Non-governmental organizations provide services and advocate for gender equality

2022 Gender Report

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CREDIT: Jim Huylebroek / Save The Children

NGOs are a major lever for drawing attention to the challenges of gender inequality in education, either through advocacy or activities that serve marginalized groups. The perennial challenge is the sustainability of their interventions, whose unit costs are well above what governments can afford and whose supervision capacity cannot be replicated.


In some countries, girls face barriers to continuing their secondary education due to marriage traditions or stereotyped gender expectations. To counter these, many projects rely on NGOs for implementation and locally tailored solutions.

Since 2003, a community-based organization in Marsabit county, Kenya, has provided mentorships and scholarships to cover school fees, uniforms, education materials and transport costs for girls from the Gabra nomadic group. In the United Republic of Tanzania, the Girls Foundation provides training on financial literacy and leadership during school breaks (Oulo et al., 2021). In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, the Urban Girls’ Fellowship provided subsidies to private schools to increase girls’ enrolment from the province’s districts (Fennell, 2014).

Some projects target girls living in remote and rural areas. In Rwanda, Esther’s Initiative is a community-based organization that runs a sponsorship programme to keep rural adolescent girls in extreme poverty in school. Parental and community involvement is stimulated to challenge gender norms and raise awareness of the importance of girls’ education (Oulo et al., 2021). Educating Girls of Rural China, a Canadian NGO, has financially supported 700 girls since 2012 with about US$80 a month to complete secondary school and pursue tertiary education in rural western China. It also offers training on confidence building, mental health, career planning and personal development (EGRC, 2021).

NGOs also provide flexible learning programmes to aid pregnant girls and young mothers in completing their education. In 2021, the first private school for young mothers opened in Nairobi, Kenya, to provide them with a stigma-free space. Providing childcare services in the classroom, the school gives them a chance to continue and finish their education (Mulinya, 2021). In the United Republic of Tanzania, the Independent Study Programme consists of accelerated training to help students complete the secondary school curriculum in half the usual time. The programme offers classes with private teachers and quiet library space. Although it is aimed at all students, two thirds of the participants are girls and young women without access to formal school due to pregnancy and other factors (Oulo et al., 2021).

Groups left behind in education include transgender (Box 6) and indigenous students. The MAIA Impact School in Guatemala, created in 2017, is an indigenous-led secondary school for girls. It responds to the low quality of most education available to indigenous girls. The curriculum covers academic subjects, culture and identity, socioemotional development and family engagement, preparing girls to enter university. In partnership with donors, it also helps graduates continue their studies in higher education (MAIA Impact, 2021).

NGOs also support remedial learning interventions to help girls at risk of repeating or dropping out. Between 2015 and 2019, the Sang Sangai-Learning Together Project reached 23,000 girls and 7,000 of their mothers in Nepal through non-formal education to enhance their transition back to school and reduce dropout. Courses were provided for girls needing to catch up, covering basic literacy and numeracy, delivered in the students’ home language along with life and social skills. Mothers also participated in non-formal learning programmes focusing on literacy, art and financial literacy. The project included intergenerational activities where mothers and daughters shared what they learned together. The Equity in Education in Disadvantaged Districts project provided technical assistance to the government to replicate the model to reach an additional 25,000 out-of- school girls. Sang Sangai partner NGOs worked with parents, communities, local government and line agencies of the Ministry of Education to implement the project (World Education, 2021b).

Non-state actors took various approaches to support girls in continuing their education during the COVID-19 pandemic. In India, Room to Read, an international NGO, delivered worksheets and learning packets, remote individual mentoring sessions in emotional support, text messages and calls, support for educators and digital content for adolescent girls. Mercy Corps and Good Neighbors International used community radio to teach life skills in Nepal. In Ghana, community learning kiosks were set up to benefit children learning from home with few resources. The Somalia Girls’ Education Promotion Programme – Transition, implemented by CARE, an international NGO, worked with community members and teachers to follow up with families. It organized empowerment forums and girl-led activities to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on girls’ well-being (CARE, 2020).

