The Gendered Interface Between Education and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Countries that invest in the education of women do better in a variety of development indicators. In fact, educating girls is one of the wisest investments any developing country can make” – Rosalyn McKeown (2004).

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Hilda Makamure's picture
June 14th, 2017

This article analyses the gendered interface between education and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and discusses the opportunities, constraints and implications for the role that women can play in the achievement of the SDGs on the continent.

The SDGs were adopted in September 2015 by the UN member states under a resolution popularly known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 17 goals are designed as a follow-up agenda to build on the achievements of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (2000-2015). In recognising the complex relationship between the environment, the economy and society, or the three Ps (people, planet and profit), the SDGs are founded on the realisation that “human activity has come to play a central and threatening role in the fundamental earth dynamics” (Sachs, 2012, pp 2206-7). In an attempt to balance the demands of unmet aspirations for human progress and economic development on one end, and the planet’s boundaries on the other, a new framework of thinking is viewed as a prerequisite by Greggs et al. (2013). Key to this framework are education systems which recognise the demands of and for this balance.

Prior to the 2015 MDGs deadline, several policies on education were developed in preparation for the post-2015 global policy agenda. These included the Muscat Agreement (2014) which reaffirmed the importance of education post-2015 and reiterated the need for education that “should take a holistic and lifelong learning approach, and provide multiple pathways of learning using innovative methods and information and communication technologies” (UNESCO, 2014, p. 2). In May 2015, the education community at the World Education Forum adopted the Education 2030 Incheon Declaration by “recognizing the important role of education as a main driver of development and in achieving the other proposed SDGs” (UNESCO, 2016a, p. iii).

Following the adoption of Agenda 2030 in 2015, several new global policies on education were also developed to aid in the achievement of the SDGs related to education. These include the Education 2030 Framework for Action (2015) which, according to Eck, Naidoo and Sachs-Israel (2016, p. 36), is based on the principles of education as a fundamental and enabling human right, education as a public good (with the State as the duty bearer), and lifelong learning. The Education 2030 Framework for Action focuses on access, equality, inclusion, gender equality and quality of education and calls for education systems which are:

relevant and respond to rapidly changing labour markets, technological advances, urbanization, migration, political instability, environmental degradation, natural hazards and disasters, competition for natural resources, demographic challenges, increasing global unemployment, persistent poverty, widening inequality and expanding threats to peace and safety (UNESCO, 2016b, p. 26).

At the continental level, education has also been identified as a key social development issue and priority which prompted the African Union Commission (AUC) to develop the Continental Educational Strategy for Africa (2016-2025) (CESA 16-25) which is driven by the desire for a:

qualitative system of education and training to provide the African continent with efficient human resources adapted to African core values and therefore capable of achieving the vision and ambitions of the African Union. Those responsible for its implementation will be assigned to reorient Africa’s education and training systems to meet the knowledge, competencies, skills, innovation and creativity required to nurture African core values and promote sustainable development at the national, sub-regional and continental levels (AUC, 2016, p. 7)

The importance of education in development

Realising the milestones reached by UN member states towards achieving Education For All, as well as the importance of education in the achievement of the SDGs, education has been made a stand-alone goal, in addition to the education-related targets under other SDGs. As a stand-alone goal, SDG 4 on education emphasises educational/learning outcomes and cognitive skills more than attendance and enrolment with a subtle emphasis on creating skilled workers as opposed to self-reliant individuals who can drive entrepreneurship (Burchin & Rippin, 2015, p. 27). SDG 4 on education has 10 targets which embrace various aspirations for women and men’s equal access to the highest levels of education available (UN-DESA, 2016).

