School systems throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are in desperate need of repair and reform. Yet they have one success story to boast about: Boys and girls now enjoy the same educational opportunity in nearly every country of the region. Unlike other developing areas, educational achievement in the region is fast becoming gender neutral.
Except for three nations - out of 33 - with large indigenous populations, there's no difference in literacy rates of men and women. Boys and girls enroll and graduate in equal numbers from primary and secondary schools. More women than men go to college. In many places, they now are the majority of students in such traditionally male fields as law and medicine.
To be sure, there are some critical unresolved gender problems in Latin America's schools. Girls from rural areas and indigenous families get less education than boys with similar backgrounds. School texts largely present timeworn and demeaning stereotypes of women; sometimes they exclude women. Within schools, women tend to occupy the lower rungs of status and income. They are, overwhelmingly, primary and secondary school teachers. Men, in contrast, are the principals, superintendents, and university professors. That these features persist is distressing, but not surprising. What is surprising and worth celebrating are the dramatic advances these nations have made in providing equal educational opportunities.
Gender equality, however, is a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud of educational mediocrity. The quality of public schools throughout Latin America and the Caribbean has deteriorated over the past generation and, in some countries, they are in crisis. A recent study by the Inter-American Dialogue's education program concluded that:
*Most children in Latin America and the Caribbean are today deprived of a decent, high-quality education.
*Instead of contributing to progress, schools hold back the region - reinforcing poverty, inequality, and poor economic performance.
Sadly, most boys and girls are getting a dismal education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Raising the quality of education for girls and women in the region now means reforming the school system from top to bottom for all students. What is required is better trained and better paid teachers, more local control, clear standards of performance, and more money. This is not a call to eliminate all gender-based interventions. Girls and young women, for example, still need guidance on how to avoid pregnancy, and special help to stay in school when they do get pregnant. Boys may require help to avoid getting enmeshed in drugs and violence. The bottom line is that both boys and girls need and deserve a better education than is provided. Gender is not the key issue.
Now that there is equal access to education in Latin America and the Caribbean, the remaining barriers to full gender equality need to come down. Countries are investing half of their education budgets to train girls and women. To make sure that investment pays off, women must have the same opportunities as men for jobs and careers. This means taking account of the circumstances women face in the work force. Education is one investment no country can afford to waste.
*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington, D.C.