Investment in Girls’ Education: Spelling Out the Bottom Line

Access and Inclusion October 16, 2013
It seems self-evident that a girl should have the same chance of schooling as a boy. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any mainstream policy maker speaking out (openly at least) against a principle that is all about fair play. Gender equity in primary education has been a globally agreed target since 2000, endorsed by world leaders through the Millennium Development Goals. It is embedded in most national education strategies, with governments of all political colours backing it to the hilt. The handful of extremists who oppose girls’ education are seen, quite rightly, as the lunatic fringe. 
Humanity is, for the most part, united on this issue. And the world, as a whole, has achieved parity in primary education between girls and boys over the past two decades, as have a number of the poorest countries that had the furthest to travel. 
But this global triumph masks the fact that education remains elusive for too many girls, in too many regions and countries. Girls still account for 32 million of those children out of school – more than 50% of the total. In the Arab States, this rises to more than 60%. In at least 63 countries around the world, girls from poor households are far less educated than any other group. In Nigeria, for instance, poor women from rural areas have, on average, only 2.6 years of education, compared to the nine years enjoyed by wealthy urban women. 
The question is why? Why, despite such impressive global progress on girls’ education over the past two decades, are so many girls still lagging behind?   
I see three key reasons.
First, this is about a failure to do enough, fast enough, to erase the stubborn discrimination that keeps girls out of school. Clearly, it’s not easy to root out the hard-wired but often covert discrimination that still keeps many girls out of the classroom. Our efforts to change age-old behaviour and mind-sets must be unrelenting, and girls’ education is, of course, one of the most effective ways to end discrimination – but only if the girls are in school.
Second, we can’t sit and wait for a sea-change in attitudes towards girls and women. We need to do the basics, right now, to get girls into the classroom. We need, for example, more women teachers. Put simply, girls are more likely to go to school, stay in school and do well in school, if their school has female teachers. We also need girls to be safe on their way to school, at school and on their way home – an issue highlighted for International Women’s Day this year. Fears for their safety keep too many girls at home. 
We can look to the countries that have turned to tide on girls’ education to see what works.  Look at Bangladesh, where only 33% of girls were enrolled in school back in 1970.  And Ethiopia, which has not only increased primary and secondary enrolment by more than 500% since 1994, it has aimed to do this with equity
When Burkina Faso joined the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in 2002, its primary school completion rate for girls was one of the lowest in Africa. Since 2002, girls’ enrolment has risen by more than 70%, with similar increases in the percentage of girls who go on to secondary school. School meals and information campaigns have helped. But there has also been support for mothers associations and for quotas that require 50% of pupils to be girls. Women teachers have gone to areas with low girls’ enrolment and all teachers have been sensitized to the specific needs of girls in school. Stereotypical images of girls have been erased from curricula and textbooks, and girls receive incentives such as food rations, as well as prizes for attendance. Practical approaches, backed by political will and adequate resources – that is what makes the difference.  
In 2009, more than two-thirds of girls in GPE partner countries completed the last grade of primary school, compared to just over half in 2002. Our Strategic Plan for 2012-2015 includes a specific objective on girls’ education:  “All girls in GPE-endorsed countries successfully complete primary school and go to secondary school in a safe, supportive learning environment”, and we are throwing our energies behind that.  
Finally, we need to speak the language of policy-makers. Those of us in the education community tend to think and talk in rights language. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it may not necessarily resonate with hard-pressed policy-makers. 
We need to walk in their shoes. They are pulled in a hundred different directions, who must satisfy hundreds of different stakeholders, and who have to keep a sharp eye on the fiscal bottom line. Of course, we must continue to promote the value of girls’ education as a life-changer, and very often a life-saver. But alongside that, we need to get better at making the investment case for girls’ education. 
So let’s shout louder about that all-important bottom line. 
Fact: An educated female population increases a country’s productivity and fuels economic growth. There is vast evidence to show that countries with better gender equality and less gender disparity in primary and secondary education are more likely to have higher economic growth. Some countries lose more than $1 billion a year by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys. 
Fact: Every extra year of education for a girl increases her future income by between 10 and 20%. And women invest 90% of their incomes in their households – so the families of educated women are less likely to be poor.
Fact: at regional level: in sub-Saharan Africa investing in the education of girls could boost agricultural output by up to 25%.    
Fact: According to a World Bank study, mothers with at least four years of schooling have around one third fewer children than mothers with no schooling – a crucial issue for sustainable development, given the impact of population growth on our planet’s resources. 
In short, women who have fewer and healthier children are more likely to find paid work outside the home. Higher incomes can lead to higher savings, and a greater willingness to invest in the education of your children, who – because they are healthy – are better able to succeed at school. This helps to build the educated, healthy and productive workforce that is the backbone of economic growth and sustainable development.  And that attracts investment. 
Now that, surely, is a good enough bottom line for anyone.