UNESCO: Gender Equality in and through Education


By Mary Guinn Delaney and Elspeth McOmish
, Regional Education Office for Latin America and the Caribbean/UNESCO Santiago / Translated by Patricio Novoa

Gender equality is a central element in the kind of sustainability where members of society can respect each other and make use of their potential to the maximum.  The education system, and other institutions, must contribute to this comprehensive goal.  It is a comprehensive objective that education and other social institutions must contribute to.  

The United Nations has identified gender equality as goal in itself but also as a central strategy to reach the Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon for 2030. Equality means that the experiences, knowledge and values of men and women are valued to the same degree, and it fosters opportunities to participate in society, politically, economically, socially and culturally, and to benefit from the results, and in the same conditions. Therefore, gender inequality—and specifically gender discrimination—is an affront to fundamental human rights and an obstacle to peace and development.

Gender, Education and Rights

The benefits of education in the lives of girls or women have been extensively documented for decades: better health, better life projections, higher incomes, less violence, more control over her fertility and healthier families.  Many resources are spent to expand school coverage for girls in the formal education system, emphasizing access and retention.

Gender inequality affects fundamental human rights and, in particular, the right to education. In Latin America, women’s movements have understood the need for a democratic education, free from stereotypes, and free from discrimination—against women in the workplace, in the family, and in the public sphere. Alongside these social movements, international organizations have focused on gender issues, promoting changes in policies and practices that reflect prevailing development paradigms. In the second half of the 20th century, there was an increase in the awareness of gender biases in institutional practices, which led to the mainstreaming of gender considerations at every level in order to achieve equality—a gender perspective was included at every stage of design, implementation and evaluation.

Ideas relating to the assessment of gender inequalities in education and how to eradicate them have seen important transformations in recent decades. As the United Nations agency specialized in education, the evolution of UNESCO policies and programs clearly reflects these changes. From an initial focus on the guarantee of rights equality, understood as the same level of access and participation in education and training for girls and boys, the UNESCO approach has become more complex and has incorporated a more analytical approach to the role of educational systems in the formulation of positive (or negative) gender relationships in the wider social contexts, gender identities and the inequality between boys and girls as students, and the educational processes capable of transforming societies.

Inequalities that Persist

Gender equality means equality of rights, responsibilities and opportunities for men and women, and for boys and girls. It implies taking into account the interests, needs and priorities of men and women, acknowledging diversity. Education is a basic element in the transmission of these values from an early age. Gender equality is a principle associated with human rights, a prerequisite for a sustainable development centered on people, and it is a goal in itself.

In order to design and implement programs that can ensure gender equality, first, we have to identify and determine the magnitude of gender inequality in education.  A revision of the factors that contribute to the rise and to the growth of such inequality is urgent. Educational evaluations, such as the Third Regional Quality of Education Study, TERCE, offer valuable information as they identify educational inequities by gender, and by subject matter. Boys have significant advantages 
in mathematics while girls have a similar advantage in reading and writing. These differences bring about important consequences. Lower levels of reading competence in boys can lead to grade retention and early drop out, hindering their chances of entering higher education and of enjoying professional opportunities. Similarly, poor results for girls in mathematics and science can reduce their interest in fields like information technology, engineering and science.

Teacher Training, Curriculum, the School Environment

Along with access to the formal educational system, UNESCO and its member states are focused on making sure that gender relations are transformed within the educational system throughout the lives of its people. UNESCO encourages action with respect to gender by supporting educational initiatives, and it expects change to happen throughout the whole system; it promotes culturally appropriate strategies, based on human rights, which support the empowerment of women and more equal relations; it promotes non-formal education as a point of entry for dealing with inequity; the development of strategies and educational materials that empower adults and learning throughout their lives; and the improved use of technologies of information and communication—public awareness campaigns and entertainment (radio and TV) that help to reproduce more effective, socially adapted and gender sensitive messages regarding the importance of gender equality.

UNESCO promotes gender sensitivity in the formation of teachers, and that it should be an integral part of pedagogical training.  A large number of countries have agreed to recognize  “teachers” as a key segment capable of ensuring the quality of education, gender equality, and the equality of education for all. UNESCO works with different countries to elaborate and promote curricula and teaching materials that put forward positive images of men and women—and social practices that help to promote equality, especially in relation to sexuality education, history or the social sciences, among other subjects.  The idea is to contribute to equality, enabling boys, girls, and young people to recognize harmful notions of gender, and to do away with them.


As a means and mechanism to transform societies, education has unrivaled power. Gender must be considered a priority in education planning, from teacher training, infrastructure, and its administrative processes, to the development of school materials and pedagogical processes. It is vital to ensure a sustainable future by working towards the total and equitable participation of women; as gender roles are created by society and are taught from one generation to the next, they are social constructs that can be changed in order to achieve equality and equity between men and women.

Empowering women is an indispensable tool to foster development and reduce poverty. Gender inequalities undermine everybody’s capacity to exercise their rights. Thus, ensuring gender equality between boys and girls means that both have the same opportunities to go to school, and at each level of study along the way.

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