Education + Development

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#GirlsEdu: The Value of Girls’ Education in 2014 and Beyond

Iraqi Shi'ite girls attend classes at an Islamic school in Sadr City in Baghdad May 5, 2014.

Editor’s Note: The #GirlsEdu blog series is a collection of posts discussing girls’ education and the challenges it faces around the world. On June 17, Brookings will host “Celebrating Progress, Remaining Steadfast and Asking What’s Next for Girls’ Education,” at which these themes and more will be explored by the blog authors and other prominent experts. Register to attend or watch the webcast here.

It is 2014, and nearly 15 percent of women worldwide cannot read or write. That’s nearly 500 million women. But this is not just a problem for them. It’s a problem for all of us. Because whether a girl, boy, man or woman, we all live in the same world, and that world needs all the brain power, creativity and productivity it can get. It needs today’s girls to rise to their potential.

Over the past few weeks, my colleagues at Brookings have written a number of blog posts on girls’ education and the challenges confronting it around the world. Authors included Judith-Ann Walker of Nigeria, Urvashi Sahni of India and Khadim Hussein of Pakistan, all of whom offered powerful, touching stories of their work with girls in their home countries and the troubling obstacles and tremendous rewards that have come with it. We’re also hosting an event here at Brookings on June 17, which will include an address by U.S. Global Ambassador for Women and Girls Catherine Russell and a panel on new approaches within the field. I will lead the second and final panel, which will explore how people can and do provide leadership in this area for those that most need it.

But for now, I want to simply answer the question “why?” Why is this issue so important for everyone?  Three reasons:

  1. Educating girls improves the economy. Additional schooling improves employment prospects for women, but also helps create jobs for everyone and stimulates the economy. Any economist will tell you that people are resources—or “human capital”—and if we don’t educate the full half of them that are women, we are missing out on a huge opportunity for a wealthier and more productive society. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, investing in girls’ education could increase agricultural output by 25 percent, promoting economic prosperity and providing more food for the whole continent.
  2. Educating girls improves health—for everyone. Better educated mothers are more likely to seek treatment when their children are sick. In developing countries, they are more likely to purify their water. Education helps mothers know how to provide their children with proper nutrition, and it reduces child mortality rates. But the benefits of educated women do not stop with their children. One estimate holds that if all women had a secondary education, immunizations in low and lower-middle income countries would increase by 43 percent. This improves the health and safety of whole populations, indeed our whole world, as it means that fewer people would carry and spread sickness.
  3. Educating girls is good for our environment. In the same way that education can boost the economy by increasing agricultural outputs, it can save water by facilitating smart, efficient irrigation. Indeed, education can lead to more effective use of all resources. A survey of 29 countries showed that while just 25 percent of people with only a basic education express concern for the environment, 46 percent of those with more than a high school education do. And while this statistic shows the value of education broadly, for both girls and boys, the return on education can be more pronounced for girls, who are currently less well served. When an educated girl grows up to be an educated woman the benefits are felt by their colleagues, partners, children and friends, often leading to better environmental conscientiousness among a large array of people.

These facts are powerful. They show that girls’ education is not just an issue for girls themselves or even impassioned advocates. When Judith-Ann Walker writes of educating girls in northeast Nigeria, she is also talking about Nigeria’s economy. When Urvashi Sahni talks of the education challenges facing Indian girls, she is also talking about the health of the entire country. And when Khadim Hussein discusses opportunities to improve girls’ education in Pakistan, he is talking about the country’s environment too.

Girls’ education is an issue for everyone. Improving it should be—and is—important for all of us. Educating girls is investing in a key, underserved and underutilized part of our society, and that investment will lead to a healthier and wealthier world.

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