CREDIT: Eduardo Martino


Education Gender and Well-Being

Healthy lives, equitable relationships and peaceful, inclusive communities are essential for individual and societal well-being.

Equitable relationships in the private and public spheres can help promote gender equality in participation in key economic, political and social activities, as well as in access to essential services. This, in turn, improves individual and societal health and well-being.


Working with young people through education on gender equality, sexuality, and sexual and reproductive health is enormously beneficial for the well-being of individuals, families and communities. It can have intergenerational effects, with families and new parents passing on knowledge and skills to improve children’s health and well-being.

Engaging adolescents in formal and non-formal education initiatives is crucial to promote equitable relationships

Engaging with adolescents and addressing their needs is crucial for gender equality. Adolescence is a period of risk and opportunity when young people are forming ideas and behaviour around gender (Peacock and Barker, 2014) and when pressure to engage in sexual activity and intimate relationships is heightened. Decisions about education, marriage and pregnancy can result from combined underlying factors, such as poverty, discriminatory social norms, household composition, and accessibility and quality of education provision. Early marriage and pregnancy limit adolescent girls’ access to and continuation in education. Better enforcement of early marriage laws would result in increasing years of schooling in sub-Saharan Africa by 39% (Delprato et al., 2015). Instances of early marriage have decreased globally, but about 15 million girls annually are married before age 18 (UNICEF, 2014).

Many live in the poorest households and rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. In 2012, 60% of women aged 15 to 19 in Niger were currently married (United Nations, 2015c). On present trends, by 2030 almost 950 million women will have been married as children, up from more than 700 million today (UNICEF, 2014).

Better enforcement of early marriage laws would increase average years of schooling attained in sub-Saharan Africa by 39% Click to Tweet

Formal education needs to impart gender-equitable attitudes towards relationships and sexual behaviour. Comprehensive sexuality education promotes gender sensitivity and equality. It provides culturally relevant, scientifically accurate and non-judgemental information, skills and values to enable young women and men to safely exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. In 2009, UNESCO, along with partners, published a global review of sexuality education, as well as technical guidance for use in school and extra-school initiatives (UNESCO, 2009). Recent evidence indicates that such education helps prevent negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes, promotes respectful, non-violent relationships and offers a platform for discussion of gender issues and human rights (Instituto Promundo et al., 2012).

The most effective sexuality education empowers young people to be agents in their lives and leaders in their communities, and emphasizes gender equality and human rights (Haberland and Rogow, 2015; UNFPA, 2014). Educating boys and men about sexual and reproductive health can ensure safer pregnancy and motherhood, including through access to better health care for pregnant partners (Kato-Wallace et al., 2016; UN Women, 2008).

Programmes combining multiple interventions can be particularly effective in changing young people’s behaviour and attitudes (Barker et al., 2007). As discussed in the 2015 Global Monitoring Report, the Young Men as Equal Partners worked with communities to ensure young men and women engaged in responsible sexual behaviour by providing sexuality education and awareness training, as well as health services, counseling and condoms (UNESCO, 2015a).

Short-term breastfeeding education increased the average share of mothers exclusively breastfeeding by 43% on the day of birth and 90% during months 2 to 6 in a review of 66 studies

Educated mothers and fathers improve family health and well-being

Education has large, enduring intergenerational benefits (UNESCO, 2014). The expansion of basic education has a significant cross-generational public health dimension, as the long-term relationship between maternal education and child health shows. Education and support for new mothers and fathers are important for their own and their children’s health and well-being. Programmes supporting mothers of young children can help lessen maternal depression, improve knowledge about child development and benefit children’s short-and long-term health and nutrition, which in turn can improve schooling outcomes (UNESCO, 2015a). The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for infants up to at least 6 months to achieve optimum growth.

A systematic review of 66 studies, including 27 in lower income countries, showed that short-term breastfeeding education increased the average share of mothers exclusively breastfeeding by 43% on the day of birth, 30% during the first month and 90% during months 2 to 6, with the largest increases in lower income countries (Haroon et al., 2013). More educated mothers are more likely to seek prenatal care, birth attendance by a trained medical practitioner, immunization and modern medical care for their young children – and are likelier to protect them from health risks by, for example, boiling water and avoiding unsafe food. Evidence from Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal, Venezuela and Zambia shows that literacy predicts mothers’ ability to read printed health messages, comprehend radio messages, seek medical care and explain their child’s condition to a health professional (LeVine and Rowe, 2009).

