An education in gender equity

An education in gender equity
A school girl holds a Nigerian flag as she joins a parade marking Nigeria's 54th Independence Day in Lagos October 1, 2014.

Muslim countries worldwide have problems with gender equality. They dominate the bottom 10 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report, and none of the 10 most successful countries offering equal opportunities for men and women is Muslim.

Girls lag behind boys in school attendance, making up 54 per cent of the out-of-school child population in the Arab states, a figure that has not changed since 2000.

Of the 10 countries that fare the worst for child school attendance rates, seven are Muslim.

These are Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger and Yemen - countries that are often considered hot spots for acts of violence against women and schoolgirls.

The near-fatal attack on Malala Yousafzai by a Taleban gunman in Pakistan two years ago reminds us of the challenging circumstances under which girls attend school in many Muslim countries.

The teenager's subsequent fight for education for girls and children worldwide won her - together with India's veteran campaigner to end child labour Kailash Satyarthi - this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Earlier this year, as many as 276 schoolgirls were abducted for similar reasons in the Borno state of Nigeria. Their captors from the extremist Boko Haram group consider secular education a grave threat to Islam.

Frequent attacks on schools in Nigeria have forced many parents to withdraw their daughters from education. In some states, schools have even closed down for fear of insurgent attacks.

More recently, a Boko Haram-style armed group warned schools in Pakistan against co-education. It's little wonder Nigeria and Pakistan together account for a quarter of the world's out-of-school children.

Why this inequity?

In many Muslim countries, women are subjected to patriarchal norms and varying degrees of restriction on economic participation. This reduces the value of girls' education in society.

Some scholars blame culture and religion for this problem. Others say the economic structure of some Muslim countries is not conducive to women's development.

They argue patriarchal norms persist because oil-rich economies limit the role of women in the paid workforce and restrict their participation in politics.

Not all Muslim nations suffer gender inequity in education.

Within the Middle East, a region widely considered to lack progress in girls' education, Turkey is very close to eliminating the gender gap in schooling.

In Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Libya, more girls are in secondary school than boys and there is gender parity in primary enrolment.

Much clearer success stories are emerging outside the Arab world. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, equal numbers of girls and boys are in school.

In Malaysia, boys lag behind girls at almost all levels of education.

In the Borno state of Nigeria, half of 10-year-old girls remain out of school, a situation Malaysia overcame nearly three decades ago.

A similar pattern is visible in Bangladesh, where girls outnumber boys at primary and secondary levels. Neither religious orthodoxy nor income poverty could keep girls away from schools in this Muslim-majority nation.

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