Girls now outnumber boys in school in many African nations - the reasons why will surprise you

Patriarchy unintentionally ends up promoting women's education - by restricting their movement.

A few days ago the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report was published, and it revealed mixed success for African countries in narrowing the gap between men and women (READ “17 simply astonishing facts about Africa’s gender gap: Here are the nations women should move to…and avoid”).

The good news is that it now seems that most African countries are on track to achieve gender parity in primary school enrolment, one of the targets of MDG 3.

Of the 33 African countries included in the data, 22 have reached, or are nearing, equal boys and girls enrolled in primary school, and for 11 – concentrated in eastern and southern Africa – there are actually more girls than boys enrolled in school.

Although this could merely be reflecting older girls returning to school, still, it is a cause for celebration.

But it is in the higher levels – secondary and university – that the picture becomes more complicated, and surprising.

In most of the countries, secondary enrolment for girls drops significantly compared to primary school; the worst is in Chad with just 33 girls in high school for every 100 boys.

But even in rich countries like Nigeria and Angola, the gap is still quite large; a worrying sign that suggests high GDP growth is not significantly translating into better lifestyles for its citizens. In Angola, 81 girls are in high schools for every 100 boys, and in Nigeria – with its Boko Haram troubles – it’s worse, at 77 girls.

 Southern Africa outlier

But southern Africa is by far the outlier here, with more girls enrolled in secondary school than boys. The most surprising thing is just how big the gap can get.

At primary level, among the 11 countries with girls out-enrolling boys, they do so only modestly, the highest is Senegal with 108 girls for every 100 boys.

But at secondary level, the gap is far more dramatic. In Lesotho, there are 157 girls for every 100 boys in high school; in Namibia, 127; Rwanda, 125; Swaziland, 117; and Botswana, 116.

In other words, when girls outnumber boys in secondary school, they do so dramatically.

So, where are the boys? 

Perhaps this intriguing “reversal” in the fortunes of boys and girls is again a statistical blip caused by older girls returning to school to get an education later in life, maybe after having one or two children.

But it could also be because there are many employment opportunities for boys that don’t necessarily require much education, for example, in mining and manufacturing.

When faced with the choice of spending more money on schooling, or sending them out to get a job and contribute to the family income, many poor and working class parents would choose the latter.

Conservative North Africa? Think again

In a way, patriarchy paradoxically ends up promoting women’s education, because women are not expected to do the hard labour that mine work entails, for example – and (thankfully for girls) there just aren’t many other “entry level” job opportunities available that parents can shoo their teenage girls to.

In North Africa, the situation is even more dramatic at university level. In what is supposed to be a conservative, women-oppressing society, the numbers tell a very different story. Tunisian women outnumber men in university nearly 160 to 100 and in Algeria it’s 148, while in Egypt and Morocco, girls and boys are almost equally represented in higher education (96/100 and 89/100 respectively).

The other countries with more female students in university are again in southern Africa – Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland – and the rich island nations: Cape Verde and Mauritius.

But the most striking thing is when we compare tertiary enrolment to participation in the labour force. You might expect that having more women enrolled in university translates into more women in the workforce. Again, the numbers blow all assumptions out of the water – high female enrolment in tertiary education is negatively correlated with women participation in the labour force.

What conflict has to do with it

The countries that have the highest proportions of women working, even outnumbering the men – Malawi, Mozambique, Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania – are actually poor states that have many more boys than girls in university. The majority tend to be post-conflict states that have a history of men getting killed in war, which forced women to step up and play both the female and male role to keep families alive.

Conversely, all the countries that have high female enrolments in university have very low female representation in the workforce, particularly in North Africa.

In Tunisia, for example, 159 girls enrol in a college or university for every 100 boys, but just 36 women work for every 100 men. In Algeria, it’s 148-21, in Egypt, it’s 96-32. Even in the famously progressive island nations educated women are unable to enter (or are choosing to stay out) of the job market: In Cape Verde it’s 139-64, while in Mauritius, it’s 132-61.

It makes no sense why girls would go to college in such high numbers, just to stay at home. An initial reaction might be to blame misogyny and discrimination– that employers are simply don’t want to hire women. 

Or perhaps, the prejudiced would argue that when a country becomes rich, its women would much rather shop, do their nails and have tea parties than go to work – and school is just something they do to “fill the time”.

But there could be something else going on. The kind of jobs that women do in the countries with high female participation in labour force tend to be low-paying, unstable, informal sector jobs like in agriculture, market selling or petty trading.

So it could be that the structure of African economies doesn’t give much opportunity for educated women, but plenty of room for relatively uneducated ones. There’s a lot of farm work and market trading to be done, but if you’ve gone to university, that’s not the kind of job you’re looking for.

And in North Africa’s case there could be an even more intriguing explanation for the astounding “drop-out” rate of women in the system after university. 

This report by CNN’s Inside the Middle East argues that Middle Eastern – and this could apply to North African – women don’t actually go to college in hopes of getting a job afterwards, they go to meet friends - and potential husbands. 

School is not about schooling

Boys have the freedom to go outside the home, but strongly conservative societies restrict girls’ movements and keep them at home most of the time. As a result, school ends up being the only place where girls have the freedom to socialise and make friends outside the family, “so it’s something they look forward to,” Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, Associate Professor in Literary Theory and Women’s Studies at the American University of Sharjah is quoted as saying. 

College also provides an opportunity to meet someone of the same social class that you might get married to – without your parents’ meddling.

But the freedom afforded to boys paradoxically ends up encouraging school dropout at tertiary level, the blog says, as boys tend to see school as a place with “unnecessary discipline”. 

And the traditional expectation is that a man will provide everything for his family, even if his wife is educated – so staying many years in school is a “luxury” that young women can afford, but young men can’t, as they need to make enough money to get started in life.

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