Pacific Scoop

Girls have edge in Pacific education gender gap, says Tagaloatele

Tongan schoolgirls

Tongan schoolgirls ... educational trends favour girls, especially in Polynesia. Photo: Matangi Tonga

The success of educating girls in the Pacific, particularly Polynesia, has been a notable trend in the Pacific. Educating females has been difficult in some countries that have strong patriarchal views about the cultural role of women and girls in society.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Henry Yamo

Numbers of girls enrolling and completing primary and secondary education in the Pacific region is growing and comparing strongly with male students, according to a leading educator.

AUT University’s professor of Pacific studies, Tagaloatele Dr Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop, compares the trend with a widespread global pattern where girls are often doing better than boys at school.

“While there may be some disparity in the three Pacific groupings – Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia – caused by cultural perceptions about education and gender, the results so far are notable,” she says.

Tagaloatele notes some commentators argue that the strong female showing is because the curriculum used in some Pacific countries is “female friendly” or female teachers encourage female students more than males.

While these views have some merit, Dr Fairbairn-Dunlop says early female maturity is a major factor that ensures better results by girls than boys.

She says females often settle down much quicker to the school experience so are able to do better than their male counterparts.

“Education for girls has many positive effects. They learn and become more involved in society and leadership as they become women,” Tagaloatele says.

More self-esteem

Tagaloatele Professor Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop ... Polynesian societies faring well. Photo: Josephine Latu/PMC

“Girls also gain more self-esteem from greater knowledge that has often led them to be equal competitors with the male folk.”

With more educational opportunities, girls are now seen as equal competitors in society, excelling in all facets of life.

Education gives them power and enables them to contribute effectively to improve the conditions of living that many Pacific people still face today.

This is a notable trend in the Pacific, where educating females has been difficult in some countries that have strong patriarchal views about the cultural role of women and girls in society.

But this success story differs from one country to another.

According to Tagaloatele, Polynesian societies are faring well with sweeping results in educating girls, although, problems faced in educating children across the Pacific are common to the three groupings -Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.

NZ standards
One possible reason for the Polynesian success as seen by Tagaloatele is that Polynesian countries are using New Zealand curriculum and standards and thus display almost identical results to New Zealand.

This assessment was reinforced by Jonah Tisam, an AUT doctoral student and former chief executive to the deputy Prime Minister of the Cook Islands.

Tisam says the Cook Islands government has invested heavily in education and social sector services, and these efforts are paying off handsomely, as more students – particularly more females – are being educated.

The strength of the Cook Islands education system, according to Tisam, is that children are kept longer in schools, allowing for repeats where necessary. This reduces drop-out rates and increases the number of educated young people.

This is a direct result of the government subsidising fees for education and health programmes. Tagaloatele says this initiative has enabled full participation from girls who have overtaken and are often doing one third better than boys.

While this is the “Polynesian story”, Tagaloatele says: “These results are quite the contrary when you look at Melanesian and Micronesian countries. Girls don’t even seem to be getting into schools on an even basis so that is different from quality output.”

For the girls, it has been a hard time in some Pacific countries with a history of conservative patriarchal customs that have marginalised their education.

Early marriage
Traditions of early marriage in parts of Melanesia and girls being forced to focus more on family management than education has created gender gaps in certain groupings of the Pacific.

In Papua New Guinea, the world organisation UNICEF has stepped in to assist the government to achieve universal primary education.

However, the impediments encountered since are highlighted by UNICEF Country Representative Dr Bertrand Desmoulins, “despite significant advances made in ensuring quality education in PNG, persistent gender gaps in enrolment, quality and retention continue to hamper efforts towards achieving educational goals.”

He also emphasises that challenges faced by girls were more pronounced, not only globally, but specifically in Papua New Guinea.

According to Dr Desmoulins, the 2009 education data shows that boys have a net enrolment rate of 66 percent compared to girls’ 61 percent, a gross enrolment rate of 82 percent compared to girls’ 74 percent and a gross completion rate of 59 percent compared to girls’ 45 percent.

He stresses that investing in girls’ education is an effective route to ensuring both long term economic growth and sustainable social development.

While these indicators do look promising for a country that is culturally and linguistically diverse, Rachael Torombe, a former primary teacher in PNG and a masters student studying education at the University of Waikato, argues that, overall, the outcome based education (OBE) system introduced to the country in 2003 had not fared well.

Poor showing
She says the grade 10 performance results for the final lower secondary education examinations last year showed that many students had done poorly.

Torombe attributes this to inadequate planning, insufficient resources, capacity and poor infrastructure, which could barely accommodate the requirements of the new system.

Although similar experiences are spread across other bigger island countries, the slightly increasing pattern between countries indicates that countries with fewer difficulties and less density may surge ahead in both educating girls and providing universal education to all school age children.

Achieving universal primary education has been one issue discussed more often among Pacific Education Ministers, most often reaching the attention of the peak body, the Pacific Islands Forum, which is meeting in Auckland next month.

During the 2006 Pacific Education Ministers meeting, a two-pronged plan for introduction of a “fast track initiative” within all educations sectors in the Pacific was worked out.

The two objectives of the grant-based programmme was to accelerate progress in every Pacific country towards the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal completion of providing quality primary education by 2015.

The plan was taken on board by respective countries and, according to Tagaloatele, most Pacific countries are achieving the goal.

But she adds the challenge has been harder in larger countries such as PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Common difficulties such as isolation, infrastructure and inappropriate staffing are still an ongoing hurdle.

Henry Yamo is a Masters in Communication Studies student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.