Expert Commentary

Gender, education and conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa: Research roundup

2014 roundup of academic and governmental research and statistics on girls' education in Nigeria and other nations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Among the terrorist groups operating in Africa, Nigeria’s Boko Haram is one of the most notorious and deadly. Hundreds of innocent people have died in recent attacks, sometimes in the crossfire between fighters and government troops.

While many such movements preach against what they portray as “decadent” Western influence, Boko Haram has made a specialty of attacking schools and kidnapping girls. In April and May 2014, more than 200 schoolgirls were being held captive, and Boko Haram’s leaders have threatened to sell or forcibly marry them. The Nigerian government’s tepid response has sparked a protest movement, with citizens calling for a concerted effort to free the girls, both by Nigerian authorities and the international community. (,, the Council on Foreign Relations and the United States Institute of Peace all offer offer data-rich explainers on the group’s history and actions.) A May 2014 Congressional Research Service report also provides data and background.

Boko Haram’s focused attack on schools and women’s education is chilling, particularly given the social, health and economic challenges that Sub-Saharan African nations face, and the difference that school attendance makes for girls. A 2013 study in Demography showed that formal education for women, even at the primary-school level, was associated with a lower risk of child mortality. A 2014 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that in Malawi, one year of additional schooling for a girl cut the probability of testing positive for HIV as an adult by 6% to 7%.

When reporting on this issue, a good place to start is UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, which offers a number of gender and education resources. The 2012 edition of the “World Atlas of Gender Equity in Education” has a wealth of statistics, many in graphical form. Some are encouraging, others less so: In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, enrollment ratios lag significantly behind global averages, with Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia all showing less than 80% of female students enrolled in primary school. In primary and secondary schools, male children are favored over girls throughout the region, researchers note, with only Ghana reporting gender parity in primary school. But as Deborah M. Figart and Tonia L. Warnecke caution in the Handbook of Research on Gender and Economic Life:

Gender parity in enrollment, attendance or completion … may bear little relation to the number of children actually at school and completing a grade or cycle. For example, in Ghana, where schools receive a capitation fee based on the number of children attending, they regularly record more than 100% attendance.

According to the UNESCO report, dropout rates are elevated throughout Sub-Saharan Africa — above 70% for countries such as Malawi, Mozambique, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Chad. Overall, boys were more likely than girls to leave school, but many African countries show higher rates for girls. Out-of-school rates for female adolescents are also high, exceeding 20% in the majority of nations in Sub-Saharan Africa that provided data; these include Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Senegal. UNESCO notes that worldwide, women are the biggest beneficiaries of increases in advanced education, but the largest gains were seen in countries that had the furthest to go. A 2012 article from the United Nations’ “Africa Renewal” site finds hope in Burundi: It cites UNICEF data indicating that school attendance went from 59% to 96% between 2005 and 2011, with a higher number of girls entering school than boys, a first.

Another source of data on girls’ education is the World Bank: Its research indicates that the number of girls who are out of school is decreasing only slowly, falling from 25 million in 1999 to 17 million in 2008. The World Bank’s Ed Stats page offers a “country at a glance” profile of Nigeria: It indicates that 51% of the country’s population over age 14 is illiterate, better than the Sub-Saharan average of 60%; but the ratio jumps to 71% of lower-income Nigerians. Female enrollment in primary school lags that of males, 81% to 88%. The United Nations’ Girls’ Education Initiative reports a 66% literacy rate for 15- to 24-year-old females in Nigeria, versus 78% for males. Girls’ primary school attendance is 60%, compared to boys’ 65%, and by secondary school the rates are 43% and 45%, respectively.

For an overview of rigorous academic research conducted on education in the developing world to date, including gender specific challenges and policy recommendations, see the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) 2013 guide, “Expanding Access and Increasing Student Learning in Post-Primary Education in Developing Countries: A Review of the Evidence.”

Below is a selection of academic research on education and gender in Africa as well as selected studies on Boko Haram and its aims and tactics.


