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Source: UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
14 May 2003

Education in the Arab States: Five million girls still denied access to school

Editorial Contact:
Sue Williams: Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section. Tel: +33 (0)1 45 68 17 06; email:
Bassam Mansour: Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section. Tel: +33 (0)1 45 68 18 54; email:

14-05-2003 12:30 pm Paris - Some eight million primary school-age children remain out-of-school in the Arab States and five million of them are girls, according to a new report published by UNESCO. However, it finds that when given the opportunity to go to school, girls tend to repeat less than boys and to complete their primary and secondary schooling more often. Prepared by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the Arab States Regional Report surveyed education in 19 countries - Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, as well as the Palestinian Autonomous Territories – with a total population of 270 million people, 39 percent of whom are under the age of 14.

It covers the 1999/2000 school year and consequently does not take into account the damage to education systems resulting from the conflicts in the Palestinian Autonomous Territories and Iraq, both of which, the report found, had reported relatively high levels of participation in schooling.

The report recognizes that “considerable investments” were made in education throughout the region over the past four decades and, as a result, many countries were close to the objective of getting all children into school. However, it also finds that gender parity (equal enrolment rates among boys and girls) had only been achieved in the Palestinian Autonomous Territories, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates. Compared to other regions, the Arab States had better gender parity in terms of access to primary school than countries in Francophone Africa.

According to the report, 35 million children, 54 percent of them boys, attended primary school in the 1999/2000 academic year. This leaves nearly one child in five of primary age (one girl in four) still out-of-school. Djibouti was at the bottom of the ladder for enrolment, with only 30 percent of its primary-age children in school. It also had the biggest gap between enrolment rates of boys and girls in primary school, with only slightly more than 35 percent of primary age boys in school and just over 26 percent of girls.

On the other hand, the report shows that in all countries except Sudan, girls are less likely to repeat grades than boys in primary school. Regionally only six percent of girls repeated a year, as against nine percent of boys, although these figures mask big differences between countries. Jordan, for example, had the lowest overall rate of repetition (one percent), and Tunisia the highest (16 percent).

More than 90 percent of primary pupils throughout the region completed the primary cycle, however, girls had a slight edge in most countries except in the United Arab Emirates, where 93 percent of boys completed primary school compared to 92 percent of girls.

At the secondary level, states the report, some 22.5 million students of all ages, or 60 percent of the population of secondary school age (approx. 12-18 years), were enrolled in the survey year. Of this total just under 10.6 million, or 47 percent, were girls. Once again, these figures masked substantial differences between countries, and the report notes that participation rates in secondary education were considerably lower than primary schooling.

According to the report, primary pupils were most likely to make the transition to secondary school in Bahrain (98 percent), Jordan (97 pecent), the Palestinian Autonomous Territories (96 percent), United Arab Emirates (96 percent), and Oman (95 percent). In Algeria and Tunisia, the report found that only two out of every three pupils made the move from primary to secondary school.

The report found that proportionally more girls than boys of secondary school- age were enrolled at this level. For example, 87 percent of secondary school-age girls were enrolled in Bahrain, as against 77 percent of secondary school-age boys. In Jordan, 78 percent of girls in this age group were enrolled, compared to 73 percent of boys in the same category.

As with primary education, girls also outshone the boys in all 13 countries that provided the relevant data, although the report signals that repetition rates at secondary level were generally high for both sexes. In Algeria, 31 percent of boys repeated compared to 24 percent of girls. In Tunisia, 20 percent of boys repeated against 17 percent of girls. And in Saudi Arabia, 12 percent of boys repeated and only six percent of girls.

Each of the countries involved has at least one institution of tertiary education. The report noted though, that “a great many students […] go abroad to complete their training,” either to Europe and North America or in other Arab States.

During the survey year, some five million students were enrolled in tertiary courses, of whom just over two million, or nearly 40 percent, were women. Women’s participation in tertiary education was markedly less than that of men in Iraq, Djibouti, Morocco and the Palestinian Autonomous Territories.

Social Science, business and law are the most favoured subjects, and accounted for one third of students in the Palestinian Autonomous Territories. In Saudi Arabia, 50 percent of tertiary students chose education as their field of study, compared to only two percent in Morocco and Lebanon. Least favoured subjects were agriculture and services.

According to the report, a large proportion of the teaching staff throughout the region are women. They account for three-quarters of teachers at pre-primary level and 52 percent of primary teachers. Their numbers fall considerably at the tertiary level: data were not available for the survey years, but in 1998/99, they made up only 25 percent of the tertiary teaching force.

The majority of these teachers, according to the report, were qualified. The only country where this was not the case was Lebanon, where, for example, only one primary teacher in five met nationally-defined pre-service qualification standards.

Pupil teacher ratios vary greatly throughout the region, ranging from a low of 12 primary pupils per teacher in Saudi Arabia to 45 in Mauritania. The median for the 15 countries that supplied data is 23 pupils per teacher.

Private enrolments are very low in the majority of countries, except in Lebanon (66 percent in primary and 53 percent in secondary) and the United Arab Emirates (45 percent and 32 percent, respectively).

Public spending on education varies greatly from country to country. With 9.5 percent of its GDP devoted to education, Saudi Arabia is the region’s biggest investor in education, followed by Tunisia (7.5 percent). On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Mauritania allocate only two to three percent of GDP to education. Percentages for the other countries range from 3.4 percent in the Syrian Arab Republic, to almost five percent in Morocco.

These figures represent a big increase in education spending throughout the region over the past four decades. This investment “has paid off”, states the report: between 1960 and 1985 the time children spent in school increased by an average two and a half years.

The report also notes the number of women participating in the labour market greatly increased over the past 20 years, “although in general they have lesser-paid jobs than do men.”

Nonetheless, it found that one man in three and one woman in two was still illiterate in the Arab States. Iraq had the highest overall illiteracy rate (61 percent) and Jordan the lowest (12 percent). The countries where female illiteracy rates were highest were Iraq (77 percent), Yemen (76 percent), Mauritania (71 percent) and Morocco (65 percent).

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