I have always been amazed to find myself being the only woman participating in meetings and workshops in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It’s the largest country in Francophone Africa, with an estimated 77 million people of whom 50 percent are women. When asked where are the women of the country, the response is often the same.
It begins with a smile, followed by something like: “we don’t know, they are just not interested. Job vacancies are open to both genders, but female candidates either do not apply, or do not have the required skills. There is nothing we can do about it.”
I believe that the education sector should be the first to wonder. Indeed, where are the increasing number of girls who complete primary and secondary school?
Like most countries around the world, DRC has made a sustained progress to enroll the majority of its children in schools. The discrepancy gap in access by gender has narrowed significantly. From 2005 to 2012, the female gross enrollment rate increased by 21 percentage points, compared to the nine percentage points for male enrollment.
During the same period, primary school completion rates improved from 52 percent to 76 percent for girls and from 77 percent to 81 percent for boys. The World Bank and other development partners have supported these efforts by collecting sex disaggregated statistics to monitor factors that can induce a gender bias in development projects.
Concrete results to such monitoring include the development of a national strategy for girls’ education and the inclusion of gender sensitive water and sanitation infrastructure to schools-building standards specifications.
However, there has been no progress in the female to male youth unemployment ratio reported at 1.23 since 1991. In the latest Gender Inequality Index (GII), DRC was ranked at the bottom (153th out of 159 countries), making it one of the most challenging countries in the world for women and girls to live a life with dignity, just before Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Chad, Niger and Yemen. The GII measures gender inequalities in three important aspects of human development—reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status.In a context of alarmingly high fertility rates, a low social value of women and girls, and where gender-based violence is common – dismissing or underestimating the gender dimension in the country’s development agenda is not an option.
More should be done in schools to influence gender equality and effectively contribute to lasting poverty reduction and shared prosperity. The education sector can and should do more to effect the changes required to contribute to the welfare of the next generation by addressing the country’s human development challenges, such as reducing infant and child mortality, lowering fertility and improving the nutritional status of children, to name a few.
Futures interventions will require a strong move towards not only gender-sensitive, but also gender responsive actions while monitoring their capacity to improve gender equality.
This means going beyond the identifying gender inequalities in schools, which are usually monitored through sex desegregated data, and taking substantive action to correct gender imbalances. Changing traditional and new gender roles assumed by women and men in the DRC’s protracted fragile, conflict and violence affected context is central to advancing individual gender-equitable behaviors. Here's how:
Promoting a gender responsive learning environment. Understanding gender dynamics in school entails clarifying terminologies. It means focusing on the relations between women and men, denouncing the normalization of gender inequality, and systematically tackling the disparities. Critically, efforts should aim at raising awareness and bring all key stakeholders to the realization that the education system remains gender blind. It is urgent to consider the differential risks, vulnerabilities and barriers in access to services and equal opportunities for women and men to reduce poverty.
Addressing unequal power relations, gender roles, and social norms also calls for the creation of a network of trend setters among girls, boys, adolescents, youth and adults (men and women) to challenge the stereotypes. New expectations from which gender identity generally conforms to within the community and the country, as a whole, should be generated. While empowering women, efforts should be made to engage male champions to change the society. Supporting adolescents as they engage in community services not only sharpens their decision-making and negotiation skills cbut also empowers them.
Going beyond the numerical data. Gains in voice and agency will depend on the willingness for policies, strategies and projects interventions to address women and girls’ issues, while contributing positively to women’s empowerment. Becoming more gender-responsive also means gathering and keeping track of quality data. While sex-disaggregated data remains essential to measure the differences between girls and boys on several dimensions and monitor change in girls’ access to education, they do not necessarily reflect or address gender roles, relations and inequality in society. Traditionally, education programs have been counting on sex-disaggregated data, such as the provision of gender segregated water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools, water to address gender inequality but this fails numerous other realities that affects gender dynamics in the Congolese society.
It is time to do more and do better to effect the changes required to secure the welfare of the next generation by addressing the DRC’s human development challenges. More can and should be done to make equal opportunities for women and girls an achievable goal for DRC.
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