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Gender Gap in Education

In a book2 dated 1873 written by an American missionary in Mount Lebanon, the author described the educational situation in one Arab country, Lebanon, which was then part of a greater Syria.3 He explained the situation of girls whose parents were not welcoming to the idea of sending their children to school. Particularly, girls were not expected to pursue formal education. Protestant Missionaries were among the first to establish a school system that took into great consideration the importance of education for girls, whether Muslim or Christian. Such initiatives were not very welcome, not only by Muslim families, but also by other opposing Christian churches in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Irrespective of the resistance, the drive to educate girls prompted many like-minded organizations to be established to educate children, both male and female.

At that time, rarely did a girl reach a high school level, let alone pursue university education. This changed toward the end of the nineteenth century as more Muslim and Christian schools started to open doors. The pace of progress, however, especially for Muslim families, was slow. It was only in the 1950s and the 1960s that an influx of women began to pursue higher levels of education. This was also the case in neighboring Arab countries in the Levant area, in North Africa, and more recently in the Arab Gulf region. Nowadays, as far as education is concerned, the situation is much better. Significant improvements concerning women’s education have been realized.

There is still much to be done for Arab women as they lag behind their male counterparts in many respects. Females still account for the majority of the illiterates in the Arab world.4 Their literacy rates have increased from 41% in 1990 to 69% in 2010, while male literacy increased from 67% to 85% during the same period. So, effectively, women’s literacy rates (across age levels) lag by about 20 years. The gap has decreased from 26% in 1990 to 16% in 2010. Youth literacy rates for males remain higher than those of females, but the gap is narrowing.5

Gender parity still does not exist in pre-primary education in most Arab countries. According to one study,6 males are favored above females in seven Arab countries, females are favored in one country (Sudan), and there is gender parity in seven other Arab countries. Primary enrollment growth for females (slightly above 20%) has, however, been higher than males (slightly less than 15%). There is also a rise in the primary completion rates, though still less than the male rates.7 Females have made impressive gains in secondary education,8 where the growth rates in enrollment are increasing.

Female enrollment growth rates in tertiary education have almost been double to that of males.9 Females accounted for a majority of graduates in some disciplines such as life sciences (73%) but they were lower in other disciplines such as computing (33%). In 1990, males were enrolled at higher rates in post-secondary education. Currently females are enrolling at higher rates compared to males. However, there is a problem for both males and females as enrollment rates are lower than most other world regions, except for South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Compared to other world regions, post-secondary education in Arab countries is still below average for both males and females.

The gap in education has a direct impact on women’s employment. Uneducated women are not as employable as men, and thus women tend to occupy more low-paying jobs.

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