Countries have committed politically and legally to gender equality in education

Credit: UNESCO / Amima Sayeed

Countries have committed politically and legally to gender equality in education

The international community has been committed to achieving gender equality at least since the establishment of the United Nations: Chapter I of the UN charter lists as one of the organization’s purposes the effort to achieve international cooperation through ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’ (United Nations, 1945). Since then, countries have been increasing their political and legal commitment to gender equality in education.


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development commits countries to gender equality throughout all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Individual goals foreground gender equality in education, including SDG 4, which calls for inclusive, equitable education of good quality, and SDG 5, which aims at achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls. SDG 5’s targets include the elimination of all forms of discrimination, gender-based violence and child marriage, increasing participation of women at all levels of decision-making, and providing universal access to sexual and reproductive health services (CESR, 2017).

The Education 2030 Framework for Action, the international community’s roadmap towards achieving SDG 4, recognizes that gender equality is essential if the right to education is to be extended to all. The framework says that governments must put in place gender-sensitive policies, plans and learning environments. This includes eliminating gender-based discrimination and violence and providing teacher education and support in offering gender-equitable instruction. Gender equality is captured throughout SDG 4 using indicators disaggregated by sex. In addition, target 4.5 calls for eliminating gender disparities in education; target 4.7 includes education for gender equality as a necessary component for education for sustainable development and global citizenship; and means of implementation 4.a monitors safe and gender-sensitive learning environments.

However, the 2030 Agenda is not legally binding. Moreover, although accountability was originally emphasized in the drafting of the goals, it was later replaced with a weaker follow-up and review process, based mainly on voluntary national reviews and offering limited space for civil society and little recognition of the importance of independent external monitoring. For example, of 22 voluntary national reviews completed in 2016, only 4 were presented by a diverse delegation that included representatives of unions, civil society organizations and the private sector as well as government actors (Finland, Germany, Norway and Switzerland) (CESR, 2017).


States’ legal obligations on education come from legally binding international treaties that lay out governments’ responsibilities to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education. To respect the right to education, the state must refrain from interfering with citizens’ enjoyment of the right. To protect it, the state must ensure that third parties do not prevent equal access to and enjoyment of education. To fulfil it, the state must adopt legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial and other measures towards full realization of the right. All countries have ratified at least one such treaty.

Three global treaties are particularly relevant to gender equality in education. First, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the most specific and substantive treaty with regard to the normative content and legal obligations of states towards gender equality in education. Article 1 of the treaty defines discrimination against women. Articles 2 and 3 set out measures that states should take to eliminate discrimination. Article 5 requires states to eliminate all gender stereotyping, prejudices and discriminatory practices. Article 7 calls for states to draft and implement policy and laws with gender equality in mind. Article 10 lays out state obligations and establishes acceptable norms, including on equality in access to and quality of education, the reduction of female dropout rates, programmes for women and girls who have left school prematurely, and access to educational information on health and family planning. Article 16 prohibits child marriage. Although 189 states have ratified CEDAW, many countries have included reservations, which undermine their commitment to the treaty (Box 2).

Box 2

Reservations to international treaties undermine state commitments to gender equality

A reservation is a unilateral statement in which a state reserves its obligations to fulfil certain provisions of a treaty. Many states have entered reservations to treaties that signal their unwillingness to be bound by provisions that oblige them to take action to achieve gender equality in education or provisions that could affect the right to education of women and girls.

No states have entered a reservation on Article 10 of CEDAW, which lays out obligations on equality in education. However, 27 states (that is, 14% of signatories) have made 44 reservations on other provisions that could affect the right to education as applied to women and girls. Articles 2 and 16 have received the most substantive reservations (Table 7).

Reservations to Article 2, which refers to the elimination of discriminatory laws and policies, are problematic because they imply that women’s and girls’ right to education cannot be legally protected. Article 2 (f) reads:

2. States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women and, to this end, undertake:

(f) To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women

Many states have objected to reservations to this article as being against the ‘object and purpose’ of the treaty (which is prohibited by Article 19 (c) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties).