Remedial interventions can be combined with sports or creative activities to make them more attractive for students. For example, Skateistan aims to provide safe places to build student resilience by combining skateboarding with creative education. The programme operates in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Cambodia, Jordan, Kenya and South Africa and operated in Afghanistan until 2021, addressing vulnerable children and young people aged 5 to 17 from poor households affected by displacement or disability or otherwise marginalized.

It runs five afternoons a week after public school hours, with girls-only sessions to bridge the gender divide. Skateboarding helps teach learners to identify risk, assess it and respond accordingly (Skateistan, 2021).

In Mozambique, which was struck by Cyclone Idai, an intervention implemented by World Education, an international NGO, consists of a life skills curriculum aligned with girls’ experiences, based on financial literacy, child rights, life planning, communication skills and career counselling. The programme also provides girls with scholarships for secondary school (World Education, 2021a).

Some programmes combine technical and vocational training with services that foster inclusion. In Nigeria, the ENGINE programme, run in partnership between communities, private actors and the government, supports 16,000 marginalized girls and women aged 17 to 23. In addition to providing literacy and numeracy skills, it offers technical and professional training, including how to set up a business through support to obtain government identity card registration and bank accounts, enabling access to capital (Oxford Policy Management, 2020). In Sierra Leone, Every Adolescent Girl Empowered and Resilient, a project run by the International Rescue Committee, targets 32,500 out-of-school and marginalized adolescent girls, focusing on those with disabilities. It aims to support transition into vocational and professional training through guidance in creating business plans and income-generating activities (Giuliano Sarr et al., 2020).

Egypt’s Neqdar Nesharek (We can participate) project, run by the Population Council, supported economically vulnerable women in 30 villages in seeking employment or starting a business. Its training activities cover life skills and business education, vocational skills, problem solving and civic engagement. The interventions reached 4,500 young women and resulted in positive and significant effects on business knowledge and labour market outcomes (ILO, 2017). In Ethiopia, the Supporting Transition of Adolescent Girls through Enhanced Systems project has assisted 61,000 marginalized girls in 127 primary schools and 17 secondary schools in rural areas to continue their education, including technical and vocational. The programme works jointly with government and local actors to develop teachers’ gender-responsive pedagogy capacity, directly support vulnerable girls with bursaries and school uniforms, and establish clubs which challenge traditional gender norms (Link Education International, 2019).


Non-state interventions in humanitarian crises focus on non-formal education, including alternative learning centres, accelerated teaching, temporary schools, mobile learning and distance learning intended to integrate students, especially girls, into the public education system (INEE and ACPHA, 2021). NGOs have the flexibility, responsiveness, adaptability, capacity and expertise required to work in challenging conditions.

Plan International, an international NGO, runs an accelerated learning programme, known as Primary School Access through Speed Schools, in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The accelerated nine-month programme helps girls and boys catch up on years of missed education before their integration back into the formal school system (Sadek, 2019). Geneva Global has run an accelerated programme in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region of Ethiopia (Akyeampong et al., 2018), and Oxfam has run one in South Sudan (Nicholson, 2018) with UNICEF support. Among several examples in Afghanistan (Box 7), the international NGO Children in Crisis ran accelerated learning programmes in informal settlements in Kabul, targeting early school leavers. It offered remedial classes for disadvantaged children enrolled in traditional schools but at risk of failure or dropout, along with literacy and tailoring classes for learners’ mothers and other women in the community, provision of community awareness sessions and self-help groups on saving money and obtaining loans for income-generating activities (Shah, 2019).


Source: GEM Report estimates available at the VIEW website,

Source: GEM Report estimates based on the 2015 Demographic and Health Survey available at the WIDE website,

Innovation in interventions is needed to overcome local constraints. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, UNICEF and CODEC, a local NGO, provided girls-only spaces to Rohingya refugees prevented from attending learning centres due to sociocultural norms restricting adolescent girls’ freedom and mobility. In these spaces, girls receive emotional support, mentorship, and critical literacy and problem-solving skills, and are encouraged to build social networks (INEE, 2021). Plan International uses Mobile Education Units, non-fixed spaces delivering education to internally displaced children in hard-to-reach areas or places lacking formal schools. Plan and Dubai Cares have provided emergency education to refugee and host community girls and boys in Uganda’s Adjumani and Yumbe districts. They also built single-sex latrines, provided gender-responsive teacher training and engaged boys as advocates for gender equality (Guglielmi et al., 2021).