Hanushek and Woessman (2010) argue for the role of quality education in achieving economic growth and conclude that there is strong evidence that the population’s cognitive skills, rather than mere school attainment, are powerfully related to long-term economic growth. Education is thus likely to assist in the achievement of SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) and SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities). According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2012, p. 182), the skills of the labour force and their price determine a country’s success in the global market: “As services and production systems become more complex, they require workers with higher levels of education.” In other words, the more developed a country, the higher the demand for skilled labour and, therefore, the greater the economic opportunities for both women and men. This would result in the achievement of several SDGs as well as sustainable development in general.
Education is also part of the goals for health (SDG 3), growth and employment (SDG 8), sustainable consumption and production (SDG 11), and climate change (SDG 13). This article will analyse the need for rethinking the role of education to achieve these four specific SDGs which have clear, identifiable interfaces with the SDG on education.

Assumptions of an overly simplistic view of education and the SDGs

The interface between education and the rest of the SDGs is not simple. It is unwise to assume that merely providing education will inevitably lead to the achievement of the SDGs. It is much more complex and poses real challenges for policy-making, governance and society. This is particularly true in developing countries where citizens are deprived of many basic needs, and decision making is a matter of survival and not based on free and informed choices.

In overly simplistic terms, “Education is seen as a veritable tool for the socio-political and economic emancipation of any country from the shackles of ignorance, poverty, unemployment and low economic growth” (Ehigiamusoe, 2013, p. 554). The assumption is that education is a basic human right and, therefore, every government will ensure that all its citizens go to school, thereafter finding good jobs and providing the necessities for themselves and their families and, ideally, fulfilling some personal desires and aspirations. This reasoning assumes that they will be able to access healthcare and better employment opportunities, have a clean environment, and water and sanitation services available. It also presumes that these educated citizens are more likely to care for the environment, observe related laws, and live in harmony with their environment as well as society. The assumptions about what education can do for people and the environment are many and have been propounded by epistemic communities who argue for education’s ability to improve livelihoods and health and stimulate innovations in all spheres of life including the environment. For example, the Institute of Development Studies (1997, p. 1) contends that there is a high correlation between levels of education and levels of economic development. This view is further advanced by the Human Capital Theory, propounded by economists Gary Becker, Jacob Mincer and others who argue that a person’s education is an investment in their human capital, which makes the individual productive enough to accrue a future stream of benefits such as higher wages and other non-monetary benefits for the individual and the society (Mulongo, 2012). This thinking, however, only appears to hold water in growing economies with opportunities for formal employment, thereby negating the developing country context, such as is the case in most African countries which are currently characterised by low economic growth, high unemployment, and an inflated informal sector characterised by self-employment.

Education can reduce poverty and increase incomes

Certain research findings on the interface between education and poverty have led to three broad conclusions being drawn. Appleton, Kingdon, Knight, Söderbom and Teal (2014) note, firstly, that education is universally found to lift people out of poverty. Secondly, they assert that, compared to other forms of investment, returns for investing in education are on average low; and, thirdly, the returns on education accrue with each year of education completed (ibid). Their study on whether education reduced poverty in Ghana, Uganda and South Africa shows that households with higher education levels are less likely to be poor, and they confirmed that returns on education rose with the level of education (Appleton et al., 2014).

The Global Partnership for Education (2015) supports the above claims and argues that education interfaces strongly with SDG 1 on poverty and SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth. They assert that, “If all children left school with basic reading skills”, we could see a 12 percent decrease in poverty (ibid). Furthermore, for one extra year of schooling, the earnings of women would increase by 20 percent (Global Partnership for Education, 2015)

However, the reality of the links between education as a mainstay for the achievement of the SDGs cannot be analysed in isolation. For example, education can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs if governments invest in education to ensure full access for all their citizens, particularly girls and women. However, Ehigiamusoe (2013) argues that, while some African countries like Nigeria have continued to increase their budget on education, high poverty and low economic growth prevail. In his view, there is a need to overhaul education curriculums so that they really contribute to economic growth needs and poverty reduction (ibid). Added to this is the need for governments to address the various socio-economic and cultural impediments to education for girls and women. For girls, the issues are disproportionately complex. In Kenya, the girl child may miss up to 20 percent of her total school year due to mobility restrictions she faces during her menstruation cycle (Jewitt & Riley, 2014). The lack of feminine hygiene products and sanitary facilities in schools across Africa prevent girls from attending school regularly, affecting their overall performance, chances and opportunities to escape poverty through education.

