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The material in this booklet was assembled by Patricia Hari.



Research has determined that parental attitude and support has a great deal of influence on girls’ participation and level of success attained in SMT education. Parents and community attitudes are mainly influenced by traditional beliefs regarding the ideal roles of women and girls in society. Traditionally, the only roles available to women were those of wives and mothers. Women were thus seen as nurturers and mainly as providing support for men who worked to provide for the family. Being physically weaker, women were therefore also perceived as being less capable and requiring the protection and guidance of men. These attitudes have prevailed even in current times when socio-economic changes have resulted in changes to roles women are now expected to undertake. Socio-economic changes have made education necessary, not just for the purposes of providing income earning opportunities, but also for the potential to contribute to the improvement in the standards of living of individuals, families and communities.

These traditional beliefs have been found to foster negative attitudes which limit family and community support for girls’ education. Identification and examination of these attitudes is necessary before any decisions can be made on what should and can be done to bring about change. However, it is an indisputable fact that without parents and community support, any efforts to improve girls’ participation in education and SMT education in particular will be greatly hampered.


A full account of the research methodology, the instruments used and the school samples covered in the collection of the data on which this booklet is based is given in the booklet Background and Research Methodology of the FEMSA Project.



During group discussions and interviews with head teachers and teachers, low enrollment and high dropout rates for girls at all levels of education were stated as some of the main reasons for the relatively low numbers of girls participating in SMT subjects. It was the opinion of many of those who participated in the study that one of the main reasons for this low enrollment and high dropout is the negative attitude that many parents have towards the education of girls. This negative attitude was attributed to traditional socio-cultural beliefs regarding gender roles and abilities. In African tradition and culture, women were expected to exclusively assume the roles of mothers and wives. Women were seen as nurturing beings and as such were expected to be the home makers and take care of the children. They were also expected to be obedient and subservient to the men. Women were seen as less capable, physically, mentally and in all areas outside their accepted roles, than men. As a result women were seen as requiring protection, guidance, supervision and leadership from men. It was thus accepted that men would fill decision making leadership capacities in society, while women played a mainly supportive/ nurturing role. With time, socio-economic changes have resulted in an expansion of the roles that women play, out of necessity and sometimes choice. However, the perception of women and their accepted roles and perceived capabilities have remained the same, i.e. traditional. Many people therefore have difficulty accepting that there is a need to equip women with the skills and knowledge necessary, through education, to enable them to take up their new roles and function effectively in the modern world.

This attitude directly and indirectly has a negative effect on girls’ participation in education in general and SMT in particular in a number of ways.

The information gathered from this study, specifically from discussions and interviews with parents, students, teachers and head teachers, has underlined the fact that these traditional views of women’s ideal gender roles and the perceptions of their abilities has a negative effect on parents’ attitudes towards educating girls. Following are some examples of negative attitudes that act as barriers to girls’ enrollment and retention in school.

Socialization and its Effect on the Girls’ SMT Education

The perceived ideal roles and characteristics of women and girls influence how girls and boys are socialized in the home, community and school. Because girls and women in general are considered physically weaker and less capable than men, they are often overtly protected and supervised to keep them from what is considered threatening to their safety i.e. physical, sexual, mental and emotional safety.

Some parents were reported to be reluctant to send their daughters to school because of the belief that education and school could be a corrupting influence. In some communities, there was the view that in co-educational schools, as most primary schools are, girls’ morals would be corrupted because of the amount of time they would spend with boys. There was also fear for the physical and sexual safety of girls in school due to cases of physical and sexual harassment and abuse from peers and teachers in the school. Where schools are situated long distances away, parents also worried about their daughters’ safety while traveling to and from school. This view was also the reason why many parents were reported to be reluctant to allow their daughters to attend extra-tuition after school as in most cases the teachers involved are men and as these sessions are usually held in the evening, parents are also reluctant to let their daughters travel late.

Perceived gender roles and characteristics influence the way children are expected to behave, the kind of work they do and even the way they play. Girls are, for example, rarely the ones sent to the shops to do shopping, neither are they allowed to play outside the home for long periods of time as boys often do. This denies girls the opportunity to explore and experiment with diverse activities and situations outside the home which could be useful to them within the SMT curriculum: e.g. boys when they go shopping get to practically use the knowledge and skills acquired in mathematics, they get to see various related activities first hand, e.g. playing with various tools, constructing things etc. Being outside the home also allows them to develop their socializing skills to a better degree than girls, and they are therefore more at ease outside the home environment. Boys therefore develop the confidence to work with tools and to have an advantage in the use of exploratory and participatory methods advocated for in teaching SMT subjects.

