Girls and Education: How to #MakeItHappen after the Millennium Development Goals? | HART International Women’s Day Blog Series

6 March 2015

This is the seventh article in HART’s blog series for International Women’s Day 2015. Yesterday, Ivaylo Hristev considered Media Representations of Women. Read the whole series here.

[Photo above: Photo of the school uniforms belonging to three of the missing girls abducted by Islamic militants Boko Haram in Abuja, Nigeria last April. Taken by Glenna Gordon, a U.S. photographer, who won the Second Prize in the General News Category, Stories, in the 2015 World Press Photo contest last month.]

This year in December will mark the final target for the U.N Millenium Development Goals to have been achieved, so as we reflect on the state of women’s rights and gender equality this International Women’s Day it also seems an appropriate time to evaluate the second of these eight goals, achieving universal primary education. This is because education is crucial if we truly want to remove the obstacles to greater gender equality, which happens to be the third development goal. And you can’t have women’s empowerment without first educating girls.

The Millenium Development Goals were initiated by the U.N in the year 2000 and agreed by 189 countries and 23 leading development organisations to tackle extreme poverty and other social and economic ills. At the time, ensuring girls and women had access to education was rightly regarded as the crux in which most of the other goals depended upon. Fifteen years later, and the final deadline is looming. Just how much progress has been made?

With education at the top of the global political agenda at the dawn of the millenium, significant progress was quickly made. The number of children out of school has decreased markedly from 100 million in 2000 to 60 million seven years later. By 2012 many developing rates had an enrollment rate of 90%, nearing universality, with Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, showing the greatest improvement, exhibiting an 18% increase to 89%.

Although some substantial progress has been made in the fight against gender inequality at the educational level, the statistics can conceal some of the shocking disparities. According to Room To Read, a children’s education charity,  42% of girls across the developing world still are not enrolled into schools. It will come as no surprise then to learn that, of the 781 illiterate adults and 126 million youth in the world today, over two thirds are female. Despite the initial success, progress has largely stalled in the last seven years as education slipped down the global agenda.

The Barriers to Education

An estimated 50% of children out of school at primary level age live in conflict affected areas, and it is these heightened security concerns which have put off many parents from sending their daughters to school in particular. Nigeria is perhaps the most notable example of this. Being the country where Boko Haram (whose name literally means “against western education”) have gained much international notoriety for their abduction 300 schoolgirls and sold them into slavery, it is hardly surprising that it also has the dubious honour of having the highest number of children out school. Of the 57 million children out of school in the world today, 10 million live in Nigeria, according to some estimates. Indeed, one recent study found that attacks by groups like Boko Haram specifically against girls trying to learn have occurred with an increasing regularity, meaning that the number of out of school children is set to rise even further. Especially when the Nigerian government, in response to this terror threat, has closed many schools down.  This only serves to play into the hands of the militants.  Where conflict has become daily reality, even basic sanitation has become a matter of security. The lack of safe and private toilets available in a school can be perceived to leave girls all too vulnerable to sexual and physical violence, and therefore deter parents from sending their daughters there. For many girls, the risks are just too high. With security concerns quickly rising to the top of the international agenda following 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, education slipped down the list of priorities as the decade wore on. Ironically, it’s these same security risks that have hindered the drive for a more universal and gender equal education. Nigeria is again a good example of this. Despite recently overtaking South Africa as the largest African economy, it only spends 1.5% of its GDP and only 6% of it’s budget on schooling, less than almost all other African countries and well below the 6% of GDP and 20% of budget expenditure considered by UNESCO to be the appropriate level of investment in education. Meanwhile, the Boko Haram insurgency has led to security concerns swallowing up 25% of the federal budget. Similarly, the Obama administration has spent untold billions on counter-terrorism operations and drone warfare but has failed to follow through with his 2008 campaign pledge to establish a $2 billion global fund for education. This plays into the hands of the same people who would least like to see girls get the education they deserve.

As well as the security risks, there are also the economic costs. One analysis showed that children who came from households in the poorest 20% income bracket were three times less likely to attend school than their counterparts in the richest 20%. Again, it is girls who are hit the hardest. For the poorest families, if a choice has to be made between sending their son to school or their daughter, it is the boy who takes precedence.

