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La Educación
Número: (126-128) I,III
Año: 1997

Some Aspects of the Distribution of Education in Latin America

The great progress that women have made in education all over the world is one of the most notable features of the last few decades. The Latin America region shows a relative degree of gender equity in education overall, although not for all countries. This feature of Latin American education has been recognized in various studies (Frejka 1974; Debl 1980; Bowman and Anderson 1980). A brief analysis of the global data for Latin America and the Caribbean in comparison with other regions makes this point clear.

Gender differences in adult literacy are still very great in the world today. Yet in developed countries the difference is scarcely one percentage point, a logical result of the almost total elimination of illiteracy. Or to put it the other way around, as might be more appropriate, it is the relative equity in education for men and women in those countries that has allowed illiteracy to be eradicated.

Let us look again at a recent estimate of gender inequality in this respect. For the world as a whole, the difference was 15 points, which means that female literacy is lower (for 1990, this was estimated at 60%, while that for men was 81%). The disadvantaged status of women in adult literacy in nearly all developing countries (including those of Latin America, which are at the most equitable end of the spectrum) was calculated for the same date at more than 20 percentage points. In our region, which has made greater progress in literacy than the rest of the so-called developing world, the differences are comparatively small: 83% literacy for adult women, and 86% for adult men.

If we are pessimistic, we might say that the differences in literacy between men and women will disappear only as illiteracy itself is eliminated, and that this will be a slow process. As has been noted in connection with other cases of social discrimination, equality can be achieved only when education has become completely universal, a point that Green (1986) called the “law of the last arrival”. Nevertheless, it would appear that greater progress has been made in terms of achieving equity between men and women in education than in other types of social differentiation. In Argentina, for example, women are ahead of men in terms of literacy in a broad band of the younger population, although they are still at a disadvantage among the older generations. Although this directional shift in gender differences has been underway for some time, women do not yet have the advantage among the adult population as a whole. The differences in the population aged 15 and over are very small, however, according to the 1991 census (Series C), where illiterates accounted for 3.8% of men and 4.1% of women. If we overlook the differences between youth and adults, which reflect the history of this process, we may say that literacy is approaching equality for men and women. The recent trend is towards equality in Argentina, as well as in several other Latin American countries, and the differences that remain in the region become quite minor when viewed from a comparative perspective, as the data show.

Information on the average number of years of schooling, a global indicator that is a good proxy for adult education, allows us to rank the region’s countries in terms of the equity of distribution of education between the sexes (see Table 3). If we take the average period of schooling for women as a percentage of that for men, we find that the ratio exceeds one hundred in several countries (Uruguay, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Argentina and Cuba), which indicates that women on average are receiving more education. El Salvador shows equal length of education for men and women. With a ratio of between 95 and 99, there is a group of countries where men have a slight advantage over women, but the degree of inequality is not very great (Costa Rica, Venezuela, Mexico and Brazil). This group is followed by Honduras, Chile and Ecuador, where men’s advantage is somewhat greater (with ratios of 93, 92 and 91, respectively). An index of 80 to 89, representing an even greater advantage for men, is found for Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Peru. That leaves Haiti and Bolivia, the extreme cases of educational gender inequality for the region, with indices of 65 and 60, respectively. It must be remembered that we are looking here at the educational level of people who are now adults, and that these ratios do not reflect recent changes in the educational system and, hence, in the gender distribution of education among the young. In summary, with respect to this important educational indicator, the female disadvantage is greater than in other indicators that refer to the younger population, and there is also a greater differentiation in this respect among countries of the region.


Differences in schooling by gender become less significant if we compare them with those prevailing in other parts of the world. Both at the pre-primary level and in the first two levels of formal schooling, Latin American data show equality between the sexes, since males and females account for about the same proportion of the student body (50% of pre-primary enrolment was female, 49% at the primary level and 52% at the secondary). The least equitable group of countries, according to data estimates for 1990, are those of the Arab world, where the average enrolment figures for women are 38%, 44% and 42% for the pre-primary, primary and secondary levels respectively. Developed countries are no further ahead than Latin America in terms of the percentages of female enrolment, with the exception of higher education. In this case, the percentage of women was slightly lower in Latin America than in developed countries, at 47% compared to 50%, but in the developing regions of the world, female participation at this level was considerably below that in Latin America.

