Gendered implications of austerity on the education of girls

This article explores the gendered implications of gender-blind structural adjustment programs (SAP) on the education of girls and vulnerable groups in Lebanon.

The multilayered crisis in Lebanon has dramatically increased poverty among Lebanon’s residents. In 2021, 82 percent of Lebanon’s residents were living in multidimensional poverty, as estimated by ESCWA; especially after the government’s decision on rolling back subsidies and social safety nets. Moreover, impoverishment was further accelerated by a crippled social protection system that has only benefited a small, privileged fraction of society.

Among the areas most impacted by the crisis is the education sector in Lebanon. Although the sector has been struggling with historical institutional defects that have weakened its performance both nationally and globally, the crisis only pulled it from the frying pan and threw it into the fire. Access to education is becoming more inequitable, especially for girls and vulnerable groups. In fact, families residing in the country are compromising the education of their children – particularly girls – to meet their basic needs, resulting in increased dropout rates, child labor, and child marriage, as warns UNICEF.

The gendered challenges of the education sector in Lebanon

Along with deeply rooted barriers related to weak public financial management and poor governance, many gendered challenges in education came to the light in Lebanon.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and distance learning excluded segregated groups from attending schools for two consecutive years. Unpaid care work continued to fall disproportionately on girls, and with no IT access to remote learning, the burden of domestic work dramatically increased on their shoulders.

Another major challenge is related to the mobility of girls, women, and vulnerable groups in a context where transportation has become a luxury. The cost of transportation fares is fueling dropouts as teenage girls are unable to reach schools. Security concerns also limit the options of girls commuting long distances, especially in remote and rural areas.

A third gendered barrier is the gender-blind curriculum that has been governing education from primary to secondary levels of learning. It remains alarming that school curricula are void of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) education.

Finally, with the culmination of the crisis, service delivery for children with disabilities is becoming more inadequate as school facilities are not equipped to cater to their needs, and teaching methods are not inclusive. Along these lines, even the refugee community is being stripped from its right to education as funding is being channeled weakly and dishonestly.

Girls bear the brunt

To achieve macroeconomic stabilization, the government of Lebanon sought the technical and financial support of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Knowing that restructuring programs entail serious austerity policy decisions (especially in social sectors), it is quite obvious that in the context of fragile Lebanon, such measures will be detrimental to education. Even global experience has proven that austerity measures are policy decisions that women and marginalized groups end up paying the price for.

Adopting exclusionary and gender-blind restructuring programs without ensuring adequate funding for social safeguards such as education, leaves adverse gendered implications on girls and other vulnerable groups.

With a patriarchal culture dominating in Lebanon, families are likely to prioritize the education of their sons at the expense of their daughters’ in the absence of government support and personal financial capabilities. Gender-based violence is known to increase when girls are out of school and consequently, we are likely to see child marriage cases increase. Moreover, if austerity measures were to be implemented in the education sector, we are more likely to witness the further mass migration of teachers -who are mainly women in Lebanon. This not only creates job insecurity for female teachers but also leaves a dangerous impact on the sector overall. Lastly, we are likely to see the merging of public schools to reduce public spending and manage inflated operational costs. However, merging all-boys and all-girls schools will create a new stream of dropouts for girls. Many families might interrupt their girls’ education because of cultural and religious norms that oppose enrolling girls in mixed schools.

Could an IMF-SAP support equitable education?

We know from regional experiences (Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt) that IMF programs tend to negatively impact girls and vulnerable groups, mainly because they focus on reducing public spending on vital social sectors. However, in a political outlook where the government has not taken any policy decision to alleviate poverty, an IMF program could recommend minimum social spending floors to avoid the erosion of the education sector in Lebanon and ensure equitable access to education for the most segregated.

Considering social safeguards is essential to prevent vulnerable communities from falling through the cracks of austerity policies. Any recovery plan that fails to restructure the education sector before channeling funding and enhancing transparency and accountability frameworks will not triumph.

More importantly, any financial restructuring plan that fails to serve the needs of the weakest groups of society will also fail in achieving human security and social justice. It has been found that women’s social mobility is highly linked to their level of education: women can only achieve their socioeconomic potential through learning. The latter remains a fundamental human right that guarantees long-term sustainable development.

Sarah Al Bouery is a research assistant at the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship. She holds an MA in public administration and her research work is centrally focused on feminist politics.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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