March 8th marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. This year’s theme centers on equal access to education, training and science and technology. Access to a quality education that prepares girls and young women to enter the labor market with critical skills and valuable knowledge is essential – it is also a luxury.
A recent article on the economic benefits of investing in girls in TIME, poses the question: Why educate a daughter who will end up working for her in-laws rather than a son who will support you? This is a question faced daily by parents in poor countries throughout the world. For those who do choose to educate their daughters, the benefits are staggering. Increased wages, smaller family sizes, lower rates of HIV/AIDS, and greater economic growth are just a few of the reasons why investing in girls’ education is lauded as the highest-return on investment for the developing world.
Over the years, tremendous progress has been made in the advancement of women’s rights, yet severe inequalities and barriers still exist. Today one in eight persons is a girl or young woman between the ages of 10 and 24 . Girls who are poor, and especially those who are ethno-linguistic minorities or live in countries affected by armed conflict, are the most educationally disadvantaged. This stark trend holds true across the globe – from Africa and the Middle East to Latin America and Asia. Poor girls face a greater likelihood of marginalization, higher drop-out rates, and the possibility of never entering school in the first place. Fortunately an abundance of research and evidence points to concrete strategies that can be employed internationally and by individual communities to prevent these barriers from becoming permanent impediments to leading a quality, productive life.
Overwhelmingly, when given the opportunity, girls have outperformed boys on international assessments in both developed and developing countries. However, with rates of secondary-school enrollment as low as 17 percent for girls in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa , this untapped potential puts a girl and her future at a severe disadvantage. So without disregarding the girls who are learning and succeeding in school, it is imperative that the girls who are not learning, and those who are not in school at all, are given the opportunity to develop vital life skills.
Recent examples of how girls can get ahead through education are presented in a new report, Fast-tracking Girls’ Education: A progress report by the Education for All – Fast Track Initiative. Launched in 2002, Education for All – Fast Track Initiative is an international partnership with the mission to accelerate progress toward the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015. Their recent report underscores the progress that has been made in improving girls’ access to education, while highlighting the gaps that still remain.
There is no one-size-fits-all model that can be universally employed to address the challenge of access and quality education for girls, but the report cites country examples in which common strategies have been effective. In Yemen, girls were given school supplies, tuition fees were eliminated, local media was used to launch a girls’ education campaign, and teachers were recruited and trained to work in rural areas. With one of the highest gender gaps in the world, Yemen saw a 12 percent increase in girls’ enrollment following these measures. Similarly, Burkina Faso has seen a 73 percent increase in girls’ enrollment since joining the EFA FTI partnership in 2002. Community associations and mothers’ groups stressed the importance of education, female teachers were recruited to serve as role models, and a government department committed solely to girls’ education was created, establishing a national commitment to gender equality. The ability of both of these countries, and many others, to eliminate safety concerns and foster a healthy learning environment for girls is evidence of the tremendous strides made by girls themselves, communities, and the education sector.
Accessing education, however, is just the first step. Once enrolled, education must be of sufficient quality that girls and boys are able to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life. A quality education is crucial for girls to reap the social and economic returns education promises. There is significant evidence that literacy rates have a large effect on lowering fertility and improving child-health . Unfortunately, far too often, if girls are able to access school, they are learning very little. Many children are leaving primary school without fully mastering such foundational skills as literacy and numeracy. The global learning crisis is hitting girls in developing countries particularly hard and runs the risk of stunting the educational progress that has been made.
In a recent statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed, “we must recommit ourselves to the cause of empowering our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and friends, and ensuring that in every country, every region and in every continent we speak with clarity that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights .” Looking back at the status of women across the world 100 years ago, tremendous progress has been made in favor basic human rights and equity in many countries. But what could our world look like if we continued to invest in the most marginalized girls in developing countries, giving them a leg up through education? Most likely a world of less poverty and disparities, greater health, and greater peace.
The international commitment to girls’ and young women’s education and empowerment is paramount. On this 100th International Women’s Day let us celebrate the great strides that have been made for women and girls across the world and reaffirm our commitment to educating those who continue to face barriers to empowerment and vitality.
 Lloyd, C. (2010). “The role of schools in promoting sexual and reproductive health among adolescents in developing countries.” Social Determinants of Sexual and Reproductive Health: Informing Future Research and Program Implementation. Geneva: WHO.
 Clinton, Hillary Rodham. “Day of the Women of the Americas.” February 18, 2011. Office of the Secretary of State. Web.
The word [a North Korean defector] used [to describe the women in South Korea] meant tough, almost obnoxious. He said it was radically different from women of the North, who are so traditional. [Even in the North, however, t]heir husband’s income is just not enough. [E]xpectations of a good life are rising [among the elite] and for the lower middle class, they work because their husband[s] have lost their factory jobs. The production system is so antiquated [that] many women come and participate [in the workforce].