The GEM Report commissioned projections at the country level that confirm that universalizing secondary education for women would help save millions of children’s lives by 2050, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The analysis suggests that achieving universal lower secondary education for women of child-bearing age by 2030 would reduce the under-5 mortality rate from 68 deaths for every 1,000 live births to 62 by 2030 and from 51 deaths for every 1,000 live births to 44 by 2050.

With an estimated 25 million children expected to be born annually in the region by 2050, this would be equivalent to between 300,000 and 350,000 fewer child deaths per year by 2050 (Figure 21).

Figure 21

The presence of fathers and their positive involvement in family and child care responsibilities can be important for the welfare of children and mothers, as well as fathers themselves, who benefit from more nurturing relationships with their children. Research shows that fathers who take time to be involved in the process of childbirth before, during and after birth are more likely to be involved with their young children long term (Huerta et al., 2013; Levtov et al., 2015), which can be important for child development and family welfare. Fatherhood courses and information campaigns can address men’s uncertainty about the demands of parenthood and help them perceive the benefits of active participation in family life (MenEngage Alliance et al., 2015).

Launched in 2011, MenCare is a fatherhood campaign in 40 countries, a type of non-formal education that promotes men’s active, equitable and non-violent involvement as fathers and caregivers through media campaigns, parenting groups and community mobilization (MenCare, 2016a). Fathers involved in Nicaraguan initiatives report improved relationships with their children and partners, and increased participation in household work and child care (MenCare, 2016b). In South Africa, an evaluation of the Fatherhood Project, which encourages men’s active caregiving and protection of children, reported that male participants spent more time with their children, were less violent towards their partners, and assumed more householdresponsibilities (Jain et al., 2011).


Women and men alike benefit from living in peaceful societies where community relations, friendships and intimate relationships are based on equality and mutual respect and care rather than fear, domination and violence.

Interpersonal violence and armed conflict are serious barriers to gender equality

The costs of interpersonal violence and armed conflict are high. The death toll of disputes between individuals, including domestic violence, is estimated at nine times that of war and other such conflicts (Hoeffler and Fearon,2014). Both women and men suffer from violence across the world but men overwhelmingly hold and use the means of violence (Connell, 2005). This is not to say all men are violent or all boys will grow up to be violent, but socially constructed notions of masculinity and male sexual entitlement play a central role in fuelling violence (Fulu et al., 2013; Wright, 2014). Gender-based violence is a significant issue in poor and rich countries alike. Around one-third of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner, or sexual violence from a non-partner, at some point in their lives; less than 40% of them sought help at any time (United Nations,2015b). Much gender-based violence occurs in the home, but the experience or fear of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence can curtail individual freedom in public spaces, including access to school and lifelong learning opportunities in urban and rural areas, particularly for girls and women (UN Women, 2015a).

With increasing urbanization, private and public spaces must be ensured as safe spaces for everyone. Neighbourhood characteristics, including access, safety and proximity of public transport, education institutions and public spaces, can affect people’s ability to go to school and work, gain access to essential services, participate in public life and enjoy leisure activities, all of which are central to well-being, health and future life chances. Urban planning should address gender concerns so that the needs of women, girls, boys and men are considered in all aspects of the development of public infrastructure and the economy (UN Habitat,2012; UN Women, 2015a).

Sexual violence often accompanies armed conflicts, with devastating effects on adolescents’ health and education. All 51 countries affected by conflict between 1987 and 2007 have reported sexual violence against adolescent girls (Bastick et al., 2007). Conflict situations can normalize intimate violence during and after conflict. Instability, migration and early experience or witnessing of such violence are strongly linked to men’s likelihood of perpetrating it (Peacock and Barker, 2014; Wright, 2014).

Education, gender and violence intersect in multiple ways

The intersection between violence and education is complex: Education can incite violence or help prevent it; schools can be sites of violence; and conflict and localized violence can have a severely negative impact on children’s education. Threats to personal safety on the way to and from school, as well as in school, obstruct girls’ and boys’ access to education. Deliberate destruction of education facilities has been a longstanding practice in conflicts. Attacks on schools increased 17-fold between 2000 and 2014, and girls’ schools were targeted 3 times more often than boys’ schools (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2016; Rose, 2016). Many kinds of violence and conflict disrupt schooling. Across 18 sub-Saharan African countries, gender-based violence – as measured by intimate partner violence, early marriage and female genital mutilation – had a negative impact on girls’ schooling (Koissy-Kpein, 2015). Mothers’ experiences with, and attitudes towards, gender-based violence matter for their children’s education outcomes. A mother’s acceptance of violence while arguing with her husband is associated with the daughter’s lower school attendance.

