African Women And Education
African Women And Education
Women’s participation in national educational systems is again biased due to the sociocultural and economic environments. There is also a lack of genuine political will to ensure that girls are given equal access to education in Africa. More than two-thirds of Africa’s illiterates are women. Women are regarded as inferior to men and are not expected to aspire as high as men, especially in what are considered as ‘male’ fields (engineering, computing, architecture, medicine, etc.). It is largely assumed that educating women would make them too independent; in other words, they would not do what they are expected to do – look after the house, bring up children, and cater to their husband’s needs.
In poor countries, extending access to education and training is often difficult when the cultural and monetary costs are high or the benefits are limited. When families face economic problems they prefer to invest their limited resources in the education of boys rather than provide what is considered as ‘prestigious’ education for girls who would eventually marry and abandon their professions anyway. Nevertheless, girls are increasingly getting some limited education, and the focus of concern is gradually shifting to providing access to the same range of educational opportunities open to boys. In poor families, boys are often given first claim on whatever limited educational opportunities are available, although the global policy climate today is more supportive of measures designed to expand the educational horizons of girls than it was twenty years ago.
Even when parents can be persuaded of the value of sending their girls to school, there remains the problem of helping the girls to complete their studies. Drop out rates in the primary grades are higher for girls than for boys in many African countries. In Tanzania, for instance, half of the school dropouts each year are girls of 12 to 14 years who have to leave school because of pregnancies. Such early pregnancies are often blamed on the absence of family life education and the imitation of foreign life styles.
Very few schools allow pregnant girls or young mothers to complete their education. The other half of the Tanzanian pupils who drop out do so for a variety of reasons, including poverty, traditional norms, increases in school fees and deterioration in the quality of learning. Child marriages are also very common in Africa: although the law in many countries does not allow girls under 16 to be married, parents marry their daughters at an early age so they have one less mouth to feed.
Differences in national and regional educational patterns are in part due to differences in population pressures and resource availability, but they have also reflected differing policy priorities. But there have been signs, in recent years, of a growing international consensus on the importance of investing in education for the quality of life in society and for national development generally (UNESCO, 1991). Table 12.1 shows that, in Africa, as in South Asia and the Arab states, the general literacy rate for women is much lower than for men, and that the gap is not expected to narrow rapidly. The differences between these three regions and the rest of the world may be due to differences in enrolment levels, government expenditure on education or the general sociocultural and economic environment.
The enrolment ratios for both men and women also show some differences (see Table 12.2). Although the number of females who have been continuing on to the secondary level in Africa has increased, and the gap between male and female enrolments is narrowing, the increase in the number of women continuing to tertiary education has been minimal. The figures for Africa are the lowest in the world. As mentioned earlier, in most developing countries, the opportunities for girls to advance beyond the first level of formal education are still significantly less than for boys.
Public expenditure on education in Africa is, in dollar terms, the lowest in the world; not surprising considering Africa’s economic situation. However, if we consider expenditure as a percentage of GNP, there is not that much difference between all of the developing nations. Women’s enrolment rates are lower in Africa, but the female literacy rate is similar to that for women in the Arab states and South Asia. Such discrepancies might be due to differences in government policies or in the sociocultural environment in these countries.
No statistics are available for the number of women who attend computer science courses in Africa, but it is known that few women in tertiary education are in technical courses. Table 12.4 presents figures from a project carried out by the ILO in association with the Commonwealth Association of Polytechnics in Africa, and summarized by Leigh-Doyle (1991). These figures show the poor enrolment ratios for women in technical programmes.4 There are marked differences between countries, in both women’s polytechnic attendance and in their enrolment in technical programmes in particular. The share of women in all polytechnic courses ranges from 40 per cent in the Gambia to just 2 per cent in Zambia. One striking observation is that 30 per cent of all those attending polytechnics in Ghana are women, yet only I per cent of those attending technical programmes are women!
Overall, the figures for women attending technical programmes are low in most of these countries. When the author was teaching computer science to final year degree students at the University of Zimbabwe four years ago, there were only four female students out of a class of 30. The figures for female enrolment ratios in many of the other universities and polytechnics offering computer science or related courses in the East and Southern African states the author has visited were not very much different – around 10 per cent. The female enrolment ratios in some of the private sector training programmes were much higher, nearly 40 per cent, although many of these women were from the ethnic minorities. Although no figures are available, a number of women are also trained privately by their employers in various areas of IT and a few privileged women also obtain their ‘computing’ qualifications abroad, mainly in the USA or the UK. These numbers are small although they may not be insignificant.
The under-representation of women in technical education, training and employment is not unique to Africa. The situation in Africa must be seen in the context of the serious economic and developmental problems facing many African countries (Leigh-Doyle, 1991). This, together with the societal attitude to women in general, is responsible for the gender differences both in education establishments and in the workforce. Differential access to educational and training opportunities have led to low proportions of women in the formal sector and their concentration in low paid production jobs with limited career prospects.
However, as elsewhere in the developing world, things are slowly changing for women in Africa. More women are joining the formal sector of the economy (especially the public sector), more girls are continuing to higher education and joining technical courses, more women can be found in the management hierarchy, more women are moving into professions so far dominated by men, and more women are becoming self employed. In the years to come, we will see many changes, although the poor economic situation in Africa will not provide many job opportunities. There will be more competition for jobs and women may lose out, especially where there are domestic and family demands placed on them.