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Educational Access and Multiple Disadvantage

Matilda Gosling

25 April 2016


With the post-2015 focus on universal secondary education in a climate of tightly gripped purse strings, there is no neat solution to the question of how to drive increased enrolment levels. Universal access cannot be secured without reaching the most excluded children - those for whom multiple factors, including gender, ethnicity and poverty, compound to mean that they cannot realise their right to education.

Where multiple factors combine to affect the extent to which children are able to attend school, the consequences can be vast. In Zambia, for example, boys are 7% more likely than girls to complete lower secondary education, while the wealthiest fifth of children are six times more likely to complete this level of education than the poorest fifth. When these two factors combine, the difference increases to a factor of eight - the wealthiest fifth of boys are eight times more likely to complete lower secondary education than the poorest fifth of girls.1 In many countries, whether you are a girl or a boy makes a huge difference to your chances of completing secondary education. The Zambia data show that even where gender makes a relatively small difference to national education outcomes, when wealth inequality is included, the difference is exacerbated. These differences are often exacerbated further by factors such as ethnicity and religion.

Organisations such as Oxfam have argued that the link between gender inequality and economic inequality needs to receive much greater attention in development thinking;2 it is arguable that the important links and interplays in fact extend more widely than just gender and wealth.  The concept of intersectionality emerged from the Black Feminist movement as a critique of the view that gender was the single or primary deciding factor of a woman’s standing in society. It has since widened to examine how distinct experiences of oppression or inequity are formed where different forms of disadvantages overlap and interact with one another at the same time, such as gender, race, sexuality, class and religion. Perhaps it is time to think about how intersectionality, or a version of it, can be applied more widely in the development context: where multiple disadvantage exists, there are usually overlapping and reinforcing reasons why that disadvantage persists, and understanding that interplay may help to inform policy as to how best to support the most marginalised.

Furthermore, where focus has been given previously in the development context to interaction between different factors,  it is too rarely applied as a lens through which to understand better educational inequality and access. Where this analysis exists (the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done some good work on this, for example - albeit in a non-development context3), there is a disconnect between the analysis and practical action to support those who face multiple and interacting barriers to their participation in education.

The need for gender equity in terms of access to education is widely recognised, and a focus on greater access for those from the poorest backgrounds is slowly emerging (the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest fifth of children in terms of outcomes is usually far higher than the gender gap). There is still a lack, however, of understanding of how these factors interplay, and how other factors - such as sub-national region, distance from school, ethnicity and religion - also interact. Until this is better understood - with a highly local lens, as these factors do not interplay in the same way across countries - universal secondary education cannot be achieved.


1. Zambia was randomly selected for analysis from the countries covered in the World Inequality Database on Education.

2.http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/addressing-multiple-dimensions-of-gender-inequality-the-experience-of-the-brac-560914

3. https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/migrated/files/2123.pdf


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