In Comoros, Mozambique and Sierra Leone, the probability of attending school was, respectively, 42%, 25% and 15% lower for girls whose mothers justified intimate partner violence than for those whose mothers did not (Koissy-Kpein, 2015). Evidence indicates that men with more rigid views about masculinity are more likely to use violence against women and girls, and to engage in such self-destructive behaviour as drug and alcohol abuse and driving at unsafe speeds (Kato-Wallace et al., 2016). When many young people are denied access to a good quality education, the resulting poverty, unemployment and hopelessness can lead boys and men to adopt risky lifestyles.

Analysis of 120 countries over 30 years found that countries with large numbers of young men were less likely to experience violent conflict if their populations had higher levels of education (Barakat and Urdal, 2009). In Sierra Leone, young people who had no education were nine times as likely to join rebel groups as those with secondary education or above (Humphreys and Weinstein, 2008). In Brazil, rates of violence and violent death are particularly high for young men in urban areas, where lack of education and employment opportunities may lead them into gangs and the drugs trade (Imbusch et al., 2011). WHO estimates that globally in 2012, males accounted for 82% of all homicide victims, and men aged 15 to 29 were victims of homicide at a rate 6 times greater than women aged 15 to 39 (WHO, 2014).

The World Health Organization estimates that globally in 2012, males accounted for 82% of all homicide victims Click to Tweet

School-related gender-based violence needs to be eliminated

Gender-based violence occurring in and around schools is serious and widespread. School-related violent acts or threats comprise psychological, physical and sexual violence. They occur on school premises but also to and from school, at home and online. Large-scale, crosscountry, school-based surveys are increasingly used to collect data on school violence. Some countries have well-established monitoring mechanisms, but overall, consistent evidence on the global prevalence of school-related violence is lacking (Leach et al., 2012).

School-related gender-based violence severely undermines gender equality. It affects girls’ and boys’ education attendance and attainment in poor and rich countries (UNESCO, 2015d). For instance, bullied students in Botswana, Ghana and South Africa perform worse academically than non-bullied students (Kibriya et al., 2016). Experiences of such violence are frequently gendered: Boys are more likely to experience particular forms of psychological and physical abuse, such as bullying and corporal punishment, and to be involved in physical fights, whereas girls are more likely to experience sexual violence (Kibriya et al., 2016; Leach et al., 2012; UNESCO, 2015d).

The Global School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS) revealed that many adolescent girls and boys are victims of bullying. Between 2010 and 2012, the rates at which children reported being bullied in the past 30 days varied significantly, from 11% of boys and 15% of girls in Barbados to 69% of boys and 79% of girls in Samoa. Being bullied differs between countries in terms of gender. In Kuwait, Lebanon and Sudan, girls’ reports of bullying are higher than boys’ by about 17% to 19%, while in the Cook Islands and Algeria, boys’ reports are higher by about 5% and 7% respectively (Figure 22).

Across 96 countries, around 1 billion children ages 2 to 17 experienced some form of violence in the past year Click to Tweet

Figure 22

A review of international surveys of violence against children in the past year from 96 countries suggests as many as 1 billion children aged 2 to 17, or around half the world’s population of that age group,experienced some form of violence (Hillis et al., 2016). Sexual violence includes verbal and psychological harassment, sexual assault, rape, coercion, exploitation and discrimination in and around schools. It dispropor-tionately affects girls and women, having a negative, destructive impact on their experiences of education and overall health and well-being. The Violence Against Children Survey reports data from 9 countries, and shows that between 27% and 38% of females experienced sexual violence before age 18 (Sommarin et al., 2014). In many countries, social media are creating new spaces for bullying and sexual harassment, including homophobic harassment (Parkes and Unterhalter, 2015), in which girls and boys alike are both perpetrators and victims of violence and abuse. Recent reports suggest that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students experience homophobic and transphobic violence in schools, ranging from 16% in Nepal to 85% in the United States. Students who are not LGBT but do not conform to gender norms can also be targets. As a result, many students feel unsafe in their schools and are more likely to miss class or drop out (UNESCO, 2016e).


Messages on gender equality delivered through educational content can foster or undermine gender equitable relationships (Box 4). In 10 countries of eastern and southern Africa, an in-depth review of curricula found that many overlooked gender-based and intimate partner violence. And while many focused on human rights, few touched on issues of sexual rights or sexual diversity. The issue of child marriage was omitted or poorly addressed in many countries where it is most prevalent, including Kenya, Lesotho and Malawi (UNESCO and UNFPA, 2012).

The perpetuation of gender inequality through schooling can be reduced through good quality pre-service and in-service gender sensitive training in which teachers query their own gender related attitudes, perceptions and expectations of children, and learn ways to diversify their teaching and assessment styles.

