Numerous studies spell out the various and specific benefits of female education in developing countries in addition to those of male education; benefits that are seen to contribute greatly to economic, social and individual development. Why then do gender disparities in access to education still persist in so many countries across the world? Part of the answer could be that female education does not necessarily have such a marked effect on individual household incomes (although there may be more significant increases in welfare in terms of health improved by better hygiene, nutrition etc), and that those bearing the private costs of the girls’ or women’s education do not receive the full benefits of it because most of the benefits accrue on the social level (Hill & King 1993, p. 23).
In order to assess such arguments this essay will examine the various benefits propounded trying to distinguish which are private returns and health benefits and which are social, national benefits. First, however, we will have a look at the current state of women’s education in the region of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as a whole, some trends since the 70s, and a few female disadvantages in accessing education that are specifically important in SSA.
By then examining the benefits of women’s education as well as the associated costs, we will see of how this gender gap is braking development, and will then discuss what the challenges are for policy to overcome the disincentives to female enrolment posed by these direct and indirect costs. I will conclude that because the benefits of women’s education are predominantly social, there is a strong case for increased and perhaps disproportionate public investment in female education, not simply by increasing supply (spaces in schools, gender quotas etc) but rather by lessening the costs and other disincentives associated with female education through a proper understanding of the obstacles of local cultural, institutional and economic conditions.
If one looks at the targets of universal primary education set at various conferences throughout the 1990s compared to where we stand now, SSA seems to have performed worst of all regions with a long way yet to go. However, if we undertake a more historical analysis it is noted that SSA was much worse off to begin with compared to other regions, making the target of universal primary education relatively much higher for SSA. Seen in that light, there are numerous examples of remarkable educational achievements in sub-Saharan African countries since their independence. UNESCO indeed noted in the 80s that although Africa stands out as the poorest region in the world with the least education it is also the region that had made most progress in increasing schooling for girls and women (UNESCO 1983, cited in Hyde 1993, p. 101).