Girls’ Empowerment through Language and Literacy (GELL)

A Landscape Review of Gender and Literacy Research in African Contexts

Author: Jennifer. A. Thompson, McGill University
Editor: Dr. Claudia Mitchell, McGill University
Report commissioned by CODE, July 2017

Executive Summary

Context: Framed within the context of the global Girls’ Education movement, this review marks the shift from the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) focus on access to education to the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) questions about educational quality. To date, gender and literacy research about African contexts tends to focus on statistical surveys that map out reading achievement scores. Findings highlight intersections between wealth, gender, and location, with the largest literacy disparities between girls from marginalized and low-income households in rural areas and boys from privileged and high-income households in urban areas. However, when it comes to more specific pedagogical questions regarding gender and what works to support and strengthen the literacy practices of girls and boys in different contexts, there is a paucity of research. This gap offers important opportunities for establishing a meaningful gender and literacy research agenda.

Objectives: This review has two broad objectives: 1) to present an overview of literature in the area of gender and literacy, with a specific focus on African contexts; and 2) to identify possible directions for research to inform CODE activities, with particular emphasis on the feminist approach and action areas identified in Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy as well as the areas outlined in SDG 4 (Quality Education) and 5 (Gender Equality). Prioritizing peer-reviewed scholarship, this review located sources through a range of search strategies (academic databases, NGO websites, bibliographies, and personal networks).

Theoretical framework: Two theoretical developments inform the review. First, thinking about what is known as new literacies expands understandings of literacy beyond discrete skill sets for decoding texts and considers literacy as a social practice that also includes the role, meanings, and social relations related to literacies in everyday life. Second, feminist approaches to empowerment recognize the systemic nature of gender oppression, with inequalities deeply embedded within social structures and norms that intersect with other forms of difference such as class, ethnicity, ability, and age. Carefully nuanced approaches need to respond to context and involve communities in participatory ways.

Major Areas of Study in Gender and Literacy: Key Findings

I) Policy environment: An array of policy instruments promotes gender equality and shapes the structural aspects of girls’ education from international conventions to national education policies. Many countries have developed sophisticated gender machinery for mainstreaming gender in education policies, programs, and projects, including women’s and gender ministries, national girls’ education strategies, and gender focal point positions. However, limited research reports on the impact, cumulative effect, and interactions of these policies and structures in relation to literacy in girls’ and boys’ lives.

II) Teaching, learning and literacy practices: Very limited gender research explores literacy as a social practice, and what happens in relation to literacy and language learning both inside and outside classrooms. Bilingual models that include early mother tongue education are positioned positively, particularly for girls from rural areas and disadvantaged communities. Also, the role of teachers cannot be minimized; in rural areas, it may be the teacher who is the main literate person. Teachers are therefore key agents of change in classrooms and need to play a central role in the design and implementation of gender- and context-responsive pedagogies. Yet not enough is known about the gendered differences in the reading and writing practices of either young people or teachers, or the relationships between the literacy practices of students and teachers. Young people and teachers must be positioned as both consumers and producers of various textual forms, in particular, in the contemporary digital age.

III) Gender and learning materials: While gender bias in textbooks was identified as an issue several decades ago, research indicates the existence of ongoing gender bias in learning materials. Most research reports on gender bias, specifically in textbooks, in both quantitative and qualitative aspects of representation. Smaller bodies of scholarship conduct a gender analysis of other learning materials, such as children’s storybooks and young adult literature. Very limited research addresses how young people engage with gender issues in and through various types of texts. Lastly, the review indicates that women are poorly represented in the publishing industry and little is known about how gender is taken up in materials development.

IV) Emerging literacies for social change: To support gender equality and girls’ empowerment, research emphasizes comprehensive sexuality education, beginning in primary school, as a critical approach for addressing and transforming social norms related to gender, sexuality, and sexual and reproductive health. More research is needed in the areas of how health and sexual literacies relate to reading and writing practices, and empowerment. As key agents of change in classrooms, teachers play a central role in the design and implementation of critical pedagogies that address rather than reinforce dominant gender norms. Participatory and learner-centered pedagogies show promise in this area.

V) Gender-responsive schools: School environments play an important role in shaping girls’ and boys’ learning experiences. Key findings indicate that gendered inequalities are often ingrained in the structure and culture of schooling; the gendered aspects of the school environment include many different areas, including school policies, toilets and menstrual health management, women teachers, mentors, and leaders, in-school support systems for girls, extra-curricular activities such as clubs and children’s play, inclusive education frameworks, and attention to boys’ education and achievements. Transforming the school environment means integrating inclusive forms of school governance and addressing how inequalities are often normalized through everyday practices and routines. Much research to date focuses particularly on combating gender-based and sexual violence in schools, and calls for gender-responsive, child-friendly, and whole-school approaches to schooling. Limited research explores the implications of the school environment for literacy and language learning.

