#GirlsEdu: Celebrating Progress, Remaining Steadfast, and Asking What’s Next for Girls’ Education

Editor’s Note: The


blog series is a collection of posts discussing girls’ education and the challenges it faces around the world. Some of the authors are former Echidna scholars, who studied how to improve girls’ education at Brookings before returning to their home countries to implement their research.

On May 1, the Women’s Refugee Commission bestowed Voices of Courage awards to three people, including Mary Tal, a lawyer from Cameroon who fled to South Africa and started Whole World Women Association, and Leymah Gbwoee, Liberian peace activist and 2011 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. These two women are powerful reminders of the importance of education in empowering girls and women, especially in the most difficult of circumstances—that in the face of turmoil, violence and displacement education is the one thing that can never be taken away.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a striking amount of progress in getting girls into primary school. In 1990, just under half of girls in low-income countries were enrolled in primary school. By 2011 that figure had climbed to nearly 80 percent. Advocates in grassroots organizations, governments, and global policymaking bodies have worked tirelessly to establish clear goals for enrolling an equal number of girls and boys in school, and working collectively towards those goals has worked.  Today, one-third of developing countries actually enroll more girls than boys in primary school, and a child’s level of wealth and the area they live in are much more likely than their gender to affect whether they attend school.  

Yet we cannot rest on these successes. Despite the progress in enrolling girls in school, the job is not done. Instead of all girls facing these challenges, it is now the poorest girls living in rural areas who are, across the board, still the most in need of education. Moreover, experts need to move beyond talking only about primary school and expand their focus to secondary education and girls’ ability to then transition to the workforce and take on leadership roles. And instead of only talking about how many years girls spend in school, we need to talk about what girls and boys are learning, including what they are learning about gender equality. The conversation may no longer need to include all countries, but it still urgently needs to focus on particular regions and countries where girls are fighting to get educated.  The devastating events in Nigeria, where close to 300 girls have been abducted out of their schools by Boka Haram, is only the most recent reminder that in some parts of the world girls’ education remains a life and death issue.

While acknowledging progress and the challenges that remain, there are four main “second generation” issues for girls’ education that most call for action:    

  1. The Missing Millions. There are nearly 30 million girls who should be in primary school but are not. Nigeria struggles with 5.5 million girls out of school (especially in its north), conflict-ridden South Sudan has more than half a million girls out of school, and Pakistan—one of a number of countries with significant gender discrimination—has over 3 million girls out of school. The problems are greatest in countries within sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia, particularly in areas where child labor and early marriage are prevalent. The poorest girls in such countries are four times more likely to be out of school than the richest, and the rural girls twice as likely to be out of school than the urban girls. There are also more than 34 million young women who are not enrolled in secondary school.  In low-income countries, only 70 percent of girls make the transition to secondary school, leaving 30 percent adrift.  Perhaps the most worrisome is how little the poorest girls have to hope for. The pace of change is so slow that at the current rate of progress, in Sub-Saharan Africa for example, it will take almost 100 years before all girls are enrolled in lower secondary school, decades behind the time when all boys will make it in. 
  2. Beyond Parity—A Quality Education for Girls. Girls not only must attend school, but they must also learn basic knowledge and skills while there. Far too often boys and girls alike are not learning the skills they need in school. There are 250 million young people who are not learning the basics in literacy and numeracy despite many spending four years in school. But quality education is more than reading, writing and arithmetic. Among other things, it includes a safe environment free from discrimination and it should advance ideas and practices around gender equality. Education can—and should—play an important role in empowering girls and young women. It has the ability to transform gender norms and help build and shape more just and equitable societies. If girls are harassed and abused, our young people will not learn the value of gender equality. If girls are tasked with sweeping the school’s floors and the boys are not, this is no way to show the value of gender equality.  If female teachers are sidelined and marginalized in schools, this sends the wrong signals to boys and girls about the value of gender equality. A push towards gender equality beyond parity has long been discussed in academic circles. However, it is time for the education and women’s rights communities to coalesce around particular policy goals that enhance gender equality in education.
  3. School Violence.  Attacks on schools occur in 30 countries around the world.  These attacks include school bombings, abductions, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, and killings.  Teachers and students are affected and girls and women are often the target.  In countless other locations, girls experience sexual abuse and exploitation from peer students as well as teachers, and often routes to and from school are not safe. In Malawi, for example, one-fifth of teachers reported that they were aware of teachers coercing girls into sexual relationships. Schools should be safe havens and girls should not have to risk their health and in many cases their lives to get an education.  
  4. Livelihoods and Leadership. Even in areas where girls are receiving an education, they have a harder time transitioning as young women into the labor force. In Arab countries, girls are more likely to make the transition into secondary school and outperform boys, yet only 18 percent of working-age women are employed. In Jordan, for example, where education levels of women have increased rapidly, there are still more than double the number of young women than men who are neither in education nor employed. In Pakistan women are more than six times as likely as men to be in this situation. And unfortunately, even the women who do join the labor force are more often employed as unpaid family workers or in “vulnerable” employment that doesn’t offer stability or benefits. Women are also outnumbered in positions of power and decision-making. In the private sector, just 13 of the world’s 500 largest corporations have a female CEO, and globally only about 17 percent of members of parliament and ministers are women.

The case remains clear for investing in girls’ education. It yields some of the highest returns of all development investments in terms of better health, stronger economic growth and greater poverty alleviation.  However, in the words of Urvashi Sahni, an Indian girls’ education advocate, even if it didn’t bring all these “development goodies,” it is still what we should be doing because girls deserve it, we owe it to them, and it is their right.