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Girls' Education in Papua New Guinea

While primary school enrollment rates in Papua New Guinea are low for girls and boys, there is a significant disparity between the two. Several factors contribute to the worse girls’ education in Papua New Guinea, some of which governments and organizations are working to change.

Factors Contributing to Gender Inequality

  • Political Factors – Women’s social status in Papua New Guinea is below men’s, limiting female positions of leadership. To combat some of this inequality, the country attempted to create legislation that would reserve seats for women, but it was defeated in parliament. As a result of this, initiatives to promote gender equality often have difficulty in receiving funding.
  • Economic Factors – School fees dissuade parents from enrolling their daughters, as they feel it is more beneficial to enroll their sons. Although, many boys do not receive an education as well: about 64 percent of boys and 57 percent of girls attend primary school. Hunger also contributes, as starving students are less likely to attend school. In urban areas, food shortages are common because of less gardening land. Malnourished children often develop illnesses, also causing them to miss school. Additionally, a lack of appropriate water and sanitation facilities negatively impacts girls’ education in Papua New Guinea. They are often not private enough, and sometimes there isn’t even running water. Once girls reach puberty, they often leave school because they cannot maintain menstrual hygiene at school.
  • Social and Cultural Factors – Girls do not enroll in school because they are required to take care of their younger siblings while their parents work. Child marriage also contributes to poor girls’ education in Papua New Guinea. Married girls do not continue to attend school, and approximately 22 percent of girls in Papua New Guinea get married before the age of 18.

Safety is another serious concern for girls. Gender-based violence and harassment are prevalent in schools. Just under 50 percent of girls reported feeling safe at school, with 31 percent feeling unsafe. These feelings were strongest near toilets, sports fields and school gates, with only 2 percent of girls feeling safe around toilets.

Girls are harassed by male students and teachers, thereby afraid of physical and sexual assault. The high number of male teachers contributes to low enrollment rates, with male teachers out-numbering female teachers in primary schools. While the number of female teachers doubled between 2002 and 2012, there is still a significant lack of them.

Efforts to Decrease Gender Inequality in Education

World Vision launched a project targeting girls’ education in Papua New Guinea. They established community learning centers (CLCs), which provide early childhood care for girls and boys between three and six. Education improvement classes for children under 14 are also offered. The goal is to make it easier for children to succeed in school, as well as encourage parents to take a more active role in the children’s education. Between 2014 and 2017, approximately 6000 children attended classes at CLCs and 4o00 people were involved in community awareness efforts. After attending CLCs, 90 percent of children were prepared to begin primary school, significantly higher than the baseline of 80 percent.

The National Education Plan (NEP), developed in 2015, is also aiming to improve education, with a focus on gender equality. In their most recent $7.4 million grant, their goal is to better student achievement in math and science by improving pre-service and in-service teacher education, especially for women, and increasing access to textbooks.

Notable Progress

Due to these projects being implemented, some advancements have been made. A study by the National Research Institute found that the number of girls enrolled in school increased by almost 150 percent between 2001 and 2012. Additionally, primary school completion rates for girls rose by approximately 5 percent between 2014 and 2016.

While there is still a long way to go, Papua New Guinea has begun to decrease the differences between male and female education.

– Sara Olk
Photo: Flickr

Girls' Education in Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea (PNG) encompasses the eastern half of New Guinea and its offshore islands, sharing the globe’s second-largest island with Papua and West Papua. The country supports a diverse populace and variety of languages; 8.2 million Papua New Guineans speak 820 distinct languages, giving rise to various local communities and rich cultural histories. But PNG faces a number of challenges including stifling economic conditions and persisting gender inequalities. These two factors, along with others, contribute to low rates of girls’ education in Papua New Guinea.

The Gender Gap

Only 73 percent of primary school-aged and 30 percent of secondary-aged girls attend school in PNG. One can understand these strikingly low numbers in light of the country’s broader educational context; many schools lack quality equipment and while very few teachers receive adequate training, almost all manage overstuffed classrooms, according to Professor Ravinder Rena of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology. As a result, total net enrollment rates for primary and secondary school sit at 76 percent and 33 percent.

Still, Papua New Guinean boys are much more likely to enroll in school than their female counterparts. According to the U.N.’s Gender Parity Index, PNG’s most recent ratio of girls to boys in school was .91 for primary education and .76 for secondary education. This gender gap undermines Papua New Guinean girls’ access to crucial literacy, numeracy and social skills. In turn, the bulk of the country’s economic opportunities, especially in the formal sector, go to men.

Reasons for the Gap

For PNG women, economic disparities exacerbate other debilitating gender inequities. Tragically, a majority of PNG women fall victim to rape or sexual assault during their lifetime and the country’s police forces neglect most of their cases. Moreover, traditional, gender-based expectations often mean scant autonomy for females in PNG, where almost a quarter of all girls marry before the age of 18.

This subjugation of women directly relates to girls’ education in Papua New Guinea. As Carolyn Benson, Professor of International and Comparative Education at Columbia University, argues, “The need to move away from home to enroll in schools partially explains lagging rates of female enrollment, as many families fear their female children will become more vulnerable to sexual assault by moving away.”

The need to be at school, in the midst of potentially predatory teachers and male classmates, discourages families from allowing female children to pursue an education. Finally, norms encouraging and/or enforcing early marriage lead to the rigidification of traditional views that disvalue female education. Thus, girls’ education in Papua New Guinea is caught in a vicious cycle since the gap between female and male rates of enrollment contributes to the continuation of oppressive gender relations, which in turn makes the task of getting girls in school even more difficult.

The Solutions on the Table

Many are challenging this vicious cycle. Indeed, girls’ education in Papua New Guinea is a central focus in a number of recent policy initiatives.

One example is the PNG government’s decision to join the United Nations’ campaign to end violence in schools. In so doing, the PNG government will raise awareness around violence against its school attendees and encourage schools to take protective measures. If adequately resourced, these measures may make families feel better about sending their girls to school.

Another initiative is the PNG government’s comprehensive National Education Plan (NEP), which passed in 2015. The NEP has six major goals, including the improvement of teaching quality and the strengthening of local school systems. If the government reaches the former goal, it will probably experience an uptick in overall school enrollment. If it reaches the latter, female enrollment rates will likely receive a special boost, since local schools represent a safer choice for PNG families choosing where to send their daughters. The most exciting feature of the NEP is that gender equality is a cross-cutting theme throughout, meaning that the NEP will implement gender equality into each of its six goals.

Evidence suggests that rates of girls’ education in Papua New Guinea will continue to rise considering that the net rate of female primary enrollment rose six points from 2012 to 2016. If the government’s recent policies are successful and if international organizations continue to help along the way, those rising rates of enrollment will be met with better, safer schools. Thanks to the help of many, the path to gender equality in Papua New Guinea is finally coming into view and it starts with girls’ education.

– James Delegal
Photo: Flickr