The argument for the role of education in poverty reduction is relevant. Nevertheless, other cultural, socio-economic and political factors weigh in. Policy makers often have control over these factors, but most governments in developing countries fail to provide quality education that can change the mindsets of people to articulate their immediate needs within the framework of sustainable development, and they do not pay sufficient attention to the practical needs of women and girls. Fadeeva (2015) calls for innovative education systems and cultures that are commensurate with the immediate economic conditions of people, as the learning process should resonate with their realities, culture, history and social relations.

At the centre of these innovative learning processes are women who play a key decision-making role as homemakers and traditionally interact directly with the environment in their household chores which include carrying water, and gathering firewood, seasonal wild fruit and vegetables to supplement household nutrition.

Likely, many women will assume the role of community leaders in educating others on the SDGs and the role that communities can play in the achievement of the SDGs, hence the need for policies that empower women in this key role.

The Common African Position (CAP) on the post-2015 Development Agenda (UNECA, 2014) notes that many African countries made progress towards achieving MDG 2 (universal access to primary education). Nevertheless, the gains were quickly eroded by various factors, many as a result of the lack of reliable resourcing for education (p. 4). The lack of education administrators to identify, analyse, formulate and implement context-relevant policies is also mentioned in the report (pp 9-10). Suitably qualified individuals are needed to help lead citizens towards the achievement of the education SDG, which was also expected to facilitate the achievement of other MDGs.

In the context of education and the SDGs, there is potentially the same threat of failure to addressing these issues. Many African governments are pressed for human, financial and material resources, riddled with corruption and greed, and undermined by poor public policies. Prioritisation of policies and their implementation will call for stronger political will and tougher decision making on issues that will help achieve the SDGs. Already some governments, like Zimbabwe, are faced with an assortment of economic challenges that are negatively impacting on the education sector. It was estimated in 2014 that one million pupils could drop out of school because the government failed to provide money for their fees (Mutenga, 2014). In South Africa, the government’s continued failure to conduct appropriate inspections and monitoring has created negative perceptions of the teaching profession (Centre for Education Policy Development (CEPD), 2008, p. 1). In Zambia, “Weak policy implementation, combined with inadequate funding, has undermined the effectiveness and efficiency of education service delivery” (Atchoarena, 2016, p. 4). These multifarious challenges will hinder access to education and ultimately the achievement of the SDGs.

Education leads to better health

Education is believed to be directly linked to better health which could result in good health and wellbeing (SDG 3), clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), and a reduction in hunger and malnutrition (SDG 2). The Population Research Bureau (PRB, 2011) states that much research has linked girls and women’s education with reduced child and maternal mortality, improved health of children, and lower fertility. “Women with at least some formal education are more likely than uneducated women to use contraception, marry later, have fewer children, and be better informed about the nutritional and other needs of children” (ibid). Research by UNESCO in 2010 (cited in PRB, 2011) in a number of African countries illustrates this. In Mali, women with secondary and higher education have an average of three children, while those without such education have an average of seven children (ibid). In Burkina Faso, mothers with secondary education are twice as likely to have a safe birth in healthcare facilities compared to those without this level of education (UNESCO, 2010, cited in PRB, 2011). In Malawi, only 27 percent of women without education know that HIV transmission from parent to child could be prevented by taking drugs during pregnancy, but the figure rises to 59 percent for women with secondary education (ibid).

Feinstein, Sabates, Anderson, Sorhcundo and Hammond (2006) also found international evidence that higher levels of education positively influence health-related behaviour and decision making, management of risky situations, and preventive service use. Although education is an important mechanism for enhancing the health and wellbeing of individuals, it was also noted that education does not influence health in isolation from other factors such as income. Vogl (2012) analysed the relationship between education and health in poor countries and made similar observations. The study found that multiple factors link education and health across different phases of the life cycle and across generations: “Within an individual, childhood health enhances schooling outcomes, longevity incentivizes human capital investment, and education improves adult education. Across generations, the health and education of parents – particularly mothers – boost both outcomes in their children” (Vogl, 2012, p. 1). Li (2014) notes the effects of additional years in school on health habits later in life, including diet, exercise and decisions to engage in risky behaviour. The positive effect is greater on women than men.

