“Leaving no one behind” – Equality and inclusivity are at the centre of the SDGs. A recent report by Oxfam examines the role education plays in the fight against economic, gender and social inequality. As the SDG Summit is well underway, we also look at the close relationships between SDG4, SDG5 (Gender) and SDG10 (Equality) and how education can help achieve these two goals.

1. Reducing the gender gap: more opportunities for women

In most regions of the world, girls and women have considerably less opportunities to fulfil their fundamental human rights, escape poverty and all forms of exclusion. Although gender inequalities can be observed everywhere, they are more striking in regions such Northern Africa and Western Asia (UNESCO, 2016).

Education is key to addressing discrimination against all women and girls, ensuring empowerment, addressing patriarchy and overcoming structural barriers that prevent the full participation of women in society. Education can indeed help tackle gender disparities in wages, poverty, reproductive autonomy and political power.

Studies show that educated women’s earnings are closer to those of men. In Pakistan, women with only a primary education earn around 50% of men’s wages. Women with a secondary education earn 70% of men’s wages – still unacceptable, but a far narrower gap.

Education also gives women more power over their own lives, particularly over when they marry and how many children they have. The more educated mothers are, the healthier they and their children are. UNESCO estimates that if all women had completed primary education, there would be a 66% reduction in maternal deaths globally, and a 15% reduction in child deaths.

If all girls in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia completed secondary education, there would be a 64% drop in child marriages.

2. Creating a better understanding between genders

Education is a fundamental tool for combating patriarchalism and generating the cultural shift necessary to ensuring equality among individuals. Gender issues also involve men, who can benefit from less rigid roles and more egalitarian relationships, so when mainstreaming gender into the programming and curriculum design, men’s issues should also be explicitly included. This is crucial in order to make the cultural shift that human rights require from our societies. The goal of education is also to develop a transformative role for men.

Similarly, education for both men and women is vital to reverse violent practices explicitly referenced in Goal 5’s targets, including trafficking, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

The ways children learn about diversity at school, especially about issues related to sex and sexuality, is key to creating a culture of understanding, which embraces people’s right to express freely their gender identity and sexual orientation. Unfortunately, while parts of society believe in respecting and promoting the rights of people whose gender identity and orientation do not conform to traditional expectations, others perceive sex education as a risk for children or as youth indoctrination.

3. Increasing inclusion

Education’s core value is to ensure that learners are being offered the opportunity to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills that foster social cohesion, diversity and equality.

A human rights-based education is the main equaliser and a key social, economic and political empowerment resource. In the short term, it allows public education systems to offer a quality service in which everyone has a place, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status. In the long term, education can build societies based on solidarity that are sensitive to and respectful of diversity.

Inequalities and exclusion start early in life and therefore require to be tackled in the early stages of education. We need to start by addressing inequalities in the education system itself, which should in return allow us to progress to a more equal society in which each identity is considered and valued. If one is made to feel inferior by a system that protects privilege or blocks access to knowledge, he or she will simultaneously be put on a path that will lead to social exclusion

4. Deconstructing a system that produces inequalities

Education has a key role to play in deconstructing the system that reproduces inequalities. It is evident that whilst many education institutions are widening their accessibility clauses and highlighting anti-discrimination values as part of their core values, the system itself is still not designed to reflect the diversity within society at large. Further actions are required to address the fact that many educational systems and processes are still designed to unfairly advantage students who fall within certain backgrounds.

Schools can be places where the children of rich and poor families can become friends, and the barriers of inequality are broken down. Education can challenge the rules that perpetuate economic inequality in broader society and give young people the tools to go into the world and build more equitable societies.

A fundamental aim is to ensure that school encourages equal participation of people through equitable educational approaches. This requires a new perspective on the way we perceive education: inclusive education should take an intersectional approach that looks into transforming the dynamics of our current education systems in order to respond to the diversity of learners. This means enhancing the quality of education holistically and at all levels; by improving teachers’ training, promoting learning-centered methodologies, developing appropriate learning materials, and ensuring that schools are safe and hospitable for all, including people that tend to be socially excluded or disadvantaged.

Strengthening links within the community, particularly the relationship between teachers, students, parents and society at large are crucial for developing and supporting inclusive learning environments.

5. Closing the gap between rich and poor

Quality public education for all can be a powerful engine for greater equality.

Governments can take the cost of quality education away from families, with an immediate impact on the income gap between rich and poor, as the cash benefit is proportionately far greater for lower-income families. Indeed, the cash value of public education often exceeds the total income of the poorest families by a wide margin. For example, in Colombia, a single mother with two children in primary school, public spending on her children’s schooling exceeds her family income by three times.

Beyond this direct boost in income, quality education promotes equality by reducing povertyas quality education makes the likelihood of higher incomes and lower poverty much greater. It is estimated extreme poverty could be halved if universal primary and secondary education were achieved. UNESCO estimates that each year of schooling raises earnings by around 10% for men of 16 years and up to 20% for women. Social mobility, i.e. the possibility for children from poor families to end up better off than their parents, is intimately tied to the availability of education.

Authors: Luis Eduardo Perz Murcia, Vernor Munoz

Quoted Sources: EASG position papers, Oxfam’s report “The power of education to fight inequality”, Munoz, Vernor. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to Education. A/65/162 23, para. 8, 19, 21, 22, 2010.

Victoria Derbyshire’s programme which recreated a relationships lesson with a story about a chick with two male parents and which has led to protests: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00084st/victoria-derbyshire-02092019

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The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) is a civil society movement that aims to end exclusion in education. Education is a basic human right, and our mission is to make sure that governments act now to deliver the right of everyone to a free, quality, public education.