Reservations to Article 16, which refers to discrimination and unequal treatment of women and girls in marriage and family life, are also problematic because marriage, and in particular child marriage, can have a deleterious impact on a girl’s education.
In addressing reservations to CEDAW, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination has stated that ‘Reservations to articles 2 and 16 perpetuate the myth of women’s inferiority and reinforce the inequalities in the lives of millions of women throughout the world. They continue to be treated in both public and private life as inferior to men, and to suffer greater violations of their rights in every sphere of their lives.’

TABLE 7: Reservations affecting gender equality in education, by CEDAW article

Secondly, the Convention against Discrimination in Education (CADE), the only treaty specific to the field of education, is the most comprehensive treaty covering discrimination in education. CADE prohibits discrimination in all forms, including by gender, and addresses discrimination both in access to and quality of education. Article 2 permits gender-segregated educational institutions provided they have the same quality, provide equivalent content and meet the same standards as gender-integrated institutions (Right to Education Initiative, 2018).

Finally, Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are often seen as the foundation of the legal right to education. In elaborating on the guarantee of education for all without discrimination in Article 13, the treaty’s committee has laid out state practices necessary to provide redress for any discrimination, all of which require close monitoring and disaggregated data to identify patterns of discrimination (Right to Education Initiative, 2018).

Countries’ legal commitment to gender equality in education can be classified using the ratification status of the three treaties as a proxy measure. The least committed countries are those that have not ratified CEDAW, CADE or ICESCR; the most committed are those that have ratified CEDAW without reservations and have also ratified CADE and ICESCR (Figure 14).

FIGURE 14: Only 44% of countries have fully committed to gender equality in education

In total, 189 states, or 96% of all UN members, have ratified CEDAW, though 27 of them have entered reservations that are relevant to gender equality in education. In total, 44% of states are classified as fully committed, while a further 29% fall into the second tier, which means that they have ratified either CADE or ICESCR in addition to full commitment to CEDAW. Seven states have not ratified CEDAW and fall into the bottom category: the small island developing states of Niue, Palau and Tonga, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Somalia, Sudan and the United States of America.

The United States is frequently absent from international treaties; notably, it is the only country that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It has not ratified CEDAW, CADE and ICESCR, and it has not guaranteed the right to education in its constitution, which means that citizens in the United States lack an important recourse in cases of violations of their right to education.

A high score in this proxy measure is not sufficient to guarantee gender equality in education. For example, Afghanistan has ratified all three treaties, but it has one of the highest levels of gender inequality in education. In the United Republic of Tanzania, President John Magufuli stated in 2017 that as long as he is in office ‘no pregnant students will be allowed to return to school’ (Right to Education Initiative, 2017). And countries that show high levels of commitment in treaty ratification do not always reflect this commitment in their education sector plans. While the plans of Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe disaggregate data by sex, Nicaragua and Uzbekistan do not include explicit gender elements in their plans (GPE, 2017).


Even when states formally accept the responsibility to guarantee the right to gender equality in education, discriminatory practices based on gender persist. Citizens and non-governmental organizations can avail of formal and informal routes to have their voices heard and hold the government to account. Formal channels include those associated with human rights treaty bodies, parliaments and independent institutions. Informal channels include large social movements addressing women’s rights issues.

Formal international mechanisms hold governments to account for violations

Depending on the treaty, governments can be held accountable in one or more of three ways. First, authorized parties may be able to bring complaints directly to the committee overseeing the treaty. Secondly, the treaty may require countries to report progress on meeting treaty commitments to the committee. Thirdly, during a country review process, third parties may be able to provide reports to further inform the committee.

The primary way governments are held accountable for their commitments on the right to education is through the submission of complaints, communications, petitions or claims by anyone who feels their human rights have been violated by the state. The committees overseeing CEDAW, ICESCR and CADE all have mechanisms to submit complaints and complainants do not need a lawyer to bring forward their concerns (Table 8).