The Kenya Equity in Education Project provided remedial education to girls living in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps at high risk of dropping out of grades 7 and 8 (WUSC, 2017). An evaluation found that remedial education was an adequate substitute for primary school in Kakuma and increased primary school attendance in Dadaab. However, as the effect on learning was positive only in food-secure households (C.A.C. International, 2020), World University Service of Canada adjusted the programme with complementary interventions to increase household food security.


The potential influence of non-state actors on gender equality is not limited to direct education service provision. For instance, they can influence other actors to place a stronger focus on STEM education for girls and can develop comprehensive sexuality education curricula or support governments in implementing them.

Promoting science and technology among girls is a common non-state activity

Non-state organizations often run initiatives and programmes on school and career counselling that help students make informed choices, free of gender bias, focusing on gender-sensitive learning materials and practices that reinforce the idea that women can join any profession. Mentoring activities and academic and career counselling help overcome norms and stereotypes about so-called male- and female-appropriate occupations.

Non-state actors can boost girls’ interest in science through classroom interventions and extracurricular activities, such as museum visits and contests. An evaluation of a programme that organized camps on artificial intelligence, robotics, programming skills and leadership skills training in Malawi, Namibia and Rwanda showed that it increased self-confidence and empathy among girls and that 78% of participants went on to pursue STEM subjects in tertiary education (Girl UP, 2021; Technovation, 2021).

The Visiola Foundation holds STEM Camp, a week-long residential programme, in selected African countries to develop girls’ interest in STEM fields from an early age. Through classroom coursework, practical team activities, games and group projects, students learn basic concepts in computer programming, science, math

and engineering. The foundation also delivers a similar programme for out-of-school girls by combining formal and informal instruction, and coding boot camps offer girls tools to build careers as computer programmers and tech entrepreneurs (Visiola Foundation, 2021).

AkiraChix runs an intensive, all-female vocational training programme in technology and computer programming called CodeHive. It works with young women from underserved communities in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The 10-month curriculum incorporates training on leadership, followed by internships (Oulo et al., 2021).

Some NGOs promote competitions in which girls find technological solutions to everyday problems, raising interest in entrepreneurship and STEM fields. For example, Technovation Girls is a contest for students aged 10 to 18 to develop mobile apps addressing problems in their communities. Since 2010, the programme has reached more than 50,000 girls in more than 100 countries, focusing on vulnerable groups. A recent survey showed that 58% of participants reported that the programme had exposed them to and increased interest and confidence in the pursuit of computer science, related academic disciplines and real-world technology applications (Technovation, 2021).

In 2015, Johnson & Johnson launched Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing and Design, an employee volunteer programme to mentor girls through creative, inquiry-driven learning and play in Brazil, Ireland, Japan and the United States. The programme sought to inspire and motivate students while providing them with networking opportunities to develop their careers. The company partners with schools and higher education institutions, non-profit partners and government agencies, focusing on girls, female university students and early-career female professionals (FHI360, 2020).

The US-based Cheryl Saban Self-Worth Foundation grants secondary school and college scholarships and develops STEM, computer science and teacher training programmes to close the gender gap in these study areas (EGER, 2021b). Zonta International offers scholarships to female students of any nationality pursuing careers in business and information technology. It awards the Amelia Earhart Fellowship to women pursuing doctorates in aerospace engineering and space sciences (Zonta International, 2021).

Non-state actors can support or undermine comprehensive sexuality education efforts

Comprehensive sexuality education promotes knowledge about various aspects of sexuality, sexual behaviour, pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections; it also fosters questioning of established gender norms and creation of safe learning spaces. Across 155 countries, 85% have policies or legal frameworks on sexuality education (UNESCO et al., 2021). But implementing comprehensive sexuality education programmes requires support from school staff, students, parents, community leaders and NGOs. In Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya and Peru, comprehensive sexuality education curricula are mainly delivered by NGOs (Keogh et al., 2018; Wangamati, 2020).