Recent information on enrolment rates by sex for the twenty countries of Latin America is incomplete, but it does serve to confirm that women tend to exceed men in terms of enrolment at the secondary level, as can be seen in the aggregate data. Among countries for which data are provided in the latest Human Development Report (1994), thirteen countries have female indices exceeding 100, while only in Haiti and Bolivia do males still have an advantage in this respect at the secondary level (with indices of 91 and 84, respectively).

Information on the differences between rural and urban education, which are known to be high in general and particularly in Latin America, have received little attention in the last few years. The UNDP’s Human Development Reports, which pay close attention to inequality of opportunity among social classes, do deal with rural-urban disparities, but they do not include education among the aspects compared. All the major sources of educational data either fail to concern themselves with the rural-urban split, or provide very inadequate information. The most complete data in this respect are very old, and do not allow us to analyze the extent to which the major rural-urban disparities that characterized the distribution of education Latin American some decades ago still persist.

As noted earlier, some students of Latin American education have pointed out that, while there is relative equity in the gender distribution of education, there is a great degree of rural-urban inequality. Despite the tremendous growth in education, as noted earlier, and the rapid pace of urbanization that the region has seen, the available information suggests that Latin American countries have made little progress towards equality in this respect.

A recent ECLAC report tells us:

In Latin America and the Caribbean, during the 1980s, geography-based discrepancies appear to have become even more marked than socially based ones. Thus, for example, in Brazil and in Venezuela school attendance rates for children in the first income quartile (poor) in urban centers were similar to or even greater than those for children in the fourth quartile (wealthy) in rural areas. In both countries, access to pre-school education was twice as great in the cities, and the non-attendance rate at the basic education level was three times as low, in comparison with rural sectors (ECLAC 1992).

But there is little information on which to base even a brief description of the current situation regarding the urban-rural distribution of education in Latin America. The correlation between the illiteracy rate and the percentage of rural population of countries of the region in 1990 confirms what we know, which is that the countries with the greatest rural populations are also those that have the highest illiteracy rates, today as in the past. From data for 1990 gathered for the 1993 UNESCO World Education Report the ratio is 0.74. Illiteracy rates can also be used to illustrate recent rural-urban differences in education by reference to the situation in three countries, the only ones for which there is information in the last UNESCO statistical yearbook (1994). Two of these, Bolivia and Uruguay, may be taken to illustrate the two extremes for the region in several aspects, in particular the one that interests us most here, the illiteracy rate and gender equity in the distribution of education. In Bolivia, according to 1992 data, the difference between men and women in terms of adult illiteracy is 16 points (in round figures, 28% illiteracy for women, and 12% for men), while between the rural and urban population the gap is 27 points (the difference between 36% rural illiteracy and 9% urban). Or to put it another way: rural illiterates outnumber urban ones four to one, while there are slightly more than twice as many illiterate women as illiterate men. Remember that these relate to a country that, along with Haiti, represents the extreme in terms of gender inequality within the region. In the case of Uruguay (according to 1985 data), adult illiteracy among women was slightly lower than that for men — a quite unusual situation — while the gap between urban and rural illiteracy rates, although low, was 5% in the expected direction. Recent data (1990) are available for a third country, Venezuela, which has relatively low illiteracy rates and low gender inequality, although its situation is not so far from the regional norm as that of Uruguay. The difference between Venezuela’s male and female illiteracy rates is 2 percentage points (with men at 9% and women at 11%), while the rural-urban literacy gap is 20 points.

In summary, we have tried to show by the use of illiteracy figures that the region has not as yet extended to rural-urban differences the relative success it has had in overcoming gender inequities in the distribution of education. What little up-to-date information is available suggests that there is still sharp inequality in current standards between rural and urban education.

This brief glimpse into the distribution of education in Latin America shows the persistence of features typical of the region during a period of relatively high growth.