TABLE 8: Requirements for submitting complaints to the committees overseeing major international treaties on gender equality in education and potential outcomes

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors the implementation of CEDAW, which makes it the UN treaty body most likely to receive a complaint on gender inequality in education. It should be noted that although UN treaty bodies have dealt with a small number of complaints or communications on the right to education, no UN treaty body has yet adjudicated on a specific case of gender discrimination in education. However, the Committee has taken decisions that affect gender equality in education. In a communication alleging that several provisions of CEDAW were violated by an executive order that sought to regulate access to contraception in Manila, the Committee conducted an inquiry and concluded the order violated the right to health (Article 12) and the right to access reproductive health information (Article 10(h)).

The latter finding prompted the committee to recommend that the Philippine government integrate age-appropriate education on reproductive and sexual health into school curricula (Right to Education Initiative, 2017).

Countries are required to report periodically on measures they have taken to meet their obligations. During the last reporting for CADE, completed in 2013, 40 out of 59 countries reported relevant policy changes. In Australia, the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Act 2011 legally protects students of any age from sexual harassment, including through the use of modern technologies such as texting or social networking sites. In Bahrain, nursery schools were opened in continuing education centres to provide a space for childcare while parents continue their education. The Female Stipend Programme was expanded to upper secondary in Bangladesh, allowing the 3.9 million students receiving the stipend to extend their education. As part of its National Plan for Equity, Ethiopia adopted positive discrimination measures at key education transition points as well as instating tutoring support for female students when they enter higher education. The Girl’s Day – Boy’s Day project in Luxembourg aimed to combat gender stereotypes by encouraging students to explore occupations associated with the opposite sex (UNESCO, 2014).

During country reviews, non-government actors are given the opportunity to submit documents on the state of corresponding rights in the country. Reports from NGOs are known as shadow or parallel reports and bring local voices into the international arena. In 2016, in response to such a report, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which oversees ICESCR, recommended that the government of the Dominican Republic ‘incorporate comprehensive age appropriate lessons on human rights, gender equality and sexual and reproductive health’ in curricula and guarantee access for children of Haitian descent, including those lacking a birth certificate or identity document (CESCR, 2016; CLADEM/Colectiva Mujer y Salud, 2016).

The Human Rights Council is made up of 47 UN Member States elected by the UN General Assembly. It is not associated with a treaty, but it discusses human rights issues and situations and monitors states through the Universal Periodic Review, under which all UN Member States undergo a review of their human rights performance every 4.5 years. During the Universal Periodic Review process, states indicate the actions they have taken to fulfil their human rights obligations, and other states are able to criticize, question or praise their human rights record. On average, 3,400 complaints are made each year (Right to Education Initiative, 2018). In 2015 and 2016, 49 of 51 recommendations related to girls’ right to education were accepted (UN Human Rights Council, 2017). For example, Portugal recommended in 2014 that Bhutan ‘take further measures to address the decline of female enrolment in schools’, which Bhutan agreed to do (UN Human Rights Council, 2014).

The multiple avenues offered by international treaties are underutilized measures for holding countries accountable for gender equality in education. Although lack of enforcement authority may limit the degree of national reporting against treaty goals, normative pressure to meet commitments has driven progress in some countries. Individual citizens and civil society organizations could make better use of these avenues to bring up issues of discrimination and segregation, since committee recommendations, when combined with public scrutiny, can prompt government action.

Formal national mechanisms also hold governments to account

Independent institutions and government agencies provide other routes for citizens to voice complaints. National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), including ombudsman offices, are tasked with reporting on complaints involving government human rights violations and recommending corrective action. In 2010, 118 countries had ombudsman offices (Finkel, 2012).

The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions has encouraged its members to prioritize gender equality in their work (CESR, 2017). Steps have been taken to integrate gender equality aims in NHRIs in several countries; in Australia, a special commissioner for sex discrimination has been appointed, and in India, a specialized women’s commission has been established (CESR, 2017). Elsewhere, Bhutan has the National Commission for Women and Children, Ethiopia and Turkey each have an ombudsman dedicated to women and children, and Sierra Leone has a women and children’s rights unit in their Human Rights Commission (CRIN, 2017).

