at increasing the availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability of education for girls. Highlighting the trends, scholars have noted that:

First, that what is new about these manifestations [of privatization in/of education] is their scale, scope and penetration into almost all aspects of the education endeavour – from the administrative apparatus to policymaking, and from formal provision in education settings, to out-of-school activities, such as private tutoring.

Second, that what is particularly controversial about these current developments is how education itself is being recast; as a sector it is increasingly being opened up to profit-making and trade, and to agenda-setting by private, commercial interests.

Third, that the learner is increasingly conceptualised as a consumer, and education a consumer good. These developments raise the very important question around what these developments mean for our conceptualisations of education, learning and teaching, on the one hand, and for education as a site and means for emancipation, on the other.

Amidst this backdrop of continuing gender inequality, the global landscape when it comes to education is also rapidly changing. One of the most notable of these changes is the recent trend towards privatization in and of education in many countries. In general terms, privatization signifies “a transfer of financing, management, service delivery and ownership of education facilities and other assets, from public to private or non-governmental hands.” ‘Privatization’, however, is also used as a proxy for private (for profit) and non-state (religious, community and NGO) provision of education, even in the absence of direct or intentional ‘transfer’ by states. This, in essence, constitutes a kind of de facto privatization which is increasing in many developing countries.

It should be noted that philanthropic schools and education programmes delivered by NGOs often fulfill the immediate education needs of marginalized communities in the absence of government provision. The burden of providing education to the communities most in need is passed on to these NGOs. This comprises de facto privatization and the state should be called to account for abdicating its obligation to provide education to all, including to learners in difficult circumstances.

There may be privatization ‘of’ education, when public sector activities related to education are outsourced to the private sector, but also privatization ‘in’ education. The latter refers to the many and complex ways in which the mentality of the business world is injected into education, such that it operates like a competitive market, with choice, marketing managers, branding, data on student performance as proxies of quality, etc. It also refers to the ways in which education departments and ministries operate in more corporate-like ways, with competitive units, performance targets, outputs and forms of performance management. This form of privatization represents the colonisation of the idea of education as a public service by more an economic logic that is aligned with the idea of a free market.

Privatization trend

There are several different types of private school and types of arrangements that comprise ‘privatization’ trends in education. These include (but are not necessarily limited to) the following:

  1. For Profit Schools – Schools designed to return a profit to shareholders or owners;
  2. Public Private Partnerships (PPP) – Flexible governance and financial arrangements between governments and private sector to provide public services (e.g. school voucher systems);
  3. Low Fee Private Schools – Fee-based education provided by either large or small entrepreneurs, which is either profit-making or not profit-making;
  4. Private Tutoring – Ancillary or additional lessons privately provided outside of normal school hours;
  5. Philanthropy Schools – Non-state initiatives that work for the public good led by communities, religious institutions or self-funded philanthropic organizations (NGOs).

Privatization necessarily implies that states are no longer themselves solely providing education to the general public as the main provider, and instead allow at least part of this role to be filled by private and non-state entities and institutions. However, under the international human rights framework, states are the sole duty-bearer when it comes to respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to education, and they must ensure that there is no retrogression when it comes to the advancement and enjoyment of this right.

Privatization is also increasingly promoted by International Financial Institutions (IFIs) as a requirement for receiving international aid. This trend is proving to have significant implications for the human right to education, both in terms of quality of education and in terms of accessibility and affordability of education. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education (K. Singh) highlighted in a recent report: “In many parts of the world inequalities in opportunities for education will be exacerbated by the growth of unregulated private providers of education, with wealth or economic status becoming the most important criterion to access a quality education” (Save the Children, ‘Achieving the Gender Parity Millennium Development Goal,’ Policy Briefing, 2005).

Low free private schools

Low-fee private schools have expanded in the last decade in many countries, for example in India, Pakistan, Ghana, Kenya, etc. Investment by edu-corporations in low-fee for-profit private schools is also on the rise (for example, see Pearson Affordable Learning Fund). One problem is that schools keep costs low by employing unqualified teachers on low wages, for more information.

There is growing evidence that privatization in and of education has a range of detrimental effects on the enjoyment of the right to education, with specific negative consequences for women and girls. In addition to less access, concern has been raised that privatization in/of education can lead to greater discrimination and that: “[m]arginalised groups fail to enjoy the bulk of the positive impacts and also bear the disproportionate burden of the negative impacts of privatisation [in education].”

The warning signs about privatization’s impact on the right to education for women and girls are not new, and many organizations have cautioned that privatization of education has “associated risks to gender equity. Almost ten years ago, Save the Children reported that “Private schools often charge very high fees, isolating children, especially girls from poor families, from school. The privatisation of public services is also often undertaken without adequate consideration of issues of equitable access, affordability, coverage, quality and effects on public service provision for the poor.” What is new is the increasing trend towards privatization, particularly within the context of economic crisis and the move by many states to implement austerity measures and make significant cuts to social services.

