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Fight poverty by closing education gaps

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Among the issues highlighted by the 2002 “State of World Population: People, Poverty and Possibilities,” released by the United Nations Population Fund on Dec. 3, is the impact of poverty on education and, consequently, health — particularly that of women of reproductive age. According to the report, although overall access to basic education has risen markedly over the past decade in many developing countries, poor children are still less likely to attend school, less likely to be enrolled in school and more likely to repeat grades than those who come from wealthier families.

There is widespread agreement that primary school should become universal early in this century, but the differences in educational attendance and attainment according to economic status show that the poor are much further away from achieving this goal than those better off economically.

There are several reasons to explain this gap. It is harder for poor children to have easy access to schools, since schools tend to be concentrated in cities and areas where only better-off families reside. The physical availability of schools, though, is not the most critical factor in most developing countries.

Although expenditures in education have increased over the past few decades in many countries, unless these resources are specifically addressed to those most vulnerable, they will tend to increase disparities rather than decrease them.

Attainment disparities have been attributed to ineffective school systems. Governments tend to spend less on public primary and high school education — the type of schooling that tends to benefit the poor most — during economic crises. War, civil conflict, economic disruptions and epidemics alter services and affect school attendance. All of these problems are likely to have a greater effect on the poor.

While the “gender gap” in education has narrowed over the past decade, girls are still at a disadvantage, particularly in their access to high school education in several developing countries.

In 2000, about 31 percent of women were without any formal education, compared with 18 percent of men. This gender gap is generally wider at higher levels of schooling. Women in South Asia, for example, have only half as many years of education as men, and female enrollment rates at the high school level are two-thirds of those for male.

Within countries, gender disparities are also greater among the poor, and in some countries those disparities continue among the poor even after they have disappeared among the wealthier sectors of the population. To be a girl from a poor family thus becomes a double disadvantage. In addition, gender bias — approaches to teaching and the degree of attention from teachers — puts girls at a further disadvantage.

Elimination of gender bias in education is particularly important when the level of education of parents is linked to their children’s educational attainment. Several studies have shown that the education of the mother is more important than that of the father for educating children. In addition, a great deal of evidence shows the benefits of women’s schooling not only for their children’s educational attainment but also for their health, nutrition and survival. Immunization rates among children of educated mothers, for example, are consistently higher than those of uneducated mothers.

Several factors indicate that special attention must be paid to the poor. Investments in education for the poorer sectors of the population yield better returns in productivity, income and economic growth. Inequality in the distribution of education holds down growth and per capita income in many countries. Attacking poverty has become an urgent global priority. And one of the best ways to attack poverty is to increase the educational level of the poor and to eliminate disparities in providing education.

Kevin Watkins, of the London-based nongovernment organization Oxfam, has proposed five building blocks upon which any successful poverty eradication strategy should be built: increased equity, enhanced opportunities, peace and security, people’s active participation in the process of social change and efforts to create a sustainable future. Eliminating poverty should be the war worthiest to fight for.