“Girls Claiming Education Rights: Reflections on Distribution, Empowerment and Gender Justice in Northern Tanzania and Northern Nigeria”
Unterhalter, Elaine; Heslopa, Jo; Mamedu, Andrew. International Journal of Educational Development, November 2013, Vol. 33, Issue 6, Pages 566-575. doi: 10.1016/j.ijedudev.2013.05.007.

Abstract: “The article considers the analytical connection between two approaches to discussing girls’ schooling and gender justice. One trend considers injustice primarily as a question of inequalities in distribution and raises few questions about the nature of the gender norms associated with inequitable distribution. A second approach looks at issues of empowerment, the ways in which structural gendered inequalities in the political economy and socio-cultural formations constrain the capacity of girls inside and outside school to claim the rights promised by education, but tends to underplay issues of distribution…. The strongest association between empowerment and distribution is found with regard to the levels of teachers’ qualifications, although there is not sufficient data to explain the reasons for this. The conclusion highlights the importance of contextual factors in understanding the relationships between distribution and empowerment evident from the data and the importance of designing future studies to look more closely at the dynamic two-way relationship of distributional and empowerment aspects of gender justice in education.”


“Armed Conflict, Gender and Schooling”
Buvinic, Mayra; Das Gupta, Monica; Shemyakina, Olga N. Symposium on Gender and Conflict, The World Bank Economic Review, Vol. 28, No. 2., pp. 311–31. doi: 10.1093/wber/lht032.

Abstract: “The impact of armed conflict on gender differentials in schooling appears to be highly context-specific, as the review of the literature and the findings from the three studies in this symposium reveal. In some settings boys’ schooling is more negatively affected than that of girls. In others, the reverse is the case. Effects are largely shaped by events surrounding a conflict, pre-war gender differences in educational attainments, and education and labor market opportunities in the absence of war. Rigorous evaluations of post-conflict policies and aid projects can provide useful information to address educational needs and gender differentials in these environments.”


“Girls’ Schooling and the Global Education and Development Agenda”
Unterhalter, Elaine; North, Amy. Handbook of Research on Gender and Economic Life, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013. ISBN: 978 0 85793 095 8.

Introduction: “This chapter shows how conceptualizations of gender equity in education have changed over the last couple of decades. Beginning with the pre-2000 focus on ‘Education for All,’ we first discuss the problems using access to education or parity as a measure. We then evaluate alternative indicators. In so doing, we can see that approaches to gender equity in education have evolved alongside the broader development agenda, itself a product of change. Although it highlights the struggles of translating theory to policy, our story also makes clear the importance of reconceptualizing education policy ‘success’ to ensure the most benefit to girls and women around the world.”


“Achieving Universal Basic Education in Nigeria since 1999: Women as Partners”
Gabriel, Amakievi Okien Ijeoma. International Journal of Learning & Development, 2012, Vol. 2, Issue 5.

Abstract: “The Universal Basic Education Program (UBE) in Nigeria is free and compulsory. It is the responsibility of all and so women are represented on the Board of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) as stakeholders. This discourse examined the various areas and suggested strategies that women as individuals and groups can intervene for a successful implementation of the UBE. Advocacy, monitoring funding are major intervention strategies women can undertake as partners. Their umbrella organization the National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) should strengthen partnership with UBEC for the success of UBE and for recognition as significant partners.”


“Socio-Economic Development and the Girl-Child Education: A Look at Jos North Local Government, Plateau State”
Collins, Emma Nwakego O. African Research Review, 2014, Vol. 8, No. 1. doi: 10.4314/afrrev.v8i1.11.

Abstract: “The problem of the girl-child education in Jos North Local Government Area has some socio-economic aspects. One of the factors which have militated against women’s equality in education is the traditional belief that ‘a women’s place is in the kitchen’ and that ‘a woman should be seen and not heard.’ This work aims to study girls’ enrollment in schools and at the workplace and address the need for gender disparities and inequalities to be reduced to the barest minimum. Girl-child education in Jos North and Nigeria at large will continue to trail the boy-child education if the necessary policy actions are not put in place. The inability to address the issue will further widen the gender gap in education. Moreover, the desired level of development in Jos North can only be attained when girl-child education is given adequate attention.”