Cultural barriers add another dimension to the obstacles that can prevent a girl accessing formal education. Where traditional attitudes to a woman’s lesser social status remain firmly ingrained, ensuring girls have the same learning opportunities as boys will not be a high priority. Traditional patriarchal attitudes see girls as an economic burden and are therefore more likely to be married off early rather than sent to school. 700 million alive today were married before they were 18, and a third of these were married before they were 15, making child marriage one of the biggest barriers to schooling more girls. Such cultural barriers can become self-perpetuating. For example, a large percentage of conservative-minded parents would be more inclined to send their daughters to school if they were more women teachers, partly due to the traditional gender stereotype of the woman being naturally more nurturing,  but also because there’s seen to be less chance of sexual violence in regions where security concerns permeate all aspects of life. However there can’t be women teachers without first giving girls the opportunities to learn and become qualified teachers. Educating girls is one sure-fire way of ensuring there are less child brides but in areas of acute poverty the bridal dowry can be a good source of income for struggling families.

The Importance of an Education

The call to educate girls may sound clichéd at this point but, in the face of all the aforementioned barriers, it is a call that is worth reiterating.

Having a more gender equal educational system doesn’t just benefit the girl as an individual or indeed women as a social group, but goes on to reward wider society as a whole. Educated girls can reduce demographic pressures as the greater career opportunities on offer mean they are more likely to marry later and have fewer children. This can lead to greater social stability because there will be less of a population youth bulge, as studies have found that, the higher the number of unemployed young men aged 15-24, the more upheaval. Additionally, one study suggests that for every 1 percentage point increase in the share of the population aged 15 to 24, the risk of civil war increases by 4 percent. Educating girls therefore decreases the risk of societal instability. There are also health benefits. For example, by having children later, women are more likely to survive childbirth, and the risk of infant mortality also decreases. According to one 2013 UNESCO report, if all women had access to a primary school education there would be 15% fewer child deaths, and if all women had a secondary school education, the infant mortality rate would be halved, saving an estimated 3 million lives. By potentially doubling the force workforce, the economic benefits are enormous, yielding higher GDP and income per capitas. As women see the dividends of their schooling paying off with greater job opportunities and higher wages, the living standards of their families also get raised as they no longer have to rely solely on just the male source of income.

Because education is so important, overcoming such complex, multifaceted and often interconnecting barriers will require a holistic approach of its own. One that encompases local, national and international actors. It is local communities who will have to be at the forefront in tackling some of the ingrained patriarchal attitudes that prevent girls from schooling. Of course, many of these attitudinal obstacles have a more material root, ones that can be more easily dispelled if governments at the federal level are willing to invest more in education and other anti – poverty efforts, tackling the structural economic barriers. This will ensure that impoverished families don’t have to worry about the costs of sending their daughters to school. Internationally, universal education needs to be made a top priority. Great strides were made at the start of the Millenium in increasing the net enrollment rates for both boys and girls in virtually all developing countries when it topped the international political agenda. Yet progress has since stalled as security and economic issues took precedence, even though girls’ education is arguably crucial in tackling both of these.

2015: The year we #MakeItHappen?

As the Millenium Development Goals are due to expire this year, there are evidently still many hurdles to overcome in the drive to educate girls and achieve universal education – be they mounting security concerns, debilitating economic barriers or outdated cultural practices and attitudes. Nonetheless, the progress that has been made over the last 15 years shows that they are possible to overcome but only if there is a concerted effort at the local, national and international level coupled with enough political will to make that effort. 2015 thus presents us with the perfect opportunity to reflect on what has so far been achieved and what challenges lie ahead as we re-evaluate our goals and strategies. This will ensure that educating girls and young women will finally become more than a noble aspiration but a political and social reality.


As alluded to above, the theme of International Women’s Day is #makeithappen, and in the spirit of this, Student Hubs has been working with A World at School in the #UpForSchool campaign. collecting signatures from students across the Hub Network in what they hope will become the largest petition EVER. They are doing this because 58 million children in the world today still aren’t attending school. They have therefore teamed up to put pressure on governments, politicians and leaders to take education seriously and ensure that all out-of-school children get to gain their right to a safe education before the end of 2015. Please sign this petition and help #makeithappen!

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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