Millennium Development Goal #3

The World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA) is a global nonprofit organization representing and coordinating a membership of over 100 national United Nations Associations.

Main Target

Progress Report: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably in 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.

Indicators for Monitoring Progress

3.1 Ratios of girls to boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education
3.2 Share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector
3.3 Proportion of seats held by women in national parliament



Often times one of the most overlooked and underestimated in its long term effects, MDG3 offers regions a direct way to improve their Gross Domestic Product, lower infant mortality, increase the amount of microloans within their countries, reduce unwanted pregnancy and reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, among many others. The benefits are numerous and span across every sector, and come from empowering women within their communities. It is projected that a young girl who has  reached the fifth grade can leave deep lasting impacts on herself and her family, including better health management and thoughtful financial skills. Internationally, women are vastly favoured over men when it comes to granting microloans, as women are not only more likely to invest in their families but are three times more likely than men to repay their loans on time. On the same note, an educated woman is less likely to die from pregnancy and have a healthy baby as she will seek medical aid sooner than an uneducated woman and be more aware of the warning signs and solutions that surround malnutrition and illness. A healthier infant means that that child will be more likely to attend school and achieve employment later in life.

When measuring the progress made by regions for this MDG, the United Nations reports consider gender parity to be reached when out of 100 boys (or girls), 97-103 girls (or boys) also attend that given institution. Currently, progress has been made in every region for each target under MDG3. Most notably, and something that should be considered by the reader, is that while girls and women have made huge strides in education on every level worldwide (with girls now outnumbers boys in university in the United States), those numbers are not reflected in the number of women in parliament, especially in developed nations.

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Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably in 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.

Progress Report 

Ratios of girls to boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education

  • In 2009, globally for every 100 boys, 96 girls were enrolled in primary and secondary education compared to 91 girls for every 100 boys in primary education and 88 girls out of 100 boys in secondary in 1991.
  • Only Caucasus, Central Asia, Latin American, the Caribbean and South East Asia have achieved gender parity in elementary education, with Eastern Asia actually having slightly more girls in primary education than boys. On the other end, North Africa, Oceania, South Asia, West Asia and Sub- Saharan Africa are farthest from reaching gender parity in primary education.
  • Secondary education shows different progress, with gender parity being achieved in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Northern Africa and South-East Asia. The farthest from this target are Oceania, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia. 
  • University level education shows both the highest and lowest percentage of women worldwide, depending on the region. The whole of the developing world is high; out of 100 boys, 97 girls are attending tertiary education.  But it is only Eastern Asia and Northern Africa who have fully achieved gender parity.
  • It is believed that university level participation is skewed by the social norms and practices that different areas hold:  it has been found that there is favoritism for males to attend university over females in Oceania, South Asia, West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, whereas the Caucasus, Central Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and South East Asia show favour towards females attending university level education over their male counterparts. 


  • Poverty is the main cause of unequal access to education in a majority of regions, especially when looking at access to secondary school for girls. The responsibility of working to provide for their family, lack of sanitation facilities at the schools and often not being allowed to attend higher education while pregnant are all equally  difficult for poorer girls to overcome.
  • Likewise, there is often a stigma where families do not see the need to educate their girls at any level higher past primary school, as marriage may sometimes take a front seat in their priorities.
  • Poorer women are twice as unlikely to attend secondary school as their wealthier counterparts

Successful Programs

  • Secondary School stipends in Bangladesh have raised the number of girls in secondary school in the areas the program covered up from 33% in 1991, leaving the percentage of girls in secondary school enrollment at 56% in 2006. The
    program covers the tuition and school costs only if they enroll in secondary education and remain unmarried until they’re 18 years old. 

Share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector

  • Men drastically outnumber women in paid employment, leaving women to work in vulnerable employment, characterized by inadequate health care, dangerous work situations and unfair pay.
  • Globally, the share of women in non-agricultural paid employment is up from 35% in 1990 to around 40% in 2009. Progress has since slowed down due to the economic crisis.
  • South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have seen the greatest improvement but employment of women in formal sectors has stayed below 20%. Equally as stagnant is the situation in North Africa, which has been unchanged since 1990 and West Asia where less than one out of five paid jobs outside agriculture sector are held by women.
  • The global financial crisis in 2008-09 saw unemployment rise worldwide, but with the start of the economic recovery, unemployment began to decrease for both genders. But the rate declined much faster for men than it did for women, who’s unemployment rate was already higher than that of men. This suggests that the gap between male and female unemployment will not decrease in the near future.
  • When women are employed, they are often paid less, and have less financial and social security than men.


Successful Programs

  • Adopted in Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica and Egypt, “Gender Seals” are given to private firms if they meet specific gender standards. These include career advancement, training and reducing sexual harassment. By 2006, in Mexico 116 companies had received the seal.      

Proportion of seats held by women in national parliament

  • By the end of January 2011, women held 19.3% of the seats in the single or lower house of government parliaments, which is an all-time high. On the other hand, it is extremely slow progress, considering the world average for women holding government positions sat at 11.6% in 1995.
  • Extremely large disparities are found when looking at women in the political realm internationally. In 2011, women made up 30% of members of lower houses of parliament in 25 countries, 7 countries had 40% or more of their lower houses with women representatives.

  • On the same note, some countries are extremely successful in both upper and lower houses in parliament in seeking gender parity: Rwanda (56.3%), Sweden (45%), South Africa (44.5%) and Cuba (43.2%). This should be directly compared to 48 countries that have less than 10% of women in lower of single houses and 9 countries that have no women in parliament at any level. Those countries are: Belize, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
  • North Africa saw the biggest progress with women joining parliament, with an increase of increase from 9 to 11.77 in single or lower houses. Western Asia has also seen a steady rise with women joining parliament, rising from 4.2% in 2000 to 8.9% in 2010 to eventually 9.4% in 2011.
  • Currently, there are 17 countries with women as heads of government, heads of state or both. This is nearly double the amount from 2005.

The Success of Quotas?

  • A large degree of the progress made by women in this arena are very dependent on special measures, like quotas, to ensure a certain amount of seats are reserved for women in government.
  • Jordan, for example, has 13 women in their lower house and 9 women in their upper house, largely thanks to a strengthened quota system. Likewise, Burundi saw female representation increase to 32.1% from 30.5% in 2005 largely due to a quota system.
  • But are quotas really that successful in increasing female participation in parliament? Sao Tome and Principe saw a rise of 7.3% in 2006 to 18.2% in 2010 without any quotas in place.
  • Most of the time, quotas are taken on by legislative bodies or on a voluntary basis by political parties. Overall, quotas are a very influential predictor of how women will do in upcoming elections – 67% of the 43 lower houses with 30% or more women members had quotas in place during elections.
  • Overall, quotas are not the only factors that affect women’s success in the political arena in certain regions, but the social norms also play a role . Women in areas with less  parliamentary representatives are often less trained and  less financially stable, leading most women to not run in elections, and when they do, they get less media attention and coverage than their male counterparts during elections.
  • More information on the use of quotas in elections, including the pros and cons - Read more  

  • Do Arab Women Need Electoral Quotas? - Read more






“The Millennium Development Goals Report 2011”, the United Nations, June 2011.

“We Can End Poverty 2015 – Fact Sheet”, UN Department of Public Information, September 2010.

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