In Finland, the Ombudsman for Equality supervises compliance with the Act on Equality between Women and Men. The office fields inquiries and complaints on gender issues in employment, education, housing, social protection and healthcare, and goods and services. In 2015, 644 inquiries were made to the ombudsman, with 369 case files opened and processed during the year (Equinet, 2017). The Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman) office in Azerbaijan has raised awareness by organizing events on the right to education as part of the National Action Plan to prevent gender-based violence. Ombudsman efforts also resulted in a class on introduction to gender being integrated into the law faculty curriculum at Baku State University (Safikhanli, 2014).

Gender audits by independent audit institutions can also put pressure on the government. In Victoria state, Australia, the Auditor General’s Report has drawn attention to the large gender gap favouring girls in reading and shown that boys’ writing performance is declining at a far faster rate than their female peers (Rowe, 2017). The conclusions of the 2015 Auditor General report in Canada led to an action plan for the years 2016–2020, collaboratively developed with Status of Women Canada, the Privy Council Office and the Treasury Board Secretariat, to close gender gaps (OECD, 2017b).

In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Ministry of Education and Sports commissioned Plan International to complete a gender audit for the mid-term review of the 2011–2015 education sector plan. The report highlighted contradictions between the plan and other documents. While the plan includes data disaggregated by sex, a lack of data by location or ethnicity limits its usefulness in identifying disparities. The audit also pointed out the absence of women in decision-making positions, in spite of the fact that national policies emphasize the need for their inclusion (Edwards and Girgis, 2015).

Informal social action and activism maintain pressure for gender equality

Social accountability systems, including sustained social movements, provide an informal avenue for citizens to voice complaints. Women activist groups have played an important role in many countries in holding the government to account for their commitments (Cornwall and Edwards, 2015; Sen and Mukherjee, 2014; Weldon and Htun, 2013). An analysis of policies on violence against women in place between 1975 and 2005 across 70 countries found that, even after controlling for a country’s income level, the presence of a strong, autonomous domestic feminist movement plays a key role in policy change (Weldon and Htun, 2013).

Campaigns for women’s rights are often organized by NGOs, occasionally in partnership with government. For example, the Rwanda Education NGO Coordination Platform (RENCP) is a coalition of over 70 local and international organizations. Members are required to contribute to one of the RENCP’s five working groups, which align with government priorities. Supported by the Ministry of Education, one working group focuses on girls’ education (Williams, 2015). In Bangladesh, NGOs are not formally linked to government policy-making, but they raise awareness of gender issues, for example through research reports and micro-credit programmes, and they encourage women to take advantage of gender quotas for local government positions (Panday and Feldman, 2015). With the support of local and religious leaders who are convinced of the importance of girls’ education, changes in attitudes have been observed in communities in Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan (UNGEI, 2017).

Progress can also be encouraged by gender-focused international NGOs, such as the Campaign for Female Education, the MenEngage Alliance and Women Deliver, as well as global campaigns such as the Determined campaign by the Global Fund for Women or the Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step it Up for Gender Equality by UN Women. The #HeForShe campaign launched by UN Women in 2014 focuses on engaging men to become change agents and help achieve gender equality. As part of the campaign, the Impact 10x10x10 project encouraged ten leaders each from government, corporations and universities to make public pledges for gender equality. For example, the ten higher education champions committed to implement gender-sensitive curricula and develop programmes to address gender-based violence at their universities (HeForShe, 2018).

Social media is increasingly used to draw attention to gender issues, hold organizations and individuals to account and provide a voice for individuals regardless of their status. Hashtag activism can help bring local concerns into global consciousness. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign drew global attention to the kidnapping of over 250 secondary school girls in Borno State, Nigeria, in 2014 (Chittal, 2015).