It was pointed out that in some cultures, after a certain age, girls are not expected to look men directly in the eye and are expected to appear humble and respectful before their elders. This attitude and the subsequent socialization of girls, has a number of effects. One is that it makes it difficult for girls to fully benefit from the participatory, discovery methods that are recommended because they will be reluctant to ask questions, participate fully in discussions or work in groups with members of the opposite sex. This has a negative effect on their performance in SMT subjects. Another issue is that because girls are expected to be obedient and socialized to feel that boys and men are in some ways their superiors, many are vulnerable to physical and sexual harassment and abuse and lack the confidence, skills and knowledge of such situations. This exposes them to the risk of pregnancy and STD's and the resulting consequences, including school drop out. This harassment has also been proved through research to have a negative effect on girls’ attitudes towards school and their ability to focus on and perform well in their academic activities.

Influence of Perceived Gender Roles on SMT Education

Perception of Women Roles as Wives and Mothers

According to many of the parents in the study, it is expected that girls will in adulthood only take on the roles of wives and mothers. Many parents and community members believe that a formal education is not necessary in order for girls to prepare for these expected roles as they can be learnt from their mothers and others in the community. As a result many parents do not enroll their daughters in school or withdraw them before completion. This denies these girls an opportunity for formal education in general and participation in SMT subjects in particular.

Many parents and community members also have the attitude that educating girls is a waste of time and money, because they will eventually be married off and their education would therefore only benefit their husbands and the families they marry into. Money spent on the girl's education would thus be considered lost to the girls’ family.

Since there was also the expectation that boys will become the "breadwinners" of their future families, many parents and community members felt that boys should for this reason be provided with the every advantage to help them fulfill this role, this includes educating them as far as possible. Girls, on the other hand, it is expected, will have husbands who will provide for them and an education is therefore not essential for them.

Some statements made by parents during group discussions clearly point to the negative attitudes that many parents and community members in general have towards educating girls. For example, the following statements were all made by parents who participated in group discussions:

"As a mother, I don’t have any difficulty even though I did not go to school."

"Grandparents believed that girls are of no use educationally. They believed that they are meant for the home and giving birth."

"No matter how much education you give to a woman, she will one day end up in someone’s kitchen and all her needs will be catered for."

"The boy is the breadwinner, therefore he must be given the best opportunities right from the beginning, including the best education. This will enable him to perform his manly duties properly in the future."

 Many parents also expressed the belief that boys would take care of them in their old age, thus providing them with a sense of security about their future while girls once married would be expected to take care of those in the families they married into. Thus in order to ensure that their sons will be able to carry out this responsibility, parents feel that they should provide their sons with education so that they can in turn get employment.

Girls were also considered a risk to educate because they were likely to get pregnant or married and drop out of school and any money spent on their education would therefore be wasted. For this reason some parents expressed the opinion that given a choice, they would prefer to educate boys. As one parent put it:

"It is better to educate a boy because after all, most girls are very foolish, they get themselves pregnant and drop out of school. Why should I waste my money?"

The issue of marriage was also identified in some of the countries as a deterrent to girls’ participation in SMT subjects. This is because training in SMT based careers usually takes longer than Arts based careers and many parents and students were of the opinion that this delay would reduce their chances of finding husbands and make it difficult for them to bear children.

The Effect of Perceived Gender Roles on Household Division of Labor and the Consequences of this on Girls’ Participation in SMT Education

As explained in the introduction to this section, girls are expected to take up the roles of wives and mothers in adulthood and their socialization at home, in the community and school is geared towards providing them with experiences that will prepare them to carry out these roles effectively. These expectations determine the division of labor within the household, with girls being assigned the home making household chores like food preparation, cooking, cleaning, fetching firewood and water, washing clothes and, caring for younger siblings. In addition to this in some areas girls are also expected to participate in farming activities. In Ghana, for example, girls were also observed to be the ones frequently engaged in petty trading in order to make extra income for the family. In all four countries it was noted that previous research as well information gathered from students, parents and teachers indicated that generally girls spent considerably more time performing household tasks than boys. It was also noted that these chores were often performed by girls, either early in morning before school or in the evenings after school. This was seen to affect girls’ education in a number of ways.

Because girls are responsible for such a diverse number of household tasks, some parents prefer to keep their daughters at home. This is especially true in areas where girls engage in income earning activities to supplement family income. Many parents therefore find that the opportunity cost of education is too high. This is especially true when the income from such activities contributes towards raising the family's standard of living.