In China, Marie Stopes, an international NGO, developed an internet-based and teacher-facilitated platform giving adolescent students access to free, standardized comprehensive sexuality education (Jin et al., 2021)in rural areas (Jin et al., 2021). In India, Iesha Learning has promoted tailored sexuality education courses in schools, with a particular focus on preventing sexual violence by boys and developing a positive masculine identity (Coley et al., 2021). In Jharkhand, the government partnered with NGOs to include comprehensive sexuality education in school textbooks and teacher education (UNESCO, 2021c). In Kenya, Dandelion Africa works with schools to teach rural family planning and promote HIV testing (Oulo et al., 2021).

Despite challenges related to conceptions of morality, faith-based organizations can be powerful actors in some countries to frame sexuality education, as they run health and education facilities and, more importantly, enjoy the trust of their communities. In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Baptist Community of the Congo has organized a five-day training workshop for education officers, teachers, pastors, health workers, youth workers and women’s association members about sexual violence in the church’s schools. The programme was based in the North Kivu region, where churches run 75% of the schools. Discussions using scriptures and exploring power dynamics and justice led to interventions addressing sexual violence in the schools (Beasley et al., 2010).

Parents, religious leaders and teachers can also challenge provision of comprehensive sexuality education

Many non-state actors can block progress where social and cultural norms and values do not support sexuality education. Parental opposition to such curricula is present in many countries for diverse reasons. For instance, parents may consider sexuality issues private and believe only family members should teach children about them (Wangamati, 2020). In some cases, household attitudes are strongly shaped by misconceptions about the content of sexuality education, fearing that it promotes promiscuity or sexual activity (Keogh et al., 2018). Demonstrating and promoting condom use and talking about homosexuality and abortion are sensitive or taboo and often opposed by parents, who in most cases support abstinence (Wekesah et al., 2019).

Parental concerns, which are higher among those who have no education or live in rural areas, are also related to the age at which children receive comprehensive sexuality education. Parents in Ghana and Zambia do not favour providing sexuality education in lower primary grades, considering students to be too young to be exposed to such content. In Ethiopia, parents suggested an age-structured curriculum with abstinence-only programmes for younger students and contraception discussion for secondary students (Wekesah et al., 2019). A prevalent culture of silence surrounding sexuality in Nigeria has led to an approach to sexuality education that avoids controversy and respects cultural norms on topics such as abortion (Mukoro, 2017).

Community backlash impedes effective programme implementation. In Uganda, where religious leaders expressed concerns about the content of sexuality education proposed by the government, the revised curriculum ended up including moralistic language. In Zambia, after religious leaders noted that some sexuality education topics were in opposition to Christian teachings and national values, a participative consultation process was developed, bringing on board religious leaders to raise awareness of the importance of sexuality education and disseminate information among their followers. The engagement of parents’ and teachers’ associations was also vital in understanding their viewpoints and adapting the programme to their expectations (Wekesah et al., 2019).

In the Netherlands, where Catholic schools are state-owned and funded, citizenship education, including sexuality education, has been mandatory since 2006. However, schools have the ultimate say on how they deliver it within the curriculum. Reformatorische scholen, faith-based schools located in a conservative part of the country, reportedly applied admission policies explicitly discriminating against same-sex relationships and highlighting the Biblical distinction between men and women. Some of the schools required parents to sign a declaration that a non-heterosexual way of life was contrary to God’s word and hence to be rejected. If the document was not signed before admission, their children’s admittance was denied (de Nies and van Bree, 2020). Advocacy organizations took this case to the House of Representatives, as such school measures prevent a safe school climate for students. In March 2021, eight political parties and COC Netherlands, a national NGO promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, signed the Rainbow Ballot Agreement, which included provisions on a safer school climate for teachers and students (NOS, 2021).