“Maternal Reading Skills and Child Mortality in Nigeria: A Reassessment of Why Education Matters”
Smith-Greenaway, Emily. Demography, October 2013, Vol. 50, Issue 5, 1551-1561.

Abstract: “Mother’s formal schooling — even at the primary level — is associated with lower risk of child mortality, although the reasons why remain unclear. This study examines whether mother’s reading skills help to explain the association in Nigeria. Using data from the Demographic and Health Survey, the analysis demonstrates that women’s reading skills increase linearly with years of primary school; however, many women with several years of formal school are unable to read at all. The results further show that mother’s reading skills help to explain the relationship between mother’s formal schooling and child mortality, and that mother’s reading skills are highly associated with child mortality. The study highlights the need for more data on literacy and for more research on whether and how mother’s reading skills lower child mortality in other contexts.”


“Gender Equality as a Means to Improve Maternal and Child Health in Africa”
Singha, Kavita; Bloom, Shelah; Brodish, Paul. Health Care for Women International, June 2013. doi: 10.1080/07399332.2013.824971.

Abstract: “In this article we examine whether measures of gender equality, household decision making, and attitudes toward gender-based violence are associated with maternal and child health outcomes in Africa. We pooled Demographic and Health Surveys data from eight African countries and used multilevel logistic regression on two maternal health outcomes (low body mass index and facility delivery) and two child health outcomes (immunization status and treatment for an acute respiratory infection). We found protective associations between the gender equality measures and the outcomes studied, indicating that gender equality is a potential strategy to improve maternal and child health in Africa.”


“Women, Gender and the Evolving Tactics of Boko Haram”
Zenn, Jacob; Pearson, Elizabeth. Journal of Terrorism Research, February 2014, Vol. 5, Issue 1.

Abstract: “This article addresses an under-researched aspect of Boko Haram’s activities: Gender-based violence (GBV) and its targeting of women. It argues that 2013 marked a significant evolution in Boko Haram’s tactics, with a series of kidnappings, in which one of the main features was the instrumental use of women. This was in response to corresponding tactics by the Nigerian security forces. Additionally the analysis provides evidence of a shift by Boko Haram to include women in its operations, in response to increased pressure on male operatives. It also considers the gendered rationale for instrumentalizing women within the framework of Boko Haram’s ideology and culture, arguing for a greater appreciation of how gender factors in the group’s violence.”


“Boko Haram: Islamism, Politics, Security and the State in Nigeria”
Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine, editor. African Studies Centre, Leiden. 2014. ISBN: 978-90-5448-135-5.

Abstract: “This book is the first attempt to understand Boko Haram in a comprehensive and consistent way. It examines the early history of the sect and its transformation into a radical armed group. It analyses the causes of the uprising against the Nigerian state and evaluates the consequences of the on-going conflict from a religious, social and political point of view. The book gives priority to authors conducting fieldwork in Nigeria and tackles the following issues: the extent to which Boko Haram can be considered the product of deprivation and marginalisation; the relationship of the sect with almajirai, Islamic schools, Sufi brotherhoods, Izala, and Christian churches; the role of security forces and political parties in the radicalisation of the sect; the competing discourses in international and domestic media coverage of the crisis; and the consequences of the militarisation of the conflict for the Nigerian government and the civilian population, Christian and Muslim.”


Related research: A 2014 roundup, “Gender and Development in Africa,” presents papers on a range of topics, including macroeconomic policy, strategies for measuring the gender wealth gap and the societal responsibility of caring for dependents. Also of interest is “Orphans, Abuse and the World’s Most Vulnerable Children,” published in Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies in 2013. One-third of all orphans worldwide are living in sub-Saharan Africa, and the study reviews some of the best available field research on the topic.


Keywords: research roundup, terrorism, gender, education, Africa