Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Women and Girls Education in MENA Key to Region’s Stability

Women and Girls Education
Yemeni girls and boys attend class at the start of the new academic year in the capital Sanaa, on September 16, 2019. MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP

Dana Hourany

Radwa Hassoun’s 27-year-old son was not pleased to see his adolescent sisters using the internet to further their schooling. Hassoun, a Syrian refugee in the Bekaa area of Lebanon, said her son had turned violent after losing his job at a Beirut restaurant.

The family lives in a modest two-room home, and the brother treats his sisters like servants, the mother laments. The young man has grown increasingly suspicious of his sisters for the time they spend using their phones and frequently assaults them as a result.

Despite the fact that Covid-19 has had a huge impact on education around the world, social experts told Fanack that the disruptions, which have exacerbated what has been a long-running crisis in many countries, have had a particularly negative impact on children, especially girls in the MENA region mainly due to gender norms, low-quality education, and high unemployment rates.

“During times of crises, gender stereotypes become even more entrenched. I have witnessed this directly while dealing with students and have seen firsthand how girls struggle differently,” Rawad al-Zayed, a Lebanon-based social worker, told Fanack.

Different struggles across MENA

According to the World Bank, Covid-19 came at a time when the MENA region was already grappling with a slew of economic issues, including high unemployment, low annual economic growth, low female labor participation, a scarcity of good jobs, and the large influxes of refugees, to name a few. Preexisting disparities and gender-related difficulties were only exacerbated by the outbreak.

Prior to the outbreak, about 15 million children aged 5 to 14 in the region were out of school, according to a UNICEF assessment. By 2021, UNESCO estimated that an extra 1.3 million young people were at risk of dropping out. As education turned virtual, requiring technological devices such as Wi-Fi connections, routers, cellphones, computers, tablets, and electricity, not all countries were able to meet the new criteria for digital learning.

Poorer and rural communities, in particular, suffered the most as a result of this transition, Juliette Touma, UNICEF MENA’s regional chief of advocacy and communication, told Fanack.

In conflict-torn countries like Syria, Yemen, and Sudan, there have been a high number of school dropouts, as well as an increase in gender-based violence and the turning of schools into military outposts.

Discrimination in conflict countries

Girls were assigned greater domestic tasks than boys during the lockdowns in Syria and Sudan, for example. Furthermore, Syrian children who experienced the dreadful conflict now associate school closures with bombings and displacement.

Female students in Sudan are increasingly being forced to become the sole breadwinners of their families, leaving them in a state of fatigue and isolation.  As a result of increased levels of violence, compounded distress, and societal constraints, students are discouraged and robbed of their will to complete their education.

As for Yemen, and due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, over two million school dropouts, the majority of whom are girls, have been reported. Additionally, gender roles in the country remain as pervasive as ever. Yemeni women are expected to work in “feminine occupations” like secretaries, teachers, nurses, and clerks. Furthermore, girls are discouraged from enrolling in technical schools to pursue careers in disciplines such as computer programming, marketing, and engineering, which are considered “masculine roles” by society at large. High costs of education and transportation are also major factors.

“I have many friends who stopped studying because the school is too far and most parents do not want their daughters to be taught by male teachers,” a Yemeni female student told UNICEF.

Child marriages

In Lebanon, like many other countries in the MENA region, girls face two separate challenges that do not impact their male counterparts, namely menstruation and child marriages.

The skyrocketing prices of feminine hygiene products, which is one of the many symptoms of the country’s economic and currency collapse, have had a tremendous impact on underprivileged girls who have been forced to opt out of school on days when they are menstruating. In addition, child marriages, too, are on the rise, as they are seen as a means to alleviate poverty.

According to UNICEF, the MENA area yields approximately 700,000 child brides each year, with one out of every five girls marrying before reaching maturity.

“In recent years, I’ve witnessed an upsurge in the number of child brides between the ages of 13 and 14. I believe this is due to families requiring an extra source of money or wishing to safeguard girls from rising rates of harassment,” al-Zayed told Fanack.

Among the displaced in the MENA region, UNICEF reports that Syrian refugee girls face alarming rates of child marriages.

Jordan and Egypt have too reportedly witnessed a dramatic increase in child marriages following the influx of Syrian refugees, 80 percent of whom live in extreme poverty.

Apart from the refugee crisis, the notion of “sutra,” which appropriates the patriarchal mindset that women must be cared for and “protected from misfortune” by marrying a wealthy husband, remains strong in Jordan. Many Jordanians share this attitude, which may be used as an excuse to regard child marriage as a means of achieving security for vulnerable girls and young women.

Impact on children

 According to UNICEF’s Touma, the longer children remain out of school, the less likely it is for them to go back.

“It’s quite difficult for a child to catch up after leaving school, particularly for those aged 12 and older. The younger they are, the more they can make up for the lost time and knowledge,” Touma said.

She emphasizes the significance of schools as a natural setting for children to socialize, play, and exercise their right to a normal childhood experience. UNICEF estimates that women and girls make up half of the MENA region’s population, and so denying them fundamental rights like education may have an immediate and long-term impact, particularly on the job market.

“The region already suffers from high unemployment rates due to its low-quality education. So we need to ensure that all genders have equal access to education, jobs and opportunities,” she said.

Touma went on to explain that the education system in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not prepare youngsters for the work market. She believes that life skills such as analysis, negotiation, communication, winning and losing, and problem-solving are not included in school curricula.

“The education system in the region is based on memorization rather than critical thinking and analysis. If these methods are not taught to children at a young age, they will find it challenging to get ahead in life,” she said.