It is also important to note that as the girl becomes older, she is often expected to take on more responsibilities in the running of the home and this takes more of her time during a period when she is probably at an educational level when learning is more involving and intense and requires more focus. This is likely to affect her performance, leading to loss of morale. Poor performance often leads to repetition and the resulting frustration could lead to school dropout.

 Parental Attitudes towards Girls’ Academic Abilities

During discussions and interviews with teachers, head teachers and parents it became clear that for many there was a commonly held view that girls were academically less capable than boys. This attitude has a negative effect on girls’ participation in education and SMT in particular in a number of ways. First of all, in a situation where parents have to make a choice, those who uphold this belief will choose to educate boys at the expense of girls.

Another aspect of this that was highlighted during group discussions, is that, because girls are considered less capable, they often receive less encouragement and are rarely challenged at home or school to strive to succeed in their academic work. Because less was expected of them, they also in turn expected less of themselves and were less confident of their academic abilities. Boys on the other hand were said to be "pushed" to succeed because more was expected of them.

Data collected from students, parents and teachers in all four countries indicate that Science and Mathematics are generally considered to be the most difficult subjects. They are also considered to be "masculine" subjects. Because girls are considered less capable than boys, parents, peers, many teachers and the girls themselves do not expect them to excel at these subjects. There is often, therefore, conscious and unconscious discouragement of girls’ participation in these subjects both from the school and home. Many teachers, parents and even students not only believed that girls were academically less capable than boys, they also believed that girls were less interested in academic issues and more easily distracted and were more interested in unrelated issues like romance and physical appearance. One explanation given for this, was that because SMT subjects were considered masculine (therefore 'unladylike' ), many girls were reluctant to try and excel at these subjects, as this would draw attention to them in ways that would make them feel uncomfortable. Success in these subjects might also alienate them from other girls and earn them the contempt of the boys, who were often reported to discourage girls from participating positively and performing well in these subjects. In Ghana for example, it was reported that society regarded those girls who performed well in science as witches or as men-women. Parents were also reported to discourage their sons from marrying women who were science graduates as they felt that they would not respect especially those husbands who were non-scientists. These were identified as some of the attitudes that deterred girls from participating and performing well in SMT subjects.

Traditional Practices That Affect Girls’ Participation In SMT Education

Many communities in the study countries were reported to favor marrying off girls while still fairly young. In most cases, these girls drop out of school once they are married to start families. In some communities, especially in the Muslim communities, there is the practice of betrothing girls at a very young age, sometimes at birth and marrying them off in late adolescence. The practice of early marriage often therefore leads to the end of a girls' formal education and with it in most cases the chance for the girl to participate in SMT subjects and therefore careers. In most cases, the girls have little say in the matter of whether or who they want to marry.

The practice of early marriage is often a result of tradition in many cultures. However, during group discussions some parents supported early marriage for young girls as a way of avoiding the risk that they might get pregnant out of wedlock and bring shame to the family. Girls are also married off so that families can benefit from the dowry which is part of the marriage ceremony in many African cultures.

Ghana has a number of examples of cultural practices that compromise girls’ access to education and therefore their participation in SMT subjects. One example of this is the Trokosi system which is found among some communities in the rural areas. This traditional practice requires parents accused of wrong doing to atone for this by giving a daughter to the Trokosi cult to serve out bondage. These girls, who have no say in the matter, then have to serve the members of the cult until such a time as when the leaders feel their parents’ sins have been properly atoned for. At this time, the girls are then released back into their communities, a process that can take years. During their time in the cult, the girls do not attend school. There have also been cases of girls becoming pregnant while within the cult, indicating the existence of sexual harassment and abuse of the girls within the cult. Most of these girls are past school going age when they are released from bondage with no education or skills that would enable them to engage in income earning activities that would allow them some level of independence. These practices underline the fact that in such cultures and indeed in many areas in Africa, girls like in traditional times continue to be considered the property of their families, with little or no say in their future.

In other areas of Ghana, girls and women cross over into neighboring countries to carry out trading which is often a lucrative activity. Their success has been found to lure other school girls to try this business, leading to school drop out.

