On International Women’s Day, I would like to celebrate the ways in which the world has improved for women and girls. In many countries, primary and secondary school enrollment rates are the same for boys and girls. Two-thirds of all countries have reached gender parity in primary enrollment. Globally, however, 62 million girls between the age of six and 15 are not in school, and girls continue to lag substantially behind boys in secondary completion rates. Beyond education, women on average are living longer, healthier lives. But despite the progress made in recent years, women’s share of economic and political power is far from equal to men’s.
Why focus on education today? Because education is not only a human right, education is a powerful tool for women’s empowerment. We know there is a multiplier effect to educating girls. Adolescent girls in particular have much to gain from education. Those who complete secondary education are likely to earn a greater income over their lifetimes, to have fewer unwanted pregnancies, to provide better health care and education to their own children, and to break cycles of poverty within families and communities. Most policymakers would agree that no country can lift itself out of poverty or achieve its potential when half its citizens are denied equal rights and opportunities.
Education empowers voice and agency. Educated women develop skills, knowledge and are empowered to claim their rights. This allows them to make free and informed decisions. Low educational attainment, for example, is among the many compounding factors for being subject to abusive behavior. Education can play a critical role in shifting norms and behaviors around domestic violence to emphasize prevention.
Education is also an effective avenue to prevent early marriage. The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be married before the age of 18 and have children during her teenage years. Unfortunately, child marriage in developing countries remains pervasive. One-third of girls are married before age 18. That’s 39,000 girls each day, with 1 in 9 marrying before age 15. World Bank estimates suggest that every year of early marriage significantly reduces the probability of girls completing secondary school.
Let’s also not forget that a major barrier to the achievement of quality education for girls is the existence of gender-based violence in and around schools. Parental concerns about girls’ safety in school and while traveling to and from school appear to lower female school enrollment in settings such as South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This violence includes sexual harassment, assault and bullying perpetrated by other students, out of school youth, teachers, school administrators, and others. According to South African data, teachers were the most common perpetrators of the rape of girls under age 15 (one-third of cases).
WISE Infographics- 2015 (Focus- Gender Gap) 5
Access to quality education is important for everyone, but for girls is paramount. Over the years, many countries have experimented with multi-sectoral approaches to overcome these infrastructure and cultural barriers. For example,
- Providing scholarships or cash transfers to girls. Bangladesh pioneered these decades ago to make schooling more affordable for girls and indirectly reduce child marriage.
- Hiring more female teachers. Yemen did a great job in this area, especially by training and hiring hundreds of female teachers to work in rural areas who can be positive role models for girls.
- Reducing distance to schools, especially in areas where safety is an issue for girls, by building more schools or improving public transportation.
- Building separate toilet blocks for adolescent boys and girls in schools.
And as already mentioned, ensuring that girls do not have to marry early.
Educating girls means more than just learning to read, write and count. It means empowering girls and women and investing in our next generation to improve living conditions and break the vicious cycle of poverty.