Eight Promising Areas for Further Research in the Area of Gender and Literacy

1) Gender, literacy and the policy environment. Research needs to be done on the relationship between policy and practice, and the difference the policy environment makes in relation to girls’ empowerment, school experiences, and literacies. This area includes questions about policy impact, policy implementation, and from-the-ground-up approaches that create opportunities for girls and boys, women and men, to speak back to policy.

2) The literacy practices of girls and boys in school and beyond. There is a need for more nuanced and contextualized understandings of literacy practices and how young people engage with and produce various forms of text. This research area might explore the different reading and writing practices of girls and boys, genre preferences and how they develop, and how gender identities are expressed and produced through different forms of literacy. Given how very little research into new literacies has explored literacy practices in African contexts, this research area might also explore the gendered nature of literacies in multilingual contexts, and how changing digital technologies shape literacy practices.

3) Gender and reading materials. Research needs to address how the specific reading and viewing content of different texts and genres might focus on themes and issues related to gender and social change. This research needs to explore the responses of different readers to various textual genres, and how to ensure the appropriateness of texts in gender-responsive teaching. This area should include work on understudied questions about the gendered nature of materials development, and how different actors negotiate the issue of gender in publishing processes.

4) Gender, literacy, and teacher education. Few studies have focused on what is happening in teacher education in relation to girls’ and women’s empowerment. There is a need to study what is known about gender and the literacy practices of pre-service and in-service teachers, with specific attention being paid to the needs and experiences of women teachers. This research area might identify and develop programs that support pre-service or in-service teachers as readers and writers. This includes exploring how pre-service and in-service teachers become agents of change in promoting literacies in school, and why and when teachers adopt pedagogical change.

5) Sexual health literacies. Although this area goes beyond what is traditionally seen as literacy, if girls’ empowerment is to be central to literacy agendas, it is critical to consider their health and well-being. Limited research explores questions about gender, literacy, and empowerment in relation to sexual health. What does literacy have to do with sexual health education? This area might explore the literacies of young people and teachers in relation to various sexual health texts, as well as in peer education programs and in participatory curriculum development.

6) Gender, literacy, and the school environment. How can gender-responsive, whole-school, and child-friendly approaches make a difference in relation to supporting girls and boys as actors and knowers through literacy? School environment research might explore distinct areas such as governance and the experiences, capacities, and challenges of schools in developing new approaches, as well as how infrastructure and access to basic services intersect with and shape literacy practices and empowerment. Research might also explore the role of women teachers, mentors, and leaders and how best to support them. Given the understudied relationship between gender, disability, and literacy, what might an inclusive social justice framework for literacy learning look like? School environment research might also examine, from a holistic or systems perspective, how these different types of interventions work together.

7) Literacies and girls’ clubs. Given the widespread use of girls’ clubs and gender clubs as an intervention to support girls’ education and support gender empowerment, research needs to explore how such clubs matter in relation to how literacy affects empowerment. Very little scholarly study explores girls’ clubs and gender clubs in Africa. Given the insufficiency of work in this area, research might study how different clubs promote different types of literacy practices, the structures of collectives, groups, and networks, the ways in which clubs influence social connectedness or exclusion, and what happens when club participants get older.

8) Literacies, puberty education, and menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Given the fundamental role of MHM in supporting girls’ education, sexual and reproductive health, and their empowerment, the relationship between MHM and literacies is critically understudied. Gender and literacy research in the area of puberty education and MHM is linked to concerns about educational quality and outcomes that have sexual and reproductive health goals. Research in this area might address questions about how books on puberty (called Puberty Readers) intersect with policy and curricula, sanitary facilities, and comprehensive approaches to sexual health education. Little is known, for example, about the role of teachers, principals, administrators, and teacher education programs in supporting and improving MHM in schools, and how this could be strengthened. Additional research that includes the perspectives and voices of girls and boys in the design and development of culturally appropriate and relevant education on puberty and MHM is also needed.


The full 150-page report is available to download as a PDF


CODE’s ‘Context Matters’ Research Grant

Establishing an African Research Agenda in Language and Literacy
Application deadline: May 21, 2018

Call for Submissions

The full 150-page report is available to download as a PDF