Primary education provides the foundation for a lifetime of learning. Providing universal access to, and ensuring the completion of, primary education for all girls and boys is one of the key areas of concern identified in the Beijing Platform for Action adopted in 1995. Since then, considerable progress has been made in achieving universal primary education and closing the gender gap in enrollment. More than two-thirds of countries have reached gender parity (defined as having a gender parity index [GPI] value between 0.97 and 1.03) in enrolment in primary education, but in countries that have not reached parity, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, girls are more likely to be disadvantaged than boys. In Chad and Pakistan, for example, the GPI value is 0.78 and 0.84 respectively, meaning that 78 girls in Chad and 84 girls in Pakistan are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys.
While considerable progress has been made in reducing the number of out-of-school girls of primary school age, there are currently 5.5 million more out-of-school girls than boys, worldwide
Between 2000 and 2018, the number of out-of-school girls of primary school age decreased globally by 44 per cent, from 57 million to 32 million. Boys saw a decrease globally of 37 per cent during this same period, from 42 million to 27 million. Despite this progress, some 59 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2018 (55 per cent of whom were girls), with sub-Saharan Africa observing the highest overall rates. While globally out-of-school girls are more likely than out-of-school boys to never enrol in school, progress in reducing the number of out-of-school children has stagnated for both girls and boys since 2007, as increased access to primary education has barely kept pace with global child population growth, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
The barriers that deter children from attending primary school vary across and within countries but are often associated with poverty, geographic remoteness, armed conflict, lack of school infrastructure and poor-quality education. Moreover, these obstacles often interact with gender inequality to intensify learning disadvantages for marginalized girls. Interventions that address the high costs of education for families, including the abolition of school fees, cash transfer programs and school feeding programs, have demonstrated success at reaching out-of-school children, whether applied universally or targeted towards specific populations, such as rural girls. Additional interventions to reach the most marginalized girls include village-based schools to shorten the distance girls must travel to attend school; ‘girl-friendly’ schools with separate latrines for boys and girls; gender-sensitive teaching approaches, and flexible education opportunities for girls who have dropped out of school and wish to return, such as young mothers.  However, more data are needed to understand the precise impact of gender norms on the likelihood of girls and boys being out of school, including the relationship between decisions around child marriage, the withdrawal of girls from school and perceptions of the value of girls’ education versus boys’ education.
Gender disparities increase at the secondary level but the patterns of disadvantage are more complex
Investing in secondary education is essential for equipping adolescent boys and girls with the knowledge and skills needed to become productive engaged citizens. Advancing girls’ secondary education, in particular, is one of the most transformative development strategies countries can invest in. Completion of secondary education brings significant benefits to girls and societies – from increased lifetime earnings to reductions in adolescent childbearing, child marriage, stunting, and maternal and child mortality.
Gender disparity in enrolment is found in more countries at the secondary level than at the primary level. Moreover, in contrast to primary education, the gender disparity disadvantages boys at the secondary level in many countries – although the disadvantage is typically less extreme. In India, the Philippines and Burundi, 93 boys are enrolled in lower secondary school for every 100 girls. The largest gender gaps at the expense of girls are observed in sub-Saharan Africa. In Central African Republic and Chad, for example, only 61 girls and 62 girls, respectively, are enrolled in lower secondary school for every 100 boys.
While both out-of-school adolescent boys and girls face social and economic marginalization, out-of-school girls are at greater risk of early and forced marriage and attendant health risks, including adolescent childbearing. Globally, girls comprised 49 per cent of the out-of-school population among children of lower secondary school age in 2018, compared to 54 per cent in 2000. The global rate of out-of-school adolescent girls of lower secondary age is 16 per cent and for boys 15 per cent, but as expected, there is variation between regions. Less than 10 per cent of adolescent boys and girls are out of school in North America, Europe and Central Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean while the rates are 36 per cent and 39 per cent for adolescent boys and girls, respectively, of lower secondary age in sub-Saharan Africa. In Mali, the country with the highest overall lower secondary out-of-school rate worldwide (54 per cent), 49 per cent of lower secondary school age boys are out of school compared to 56 per cent of girls. In Sierra Leone, nearly 1 in 2 girls and boys are.
International student assessment shows that adolescent girls systematically outperform boys in reading skills while gender differences in math and science skills are more varied
Assessing the relative achievements of girls and boys in secondary education provides insights into the quality of the education they receive as well as whether the education systems are meeting the needs of girls and boys equally. Where gender disparities in learning outcomes are pronounced, a gender-sensitive pedagogical approach should be emphasized.
Results from the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of 15-year old students reveal that girls performed better than boys in reading literacy in every country participating in the assessment. In contrast, boys performed better than girls in mathematics in about 80 per cent of participating countries. Gender gaps favoring boys and girls were observed in 38 per cent and 55 per cent of countries, respectively. While there has been much debate about the factors that account for gender differences in educational attainment, emerging evidence of the role of positive gender socialization, both at school and at home, suggests that parents, teachers, and policy makers can foster foundational skills in reading, math and science in all children. 
Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa and South Asia experience the widest gender gap in youth literacy, with a gender parity index (GPI) at 0.93, 0.95 and 0.96, respectively. In Chad, the GPI is only 0.55 – there are 55 literate female youth for every 100 literate male youth.
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