In some areas of rural Tanzania, on reaching puberty (from upper primary), girls are expected to participate in initiation ceremonies aimed at preparing them for womanhood and marriage. These ceremonies are often held during the school term and result in girls missing a considerable amount of school time. Participation in these ceremonies was said to affect girls’ participation in education in general and SMT subjects in two particular ways. One was that the time spent at these ceremonies was at the expense of precious school time. When these girls eventually return to school, teachers find it difficult to find the time to give them the individual attention required to help them catch up with the others. Since, as mentioned before, science and mathematics are hierarchical subjects where learning is based on building on previously learnt concepts, it becomes even more difficult to catch up in these subjects and poor performance is almost inevitable. Another effect of these ceremonies was said to be that the girls who were initiated regard themselves as adults and ready for marriage and no longer see the need to concentrate on their school work as they feel that it would be of little use to them in their future roles as mothers and wives. These ceremonies were said to be especially popular among those communities with economically disadvantaged parents, with little or no education, who were reported to have little awareness of the advantages of education for girls. Among such communities, marriage of daughters was considered a quick source of income and parents were often eager to marry off their daughters early which they would have difficulty doing if they were not initiated. Initiation ceremonies are therefore viewed as the key to a quick assured income, while educating girls is considered a waste of money as the money spent will be of no benefit to the girl’s family.

In Cameroon, the practice of Female Genital Mutilation was mentioned as one of the traditional practices that interferes with girls’ access to education. This practice in addition to resulting in absence from school also involves health risks. After participating in these activities girls are considered by society as ready for marriage and this has a negative effect on some girls’ attitudes towards school.

Poverty and it’s Effect on Girls’ Participation in SMT Education

In all four countries it was noted that, even in those communities where parents were aware of the importance of and concerned about the education of girls, enrollment levels were still low due to their inability to meet the costs of education. Parents in all four countries pointed out that the high cost of education coupled with the deteriorating economy, which had reduced the disposable income available to the families, had made it difficult to provide an education for all the children regardless of sex. In almost all the countries education is financed through cost sharing, with the parents bearing the bigger share of the burden. Another issue that further aggravated this situation is the fact that, especially in the rural areas, families tend to have a fairly large number of children. The cumulative effect of the finances required for education often proves to be too much for many families. In many communities, the large family size was said to be the result of traditional attitudes, an examples of which is the view that many children as a source of free labour and a source of security during parents’ old age. In communities of the Catholic and Muslim faith, the use of artificial contraceptives is forbidden, resulting in families having large numbers of children.

However it was also noted that in communities where girls’ education was not valued, the issue of poverty further aggravated the situation of girls’ lack of access to education because in such areas parents when faced with scarce resources choose to educate boys rather than girls. This also effects parents’ willingness to pay for tuition and provide educational resources for their daughters.

Poor Remuneration for SMT Careers

Parents were also of the opinion that there was a serious shortage of employment opportunities in SMT and that the majority of these careers, especially the technical ones, were poorly paid. They were therefore reluctant to encourage their children to further their education in these subjects. Parents also believed that the Arts based careers paid more and therefore encouraged their daughters to work harder and carry on with these subjects at higher levels of education.

 Perceived Irrelevance of the SMT Curriculum and Poor Teaching Methods

Because the curriculum taught in schools is rarely sensitive to the practical needs of the communities it serves, what is learnt is mainly theoretical and can rarely be practically applied at home in the pupils’ daily life and activities. For this reason many parents felt that there was no immediate need for their children to be in school and considered time spent in school as time wasted, which could be put to better use on domestic chores.

The same sentiment was also expressed about the curriculum for the SMT subjects. Some parents felt that the curriculum was too theoretical and did not take into account the context of the pupils’ environment. Parents felt that the lessons learnt were not practical enough and did not relate what was learnt to real life. Pupils therefore rarely learnt anything that would be immediately useful to them and their families and to some parents this was an indication that these subjects were irrelevant to the quality of the lives of their children and families. These parents did not encourage their children to perform well in school and sometimes even withdrew their children from school.

Some parents also complained about the way that science and mathematics were taught in school and felt that the teachers lacked the qualifications and motivation to do a good job. They felt that many of the teachers were poorly trained, had little of the knowledge necessary and most were too inexperienced to carry out effective teaching.

Parental Involvement in School Work

Teachers, during interviews, indicated that one of the reasons for girls’ poor participation in SMT subjects was the lack of parental interest, support and involvement in their daughters’ academic work. Teachers felt that if parents were more involved in their daughters’ school work, and in particular in SMT subjects, in which most girls do not perform well, then girls might be motivated to work harder in those subjects.