In England (United Kingdom), tensions often emerge between national curriculum requirements and faith-based schools, including on sexuality education. A report on over 600 faith-based state secondary schools (Catholic, Church of England, Muslim and Jewish) found that in two thirds, sex and relationship education was taught according to religious principles, including that sex outside a religious marriage was wrong, that divorce was not recognized and that homosexuality was wrong (National Secular Society, 2018). In Birmingham, a textbook from an unregistered Islamic school advocated killing homosexuals (Titheradge, 2018). In Texas (United States), a Catholic school student handbook threatened to expel transgender students. The manual reproved any students expressing and celebrating homosexuality (Sauers and Mendoza, 2021).

During the long debate on Argentina’s abortion law, some Catholic schools required parents to sign a statement opposing the law and accepting that sexuality education would be based on Catholic principles. Parents also reported schools using education material that justified gender-based violence and undermined women. The texts promoted the concept of men as breadwinners, their role as household heads and the need for spouses to be submissive. These education materials also highlighted the belief that men were more intelligent than women and portrayed women as emotional and less capable (Giubergia, 2018).

Non-state actors support menstrual hygiene management in vulnerable contexts

In countries with stigma around menstruation, girls miss school several days a month. NGOs help adolescent girls feel safe at school during menstrual days. In Uganda, the Smart Girls Foundation delivers a kit consisting of a backpack, reusable sanitary towels, a menstrual pad sewing kit and an information booklet on menstrual health management to rural girls aged 12 to 17. The foundation partners with local governments and involves parents and the community (UNFPA, 2021a). In Malawi and the United Republic of Tanzania, the governments have distributed a menstrual hygiene booklet with the support of UN agencies and NGOs. Finn Church Aid, in partnership with UNICEF, distributes sanitary pads at schools and delivers education about menstruation (EGER, 2021f).

Some countries regulate the provision of menstrual hygiene products in public and private schools. In Zimbabwe, the Education Amendment Act 2020 requires all schools to meet minimum requirements on water, sanitation and hygiene, including sanitary wear and menstrual health aids. The amendment also provides sexual and reproductive health personnel at all schools. Non-state actors, such as WASH United, advocate for making menstrual products affordable by eliminating taxes on tampons, pads, menstrual cups and period panties.

The Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition is a global partnership of public, private and non-governmental organizations aiming to ensure that all women in low- and middle-income countries have access to and can use affordable, high-quality supplies to ensure better reproductive health. However, only 25 countries zero-rate or exempt menstrual products from tax, 18 countries tax with a reduced rate and 142 tax these products at standard rates (PeriodTax, 2021).

Beyond the provision of supplies, feeling safe at school during menstrual days also means counting on girls-only spaces where female students can learn about menstruation-related topics and resolve their doubts. NGOs have established support groups in Kenya and Malawi where girls can discuss these issues so as to prevent school dropout, early pregnancy and child marriage (Tellier and Hyttel, 2017).


Non-state actors bring gender equality issues to national agendas. Feminist movements have generated meaningful change in education systems. Student organizations and feminist groups in Latin America have advocated for non-sexist education in universities and the end of gender-based violence in education institutions. Protests to end discriminatory practices have taken place in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. In addition to petitioning, students have publicly denounced sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination from professors, staff and classmates (Suárez-Cao and Arellano, 2019).

Such social movements have led to gender issues being prioritized, and many universities have started developing protocols against sexual violence on campuses (Dinamarca-Noack and Trujillo-Cristoffanini, 2021; Education International, 2018). Some institutions have established diversity offices and endorsed non-sexist education (Suárez-Cao and Arellano, 2019). Others have set up mechanisms to handle complaints related to sexual violence. For example, the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaíso in Chile has formed an interdisciplinary committee to prevent, follow up on and punish harassment, violence and discrimination (Linhares et al., 2021).

Non-state actors promote gender equality by generating evidence. When data at national level are scarce, NGOs can make a difference by providing qualitative and quantitative information that allow decision-makers to reach informed decisions. Resources range from surveys on school climate, violence and discrimination to programme evaluation and documentation of good practices. Feminae Carta, a digital advocacy tool created by NGOs, provides activists with the research they need to speak out for girls’ and women’s rights and convince leaders about the importance of investing in gender equality (The World With MNR, 2021).