Education must be seen within the wider social context in which gender inequality is too often a pervasive reality permeating not only the educational sphere, but also manifesting itself as gender- based violence, inequality in the workplace and within labor markets, denial of political and civil rights, and marginalization in terms of productive resources. This broader reality underscores why it is imperative to champion the transformative nature of the right to education, because without this basic orientation educational systems can perpetuate and deepen, rather than ameliorate, patterns of gender inequality. Monetizing access to education through privatization deepens exactly these inequalities. Private provision usually means the introduction of school fees, and herein lies one of the most important issues from the standpoint the right to education of women and girls.

As the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) has highlighted, free schooling may be the “single most important policy measure” to ensuring that girls (as well as boys) are able to access education. While the World Bank and others have lauded the positive effects of public-private partnerships (PPPs) in education and low-fee private schools, international education researchers and international development organizations have raised concern, especially from the standpoint of girls’ education.

In recent years, donors have also increased support to ‘low-fee private education’– in other words private schools that charge fees to families – in the poorest countries. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has invested in low-fee private schools. User fees for education have a disproportionate impact on women and girls; excluding them from education Evidence from a range of countries shows that more boys are enrolled in schools than girls, a problem that is exacerbated in the context of privatization. This is because the monetization of access to education through user fees places poor parents in the difficult position of having to choose which of their children to send to school, a decision made on the basis of what they believe will be the maximum return on their educational investment, i.e. what will the maximum economic benefits be to the family over the long term.

Because labour markets are heavily influenced by patterns of gender inequality, parents often conclude it is better to educate their boys as they are more able to access better employment opportunities in the future. Indeed, the Right to Education Project warns that privatization of education exacerbates preferences of boys over girls in education, evidenced by the fact that that families are often prepared to spend more on education for boys than girls. In addition, in situations of economic instability or crisis, as households cope with declining household income and as many states take further steps to privatize their educational systems in the name of austerity, girls are more vulnerable to being pulled out of school. This is because within the context of dwindling financial resources, many households experience what is known as the “added worker effect,” and girl children experience even greater pressure to assume responsibility for a range of household chores.

Girls’ education “prohibitive”

In other words, the opportunity cost of having a girl in school may become prohibitive. Cultural gender roles further prejudice girls’ accessing school, such as when a married girl is expected to join her husband’s family, assist with household duties, and assume child bearing and rearing responsibilities.

Country case studies reveal the realities. Oxfam highlights that in Malawi, where the majority of the population fall below the poverty line, the fees charged in so-called ‘low-fee private schools’ would cost poor families one-third of their available income. In Uttar Pradesh, India, the estimates are even higher; poor families would have to spend nearly half of their income to send all of their children to ‘low-fee schools.’ In Pakistan, the cost is about one-quarter of household income, and “taking the average number of children per household into account, sending all children to school would cost 127 per cent of that household’s income.” All of this leads Oxfam to conclude that “[t]he huge cost barrier confronting families inevitably leads to the exclusion of girls from formal education. These examples demonstrate clearly that low fees are unsustainable, fuel gender inequality, and take an unreasonable amount of money away from the poorest.” In short, for poor families – precisely those targeted by low-fee private schools – fees are a massive disincentive to educating girls.

Research from India highlights that, for similar reasons, “the poorest rural families must make hard choices about scarce resources and often choose to invest in private education for their sons over their daughters,” and thus “to be a girl significantly reduces the chances of attending LFP (low-fee private) schools.” Likewise, in Pakistan boys are indeed more likely to be sent to private schools than girls within the household, so that differential school-type choice is an important channel of differential treatment against girls.

Private schools are also found to be of better quality – they are more effective than government schools in imparting mathematics and literacy skills. Girls lose out vis a vis boys in terms not only of lower within-household educational expenditures but also in terms of the quality of schooling accessed. In addition, the cost of private education can also have a negative impact on the enjoyment of other rights, and may affect a family’s ability to meet other needs related to health, food, housing, and so forth. These related effects can more negatively affect women and girls, as research shows that women and girls inevitably suffer disproportionately when resources are scarce.

There is also evidence that private schools are particularly exclusionary when it comes to girls from minority backgrounds. This has been raised as an issue, for example, for indigenous girls in Thailand and the Philippines: With the promise of providing global competencies such as learning the English language, low fee private schools mostly use English as the medium of instruction alongside national language. This policy is detrimental to indigenous and ethnic girls. With their limited mobility, girls have less opportunities to learn the regional language, much more national and English languages. This adds a layer of discrimination more so for girls who have less time to catch up with studies given their multiple tasks at home. These impediments to girls’ learning result to parents withdrawing girls from schools.

Report prepared on the basis of submissions by Ação Educativa, Action Aid, Arab Campaign for Education for All (ACEA), Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE), Brazilian Campaign for the Right to Education Education, International Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), Global Campaign for Education Global Initiative for Economic Social and Cultural Rights, Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (Campaña Latinoamericana por el Derecho a la Educación), Open Society Foundations – Education Support Programme, Right to Education Project, and SECTION 27

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