Girls and Women in the Med, part I: Primary Education
Empowering women and girls is a key objective if Mediterranean countries are to reach their economic potential, as well as create vibrant, equitable societies. In a series of posts, we will examine how far Med countries have come in achieving this objective – starting by looking at female participation in primary education.
In 1978, more than 6 out of 10 Moroccan girls of primary school-age were not attending school, partly reflecting weaknesses in the overall system (with almost 4 out of 10 boys also out of school), but also a sizeable gender bias. A similar situation was observed in the other Muslim-majority Med countries: Egypt (45% of girls out of school compared to 20% of boys), Tunisia (35% of girls compared to 10% for boys), Algeria (33% of girls compared to 11% of boys), Syria (29% of girls compared to 1% of boys), Turkey (22% of girls compared to 6% of boys), and Libya (9% of girls compared to 3% of boys).
In a nutshell, in 1978 girls in most Muslim-majority Med countries were significantly less likely to attend primary school compared to boys – and this was true even for countries (such as Syria) that had managed to achieve virtually universal provision for boys.
It is interesting to note that other Med countries had largely eliminated discrepancies between girls and boys by 1978. For example, while nearly 1 in 3 Cypriot girls were out of school at the time, the same was true for boys, reflecting the impact of conflict rather than gender discrimination.
Fast-forward to 2013, the latest year for which we have data covering most Med countries, and many of the old stereotypes no longer hold. More than 98% of girls now participate in primary education in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia – a similar figure to boys.
While the gender gap has by no means been entirely eliminated, in 2013 only one Med country recording sizeable gaps between the percentage of girls and boys out of school: Lebanon (14% of girls compared to 8% of boys).
Of course, these figures only cover one dimension of girls’ primary education – participation – and hence cannot account for aspects relating to quality of education, whether enough is done to empower girls as well as boys, and other critical factors. That said, it is clear that real progress has been made in the past few decades.
The rest of this post looks in more detail in the dynamics of this reduction in different sub-regions of the Mediterranean.
North African countries experienced a steep and sustained drop in the number of girls out of primary school throughout the period under consideration. For example, Morocco managed to reduce the number of girls out of primary school by more than 5% each year between 1998 and 2002, bringing the overall number from over 40% to under 20%. In 2013, no North African country recorded female non-participation rates above 5%, an impressive feat given that more than 1 in 3 primary-school aged girls did not attend school in the early ‘80s.
Larger European Countries
Larger European countries have long enjoyed relatively low female non-participation rates in primary education. That said, it is important not to assume that all issues have been solved: France observed rates as high as 4% as recently as 1985, while both France and Italy recorded values of over 2% in the mid-nineties. And non-participation remained an important problem in Greece in 2013, with more than 3% of females of primary-school age not attending school.
Other European countries
Albania and Montenegro are the two countries in this group where more than 5% of girls do not go to primary school, with both registering increases in the first decade of the century that have only partially been reversed.
Syria, having almost eradicated female non-participation in 2009 from close to 30% in 1978, saw all its hard-fought gains over the last 35 years lost as a result of the war. Lebanon and Turkey have also seen worrying increases in female non-participation in recent years, which could be driven by migrant flows as well as by internal issues. In contrast, from 2005 to 2013 the Palestinian Territories managed to more than halve female non-participation, from over 15% to 7%, with girls attending primary education at the same rate as boys.
In the coming weeks, we will be looking further into the role of girls and women in the Med, tracking the evolution of gender discrepancies in education, the workplace, and society.