Academic centres and foundations also collaborate on evidence generation to tackle harmful gender norms in education programmes. Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms, a digital platform, is led by the Overseas Development Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to collect evidence on good practices for combating barriers to girls’ education (Yotebieng, 2021).

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer & Intersex Youth and Student Organisation (IGLYO) carried out the LGBTQI Inclusive Education Study to examine the experiences of LGBTQI youth and explore the situation in European schools. In Scotland (United Kingdom), an LGBTI Inclusive Education Working Group was established in 2017 to improve young people’s learning experience. The group made recommendations to the government, after which Scotland’s education system became the first to include LGBTI-inclusive education across the school curriculum (UNESCO and IGLYO, 2021). In Chile, a 2017 circular on inclusion of transgender students in schools responded to demands from transgender students’ parents and NGOs that sought support from the Ministry of Education. The circular stated that schools must support students’ self-perceived gender identity, provide safe access to bathrooms and respect whatever uniform a student considers appropriate to their gender identity (Barrientos and Lovera, 2020).

Unions advocate for teachers’ well-being in the workplace

Teacher unions’ efforts to make education workplaces more gender friendly include promoting action on gender-based violence against women teachers and staff, developing and implementing codes of conduct and promoting representation of female leaders in trade union structures.

To build a culture of equality, women in the Ethiopia Teachers Association and the Uganda National Teachers’ Union received training on confidence and leadership to encourage them to run for leadership positions. In Ethiopia, the campaign increased the number of women elected (UNGEI et al., 2018). Unions in Croatia and Serbia also delivered training programmes to encourage women to apply for leadership positions (Pavlovaite and Weber, 2019).

Some unions partner with government to generate policy reforms. The Bulgarian Union of Teachers worked with the government towards criminalization of teacher harassment, resulting in a reduction of violence at work (Pavlovaite and Weber, 2019). Latin American unions are campaigning to promote ratification of ILO Convention 190 on eliminating violence and harassment at work (Education International, 2021). The Zambian National Teachers Union joined the government in designing a new code of ethics for the teaching profession, adopted in 2018 (UNGEI et al., 2018).

Teacher unions in the United Kingdom have developed projects to challenge gender stereotypes in learning materials. For example, the National Education Union (NEU) worked with primary schools to identify discriminatory gender norms in nursery and primary school classrooms. The union provided schools with children’s books that helped challenge gender stereotypes. The textbooks, available online, address various gender-related issues and provide guidelines for teachers on using the contents.

Christelijk Onderwijzersverbond (Christian Teacher Union) in Belgium raises awareness of the use of gender stereotypes by colleagues and members. The Education and Science Trade Union of Slovenia organizes workshops on challenges and problems LGBTI students and staff face to improve knowledge among kindergarten and school employees. Spain’s Confederación de Sindicatos de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores de la Enseñanza Intersindical (Confederation of Education Workers’ Unions) provides gender-sensitive material to help teachers work on such issues in the classroom. It proposes activities for all educational levels to raise awareness and educate students on gender-based violence (ETUCE, 2021a).

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation has an LGBT+ Teachers’ Group campaigning on equality legislation. The union also encourages classes and teachers to explore LGBT+ and other family diversity in the classroom. It surveys members about experiences of LGBTI teachers in schools and awareness of LGBTI teacher issues. It has designed an online professional development course for members, Creating an LGBT+ Inclusive School, comprising five modules on identities and visibility, gender non-conformity and gender transition, preventing and dealing with bullying and creating inclusive classrooms and schools (ETUCE, 2021b).

In the United Kingdom, the NASUWT union promotes inclusion of LGBTI teaching staff through consultative conference events for LGBTI members, allowing them to participate and contribute to the union’s work to ensure that its policies, practices and campaigns consider gender identity and expression issues. The NEU provides support and guidance to transgender educators. The Trans Equality Toolkit offers comprehensive information for education staff on gender transitioning in school, including detailed explanation of processes, rights of trans teachers in all schools and support through union representatives. The union also offers guidelines for teachers on how to create an inclusive school climate for transgender students (NEU, 2021).