Primary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

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According to UNESCO's most recent regional overview of sub-Saharan Africa, enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa increased significantly at all education levels between 1999 and 2006. Overall, sub-Saharan Africa, like the Arab States, South and West Asia, still lags behind other regions in terms of distance from universal education. While sub-Saharan Africa is also lacking in the attainment of many Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), many believe that progress in education could help unlock progress on the MDGs, but will require a strengthened commitment to equity. Persistent inequalities are hindering progress towards the Education For All (EFA) goals at global, regional and national levels. The EFA Global Monitoring Report 2009 finds that within countries, disparities based on wealth, location, gender, immigration or minority status or disability are the main factors which deny millions of children a good-quality education.

Present Condition

However, progress is being made. The number of children entering primary school in sub-Saharan Africa has climbed sharply since 2000. In 2006, more than 23 million of the region’s children entered a classroom for the first time – an increase of some 7 million over the level in 1999. Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Intake Rate (GIR), which registers the number of new entrants regardless of age, recorded the biggest increase in the world between 1999 and 2006, by twenty-two percentage points. As intake has risen, so has overall enrollment in primary education. Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for the world’s highest increase in total primary enrollment, which rose by 42% during the period. The Net-Enrollment Ratio (NER) for primary education in sub-Saharan Africa has risen from 56% in 1999 to 70% in 2006.

But there is still a long way to go. In 2006, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 47% of the world's out-of-school population.  While the number of primary school aged children out-of-school has dropped by 10 million since 1999, there were still 35 million children of primary school age in sub-Saharan Africa not enrolled in 2006, about one-third of this population.  [1]

Inhibiting Factors

What happens during the very early years of a child’s life is vital for later success in education and in life. Programs of early childhood care and education (ECCE) can support health and nutrition, facilitate cognitive development and give children the basic tools they need to learn and to overcome disadvantage. Yet millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa are held back by problems in health and nutrition, and access to pre-school provision remains limited and unequal.

Many factors inhibiting universal access to primary education are gender-based, though many, and sometimes more important factors, are not. Often, wealth, race, religion, ethnicity, disability, rural habitation, child labour, health barriers and language are important factors regarding attendance and access to primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa. The issues faced which are solely experienced by or which disproportionately affect girls are the issues of early marriage, pregnancy, cultural norms and practices, and especially poverty. Poverty weighs more heavily on girls than boys because it is generally an indicator of higher instances of the other inhibiting factors that girls face in Sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty is aligned with greater instances of child marriage, malnutrition, pregnancy, child mortality, cultural preference for males and child labor; all of which magnify the negative affect on girls moreso than on boys in Sub-Saharan Africa. [1]


Girls’ limited access to school is of particular concern in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2006, they accounted for 54% of primary school-age children not in school in the region and 72% of them have never been enrolled, compared with 55% for boys. For example, girls’ access to school remains a big issue in Nigeria, where 69% of girls not in school are unlikely to enroll, compared with 31% for boys. Similar if somewhat smaller gender differences (about twenty percentage points or more) are found in Burundi and Guinea.


Within countries there is a strong association between poverty and gender inequalities in education. Gender differences in net attendance rates tend to be wider for poorer households in countries with relatively low school attendance. For school attendance, poverty weighs more heavily on girls than boys – far more so, in some cases. For example, the attendance disparity ratios of the richest to poorest quintile are significantly higher for girls than for boys in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Niger. These ratios say something important about the unequal distribution of opportunity. For example, in Mali girls from the richest households are four times more likely to be attending primary school than the poorest girls.

Child mortality

While 10 million children die before the age of 5 each year, half of these children are in sub-Saharan Africa. On average, 158 out of every 1,000 children will die before the age of 5 in sub-Saharan Africa.


This has a large negative impact on achieving universal primary education. Progress in sub-Saharan Africa has been limited and between 1990-2006, 13 countries in the region have regressed in this category. One-third of all children in sub-Saharan Africa have been affected by stunting, and 23 countries have rates higher than 40%.

Child Labor

Around one-quarter of 5- to 14-year-olds in sub-Saharan Africa were engaged in child labor in 2004. Because population growth has increased faster than child labor rates have fallen, there were about 1 million more child laborers in 2004 than in 2000.[1]

Child Marriage

As of 2004, early marriage rates were higher in sub-Saharan African than any other region in the world. On average in the region, 52% of girls were married, divorced, or widowed by the age of 18. This rate varies widely from 18% in Botswana, to nearly 80% in Niger. [2]

International Gender Parity and Equality Protocols

Millennium Development Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

The target of the Millennium Development Goal #2, is to "ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling."[3]

Education for All

Education for All (EFA ) is a set of six internationally agreed upon goals which are used to address the main hurdles to achieving universal education, and more specifically universal primary education, and Millennium Development Goal #2.

These six goals are:

Goal 1

Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Goal 2

Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to, and complete, free and compulsory primary education of good quality.

Goal 3

Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programs.

Goal 4

Achieving a 50 percent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults.

Goal 5

Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality.

Goal 6

Improving all aspects of the quality of education and ensuring excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.[4]

Dakar Framework for Action

In order to achieve the UNESCO EFA goals, the Dakar Framework for Action, agreed upon in 2000, sets out a two-part gender equity agenda: first, to achieve gender parity in school participation and second, to improve gender equality in educational opportunities and outcomes.[5]

Statistical Indicators

Primary Enrolment Ratio

Primary Enrolment Ratio is defined as the ratio of females to males enrolled in primary education.  It is based on a 1-point scale with 1 being gender parity. 

OECD data is found here: Statistics:School Enrolment.

Primary Completion Rate

Primary completion rate is the percentage of students completing the last year of primary school. It is calculated by taking the total number of students in the last grade of primary school, minus the number of repeaters in that grade, divided by the total number of children of official graduation age.[6]

See Primary Completion Rates for more.

Gender Parity Index (GPI)

The GPI is defined as the ratio of female to male values of a given indicator. A GPI of 1 indicates parity between sexes; a GPI above 1 indicates data in favor of females, while a GPI below 1 indicates data in favor of males. In sub-Saharan Africa, the primary school GPI rose from 0.85 in 1999 to 0.89 in 2006. 15 of the 41 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have achieved gender parity in the their primary education rates.[1]

Gross Intake Rate (GIR)

Total number of new entrants to a given grade of primary education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the population at the official school entrance age for that grade.[1]

Net Enrollment Ratio (NER)

Enrollment of the official age group for a given level of education, expressed as a percentage of the population in that age group.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 UNESCO. (2009). Education For All Global Monitoring Report. UNESCO.
  2. UNFPA. 2004. Child Marriage Advocacy Programme: Fact Sheet on Child Marriage and Early Union.
  3. UNDG. (2003). Indicators for Monitoring the Millennium Development Goals. The United Nations. New York: The United Nations.
  4. UNESCO. (2010). EFA Goals. Retrieved August 3, 2010, from UNESCO:
  5. UNESCO. (2000, April). UNESCO- Education For All- The Dakar Framework for Action. Retrieved August 2, 2010, from UNESCO:
  6. The World Bank Group 2010. Primary completion rates, female (% of relevant age group). Retrieved 07 25, 2010, from The World Bank Data.

See Also

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