25 Oct 2013

Barriers remain in Pacific for girls access to education

5:41 pm on 25 October 2013

Higher education for young women in the Pacific is not translating into more and better jobs.

And while women's and girl's access to education has improved in the region, significant barriers still remain.

Sally Round reports from the 12th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women being held this week in the Cook Islands.

The 200-strong gathering of governments, civil society groups and development partners has heard most countries are on track to achieve equal access for boys and girls to education. But it's not easy for girls to stay at their desks or move into the best jobs. Early pregnancy and marriage, travel risks, the threat of harrassment and sexual assault, lack of cash for fees and even insecure toilet facilities all continue to affect girls' enrolment and retention rates. In Kiribati girls stay at school longer than boys, but attendance in general is affected by the country's high rates of violence against women. The Minister of Education, Maere Tekanene, says that's despite free schooling.

"MAERE TEKANENE: We're trying to educate the community that if there is domestic violence in the home, what happens to a child if she goes to school? If a child leaves home and has just experienced domestic violence we can anticipate that his or her learning doesn't take place. She'll be or he'll be quiet, he or she'll be not asking questions. The learning isn't functioning at all."

The Cook Islands revised its education laws last year to deal with issues like teen pregnancy. The Executive Director of the Cook Islands Ministry of Education, Gail Townsend, says better support and fines for truancy mean more pregnant students staying at school instead of being sent away to New Zealand and Australia.

GAIL TOWNSEND: A parent can be fined. We can take you to court for parents not ensuring their children attend school. We haven't got to that point. I don't think we ever will, because we're now up to our first young woman who got pregnant in her seventh form and has since gone away to university and graduated. People are seeing 'Okay, it's possible. It's possible and it's not shameful'.

A regional advisor with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Resina Katafono, says in the past five years, a trend has emerged in the region of boys dropping out of high school. And there are fears this rising dropout rate could affect girls down the line.

RESINA KATAFONO: The concern is that if boys are dropping out of secondary school, this may imply that they may not be getting jobs, they'll be idle and this could create problems in terms of no more violence against women, since those are the root causes with unemployed youth, especially boys.

Stereotyping and traditional expectations of girls continue to hinder those who do complete school and attempt to get technical or vocational training. The gathering heard how young women had limited opportunities to gain scholarships to higher education. A human rights advocate Imrana Jalal urged governments to address this.

IMRANA JALAL: At the moment, most governments look at the equality paradigm very simply - they look at scholarships or training options as 50% for women and 50% for men. But that way women will never catch up with men. So I believe there should be a greater number of scholarships and training opportunities given to women.

Imrana Jalal says battles for gender equality are being won in the Pacific but there needs to be much more proactive work undertaken with targets and time limits set.