While prioritising the SDGs for most governments is likely to be difficult, Niles (2016) argues strongly that an educated global population is more likely to stem climate change, achieve gender equity and live healthier lives than an uneducated or only partially educated population.

Education helps protect the environment

Steele (2010, p. 4) posits that:

Environment and education are both vital elements of human existence that can be used to enhance the quality of the human condition. The environment provides the space and essential ingredients for life where humans are able to interact with each other, with the infrastructure and with the environment itself… education is the process and result through which teaching and learning operate. Through this process, knowledge, values, attitudes and skills are imparted to the learner.

In his view, education will enhance society’s understanding of sustainable development and increase “ecoliteracy” (Steele, 2010, p. 4). It is hoped that this will culminate in the achievement of SDG 7 on affordable, clean energy, SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production, SDG 13 on climate change, SDG 14 on life below water, and SDG 15 on life on the land. Ecoliteracy refers to “the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible” (Steele, 2010, pp 4-5). The connections between women and the environment are perceived by Rahman (2006, p. 2) as being more obvious in less industrialised countries where women still grow much of the food, and are typically depicted as “hewers of wood, haulers of water”. Central to their role is their knowledge of poisonous and non-poisonous plants, medicinal plants, edible wild vegetables and fruits, good practices for harvesting, and managing common resources such as water, firewood and forests. This indigenous knowledge can impact positively on modern science developments in the areas of agriculture, science and technology, healthcare delivery, natural resource management, and sustainable development (Abah, Mashebe & Denuga, 2015, pp 670-671). The challenge for education is integrating indigenous knowledge systems with science to ensure that modern concepts, such as climate change, are better understood by local communities. It is essential to recognise women as knowledge bearers and custodians of knowledge on environmental issues and ecosystems in their communities. Culturally, women are regarded as consumers rather than producers of knowledge. Therefore, education systems need to challenge this patriarchal view and create spaces for women to participate as knowers and knowledge producers who equally contribute and shape policies and practices in this regard.
Education prevents inequality and injustice

Education is directly related to SDG 5 on general inequality, SDG 10 on reduced inequalities, and SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions. When education removes human-made biases, empowerment and justice can be achieved. Education creates a citizenry conscious of their rights and duties (Rajendrakumar, 2013). People who are educated find their voice and speak out about inequality and injustice they see or experience. They are also more likely to participate in political decision making, such as voting, and exercise their civil rights. De Kadt (2009, p. 26) shares a similar viewpoint: education has the potential to address “societal injustice by equalising opportunities, facilitating development and strengthening democracy.”


The SDGs will direct policy making at the national level for most UN member states over the next 13 years to 2030. The role of education in the SDGs agenda is critical. There is a need for African governments and development agencies to reflect more on the current education systems, including curricula and models of teaching and resourcing for education, among others, to ensure that they drive economies towards a sustainable path for development. While there are numerous similarities in the challenges ahead for most developing countries on the continent, each country also has its own unique features and problems which will need to be factored in when considering education for sustainable development and the achievement of the SDGs. More importantly, the role of women as key decision makers in education and in the environment will also need to be taken more seriously in striving for equitable, sustainable development across the continent. Failure to adopt a gendered lens will prevent the continent from making strategic inroads in various crucial development areas towards achieving SDG 4, as well as all the SDGs and targets which rely on education to realise their own value.


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About the author(s)

Hilda Makamure is a public policy and communications strategist and has a Masters in Public Policy and Governance. She is a trained journalist and she has worked mostly in health research. Her previous work concerned the youth and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Hilda’s research interests have been shaped by her experiences as a woman living in the social, economic and political realities of Zimbabwe and by the more recent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 17 on fostering partnerships for the upliftment of Zimbabweans. She is also an avid runner.


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