Globally, some 258 million children are out of school, and at risk of abuse or early marriage. A majority of those not in education are female. This is a truly shocking statistic, especially when we are so privileged to live in a nation which puts so much emphasis and value on education for all.
Every day, girls face barriers to education caused by poverty, cultural norms and practices, poor infrastructure, violence and fragility. But we can change this narrative. Education changes lives, simply put.
Wars, ignorance and a lack of education among parents all exacerbate the problem, and in more recent times, the pandemic. In countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries.
As Rebecca Winthrop, senior fellow and director of the Center for Universal Education at Brookings Institution, the non-profit public policy organisation, put it: “Girls’ education really is quite unique in terms of interventions you can do. Not because it’s a silver bullet; there are no such things as silver bullets. But, certainly in developing country contexts, it has so many high returns across such a wide variety of areas important for society.”
Increasing girls’ education reduces infant and maternal mortality. Educated mothers have fewer pregnancies, are less likely to give birth as teenagers, and are better able to access the maternal healthcare they need. Thus, educating girls leads to more empowered women, better equipped and able to deal with everything life throws at them. And better educated women tend to earn more, have better jobs, and invest their earnings into their families.
Every additional year of school a woman attends increases her wages by an average of 12%. So, educating girls, we can easily surmise, leads to better lives for everyone. This is a major reason why educating girls in emerging nations is crucial.
What’s more, increasing girls’ education reduces child marriage. Across 18 of the 20 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage, girls with no education are up to six times more likely to marry as children than girls with a secondary education.
Education helps give women the skills they need to take on leadership roles, including political positions. In those roles, they are much more likely to advocate for policies that benefit family and community life, like improved education and social services. Thus, we uncover another reason why educating women in the developing world should be a priority.
This is perhaps a key reason why Goal 4 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals is (to paraphrase) to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all, while eliminating gender disparities in education and ensure equal access.
Many girls suffer discrimination at school through violence and prejudice. This results in girls dropping out of school, which perpetuates gender inequality. Perhaps ironically, violence and prejudice might be better addressed and stamped out in society if more women were educated and could share their experiences and work together to eradicate such issues.
Natural disasters stop children from attending school. For many children, a disaster stops them from attending school, meaning they miss out on a vital part of their education. And one in four of the world’s out-of-school children live in crises-affected countries.
In an emergency or disaster scenario, girls especially are at risk of being forced to drop out of school, often being forced to help support their families.
Girls’ education is a strategic development priority for the World Bank, for UNICEF and for hundreds of global organisations and charities.
Better educated women tend to be more informed about nutrition and healthcare, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and their children are usually healthier, should they choose to become mothers. These factors combined help lift households, communities, and countries out of poverty.
According to UNESCO estimates, around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age.
In many countries, among girls who do enter primary school, only a small portion will reach – and far fewer will complete – secondary school.
Yet, there is hope. As Brookings Institution senior fellow Rebecca Winthrop said: “There are a lot of huge gains in girls’ education. There is a lot to celebrate. Over the last twenty years, the number of girls who have been out of school have been cut in half.”
Even so, the UN Sustainable Development Goals have just nine years left to be fulfilled. If Goal 4 – universal, equal access to education for all – is not met, this seems like a catastrophic failure on the part of global governments to recognise the effects education has on empowering women’s lives.