Classroom observations are necessary to monitor the extent to which pedagogic approaches are gender responsive, yet these are often costly and not easy to generalize. In Malawi, as part of an early grade reading project, almost 5,000 teachers of grades 1 to 3 were observed in 11 districts in 2014; 28% were found not to use appropriate and gender-sensitive language. In the northern Nigerian states of Bauchi and Sokoto, 25% of teachers did not give equal opportunities to girls and boys to speak in class (RTI International, 2016).

In Malawi, 28% of almost 5,000 teachers of grades 1 to 3 were found not to use appropriate and gender-sensitive language Click to Tweet

Good quality gender-sensitive education can challenge violence and help build peaceful, inclusive societies

Higher overall levels of education may significantly lessen the likelihood of both perpetrating and experiencing intimate partner violence (Capaldi et al., 2012; Peacock and Barker, 2014; United Nations,2015b). The International Men and Gender Equality Survey is a cross-national, comprehensive household questionnaire on men’s attitudes and practices relating to gender equality, conducted in countries including Brazil, Croatia, India, Mali, Mexico and Rwanda. Men with secondary education were found to demonstrate more gender-equitable attitudes and practices; men with less education expressed discriminatory gender views and were more likely to be violent in the home (Barker et al., 2011; Promundo, 2016a).

The content and quality of education and knowledge provided are key to reducing violence, and formal and non-formal education can help women, girls, boys and men to understand, question and challenge gendered norms and behaviour that underpin forms of violence. Teachers and other educators can promote and validate notions of masculinity that are more caring, favour gender equality and challenge the validation of domination and violence (Wright, 2014). Students need to acquire useful skills for addressing circumstances that may lead to conflict or violence, such as expressing feelings non-violently. They also need support structures to help them take a stand against discriminatory trends and beliefs and manage the potential consequences of doing so (Plan International, 2011). Voices against Violence, a co-educational non-formal curriculum designed for those aged 5 to 25, gives young people tools and knowledge to understand root causes of violence, advocate for the end of violence in communities, and learn how to get support if they experience violence. Using trained facilitators and youth leaders, the initiative aims to reach 800,000 young people across 27 countries in schools and communities, in partnership with youth organizations and governments (UN Women, 2013b, 2015d).

Box 4

Assessing gender equality in curricula and textbooks

Gender-responsive teaching is guided by curriculum content, textbooks and other learning materials, which socialize children (Brugeilles and Cromer, 2009) and can be used in challenging gender stereotypes. Yet most curricula are silent about issues related to gender equality. A review of over 110 national curriculum framework documents for primary and secondary education in 78 countries4 for 2005–2015, conducted for the GEM Report, focused on five topics in target 4.7: human rights; gender equality; peace, nonviolence and human security; sustainable development; and global citizenship/interconnectedness (IBE, 2016). The analysis found that less than 15% of the countries integrated key terms such as gender empowerment, gender parity or gender-sensitive, while half mentioned gender equality. Analysis of content of secondary school textbooks in history, civics, social studies and geography5 suggest improvement in coverage of themes related to gender equality over time (Bromley et al., 2016).

The proportion of textbooks mentioning women’s rights increased from 15% over 1946–1969 to 37% over 2000–2013. The share referring to violence against women increased from 3% to 18% (Figure 23).

Source: Bromley et al. (2016).

Figure 23

Program H, a non-formal education programme, works with men aged 15 to 24 to challenge and transform gender-stereotypical attitudes and behaviour through group sessions and youth-led campaigns and activism. Launched in 2002, it operates in over 22 countries, has been adopted by health ministries in countries including Brazil, Chile, Croatia and Mexico, and has been implemented in over 25,000 schools in India. Young male participants report improved relationships, lower rates of sexual harassment and violence against women, and more gender-equitable attitudes towards domestic work and caregiving. In 2006, Program M was launched to work with women on similar issues. Both programmes promote critical reflection on sexual diversity and homophobia (Promundo, 2016b).

Education can promote positive contributions to peace building, access to justice, protection from violence, whether large scale or intimate. But achieving the peaceful societies crucial to sustainable development requires leaders and citizens committed to gender equality. The likelihood of preventing conflict increases when gender equality is addressed in peacebuilding processes. Initiatives that address harmful forms of masculinity and promote nonviolent forms that value respect and equality are needed they should engage individuals and institutions at all levels, within and across sectors (Messerschmidt, 2010;Wright, 2014).

The likelihood of preventing conflict increases when gender equality is addressed in peacebuilding processes Click to Tweet