Teachers attributed this lack of involvement to a number of factors. One was that most parents have the attitude that academic work is the preserve of the school and in particular the teacher and were therefore reluctant or unwilling to become involved. Another reason was that many parents often have little time to spare from their daily schedules to devote to helping or following up on their children’s school work. Other parents, on the other hand, have little or no education themselves and therefore do not have the knowledge or skills required to help or monitor their children’s academic work. Teachers complained that there was lacking in many communities a ‘culture’ of parental monitoring of children’s school work. They felt that this type of culture and practice should be established and nurtured.


A noticeable feature of the discussions on the parents’ and communities’ attitudes to girls’ attendance at school and their participation in the study of SMT subjects, was that the impact of these attitudes on their daughters’ performance in school was rarely considered, and consequently schools and communities had never considered that any special efforts were required to minimize the impact of these attitudes. However when the need for remedial strategies was raised in discussions, a number of useful suggestions were put forward.

Sensitization and Advocacy Campaigns

It was suggested that the community and parents in particular required sensitization on a number of issues. These include:

A number of ways of carrying out this sensitization and advocacy were suggested.

 Legislation to Uphold the Rights of the Girl-Child

It was suggested that, where they do not exist, measures be formulated and enforced by law to protect girls from practices that threaten their well-being. For example, the legal age for marriage should be enforced, while those who sexually abuse and impregnate underage girls should be dealt with severely by the law as a deterrent to other would be offenders. Practices like female genital mutilation and Trokosi systems should be outlawed and the communities educated about and sensitized to the disadvantages of such practices to the girl, her family and community.

The ministry of education should also have clearly spelt out procedures for dealing with cases of sexual harassment, abuse and school girl pregnancy in schools.

Education, at least to the end of the basic level, should be made compulsory and this should be enforced with legislative measures to ensure that all children are enrolled in school up to at least the end of the basic education cycle.

Economic Measures

There were a number of measures suggested to help deal with the issues related to poverty.

 Time Use

In addition to sensitizing parents to gender sensitive allocation of domestic chores and family resources, it was also suggested that other measures could be taken to ensure that girls had additional time to devote to their academic work. This includes allowing for compulsory study time at the end of the school day which would give girls time to complete their home work and study. It would also provide them with a legitimate time during which they could consult teachers for help outside of classroom hours.

Another suggestion was the establishment of more boarding schools to remove girls from the home environment and allow them the necessary time to focus on their academic work.

It was also suggested that efforts should be made to provide communities which rely heavily on girls’ labor with labor saving technology and use other strategies to reduce the amount of time girls have to spend on household chores. Examples were given of providing boreholes, setting up wood lots near homes and building crèches so that mothers can send young children there for day care, allowing the girls who would normally tend to them free to attend school.

Parental Involvement

It was suggested by teachers that parents should be encouraged to become more involved in the academic activities of their children. Parents should be sensitized to the importance of their involvement, especially in the case of girls’ involvement in SMT subjects. They felt that this could be done by encouraging schools to adopt to an ‘open-house’ policy which would allow and encourage parents to visit the school as often as they wished to discuss their children’s progress. Parents with the ability to help their children in their work should be encouraged to do so. The teachers felt that these measures would provide motivation for girls to participate more in SMT subjects.


It should be noted that any barriers to girls’ participation in formal education directly interferes with girls’ access to SMT education. For this reason, many of the parental and community attitudes and other factors addressed in this booklet are those that affect access to education in general.

As mentioned before, parental and community involvement are essential to the success of any measures aimed at improving girls’ education. In order to ensure this support, it is important that the community be consulted about and participate in identifying the key problems and solutions regarding the issue. This will help to foster a sense of ownership for any intervention strategies implemented and ensure that parents have a commitment to ensuring their success.

This is in line with one of the key goals of the FEMSA project which is the development and strengthening of partnerships between the key players in SMT education, including parents, pupils, community leaders and members, governmental and non-governmental organizations including religious organizations among others.

The objective of this booklet, Parents’ and Community Attitudes Towards Girls’ Participation in and Access to Education and Science, Mathematics and Technology (SMT) Subjects is to examine how parents’ and communities’ attitudes, which are often based on traditional cultural beliefs regarding the ideal gender roles and characteristics, affect their perception of girls’ academic abilities and how this in turn influences the level of support they provide for girls’ participation in education in general and SMT subjects and careers in particular.

This booklet is mainly targeted at education policy makers and those concerned with reforming community attitudes towards girls’ education. It is hoped that the information contained in this booklet will positively influence education policy on parental and community involvement in SMT education for girls.