Advocating for Girls’ Education: Why We Need Data

This blog was first published by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and UIS Data Blog

International Women’s Day on March 8 is a time for reflection on the successes that women and girls around the world have made in pursuit of gender equality. But as the theme of the day, ‘Press for Progress’, suggests, we must also consider the challenges ahead.

Past progress does not in itself imply a better future – we have to guard against complacency and continue to press forward for change.

In global education, that means all children should be in school, learning, and developing the skills they need to boost incomes and contribute to their communities. 

Overall, more children than ever are in school – including more girls – but new data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) also reveal that the number of out-of-school children aged 6-17 has plateaued at a staggering 263 million. This means that the world continues to lose the potential contributions of millions of children held back by barriers to education such as poverty and gender discrimination.

Context is crucial when implementing education projects

The volunteer-run 60 million girls Foundation, based in Montreal, supports education projects in high-needs communities in developing countries. Understanding the dynamic between gender, education and poverty is crucial to our work. Data helps to confirm anecdotal evidence, and it guides our thinking in directing funds to where they are needed most.

As a result, we have focused our efforts on girls living in rural areas or refugee camps where traditional schooling is either non-existent, is replete with risks such as sexual and gender-based violence, or fails to provide children with the skills they need to pull themselves out of poverty.


Credit: Change for Children

Data have proved extremely useful in contextualizing the school environment for indigenous children in Nicaragua’s Bosawas region, for example, where we funded a project in 2015, and in rural Guatemala where we are working this year.

While regional statistics show high enrollment rates overall, the specific situation in these communities reveals that the indigenous people we are serving, especially the girls, have fallen under the radar with much less access to education than the general population.

As education advocates, understanding the context that children face in their communities is crucial to understanding what type of project will truly meet their needs. It is also useful in explaining the need to our supporters and donors. Posted on social media and in our blogs, data mapping tools, such as the UNESCO eAtlas, are helpful in illustrating the overall need for support and why it matters.

Data tell us that girls remain at a disadvantage in low-income countries

Globally, the out-of-school numbers for girls and boys have slowly converged, and by 2016 there were 131.3 million out-of-school boys and 131.7 million out-of-school girls across all ages groups. However, disaggregated regional and national numbers show ongoing disadvantages for girls in low-income countries.

Explore the data in the eAtlas

The UIS’s adjusted gender parity index fell steadily in the decade to 2011 but has crept up in the last four years. Moreover, the index shows that primary-aged girls face the strongest disadvantage in Central Asia, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, three of the world’s poorest regions.

Interestingly, with the exception of children in sub-Saharan Africa, once in school, girls tend to do better than boys, which makes the impact of declining opportunities for girls at the primary school level particularly galling.

Quality education has an important impact on poverty

We know that educating a girl has important consequences for global poverty reduction. Each additional year of schooling can raise a girl’s future earning power by up to 20%. There is also a strong intergenerational impact because an educated woman is more likely to send her own children to school, thus helping to break down the poverty trap that keeps so many families destitute from one generation to the next.

Research shows that the quality of education is the crucial element in skill development and creating better wage growth opportunities for households. Yet, data tell us that even children who are in school are not learning. According to the UIS, 617 million – 6 out of 10 – children and adolescents do not meet minimum proficiency levels in literacy and mathematics.

When 60 million girls’ president and founder Wanda Bedard visited a project we are funding in the Koinadugu region of northern Sierra Leone, her anecdotal experience confirmed the trends seen in global data: the poor quality of education was having a negative impact on learning.

Hoping to strike up “pen pal” relationships, an enterprising group of Montreal-based students had given Wanda letters to deliver to the local school children. Sadly, the children from the remote rural villages were barely able to read the correspondence or craft cogent responses. We decided to design a mobile, after-school learning system for girls and boys, to help bridge this gap.

Let’s ‘Press for Progress’ for girls’ education

So, on this International Women’s Day, let’s remember that while there has been a global reduction of gender bias in education with equal numbers of boys and girls out of school, the data show that in low income regions and poor communities, girls continue to face higher barriers to education than boys, and many children who are in school just aren’t learning.

We know that poor girls in low-income countries and in rural communities, continue to face high barriers to education, despite the fact that their performance on learning assessments show a dogged determination to get ahead.

Let’s all ‘Press for Progress’ and do our best to get all children – girls and boys – in school and learning by making the best possible use of data.

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We Should Invest in Education. Now!

Everyone can agree that giving all children the opportunity to go to school is the right thing to do. Global efforts to do just this have achieved great success: almost two decades ago world leaders decided to invest in education so that every child, regardless of gender, place of birth or family wealth could have access to school.

The results were amazing (if unsurprising): enrollment surged as more children than ever before began to attend school and the number of primary-aged out-of-school children dropped from 100 million in 2000 to 62 million in just eight years. The clickable map below shows where the out-of-school children live.

Gender equality in education improved as well; the number of girls out-of-school fell from 58 million to 32 million in the same period – though they remain more than half of the total.

However, progress on both fronts has tapered off, and the number of out-of-school children, along with the proportion of out-of-school girls, has remained largely unchanged since 2008. The bottom line is that more funding is needed to re-create the momentum and build on past successes.

But global aid to education is lagging. Aid actually fell between 2010 and 2012 and, despite recent increases, is still below the 2010 peak. Just as disconcerting is the fact that education aid to Africa (home to the majority of out-of-school children) has, overall, received a declining share of total contributions.

This has occurred despite the fact that education is one of the best investments we can make to end poverty, improve health and give people dignity.

The long-term payoff that comes from investing in education can take years, and outcomes can be more difficult to quantify, than, say, health interventions which lead to a more immediate reduction in the number of cases of a particular disease. And, perhaps this dissuades politicians, who operate on a four-year cycle, from making the hard choices – when they may not be there to reap the rewards.

For the children and their families, though, the payoff, when it comes, is worth every penny.  Education has been proven to be one of the main drivers in reducing global poverty, improving health outcomes, and empowering women. It can also lead to more peaceful societies.

Here are a few hard facts:

Education lowers poverty. An individual can earn around 10% more for each additional year of secondary school education. This powerful income-generating potential can lift families out of poverty. The impact of education for women is even greater with an approximately 20% jump in earning potential for each additional year of schooling.

Education leads to better health. An educated mother is much more likely to have her children vaccinated and to ensure her family sleeps under mosquito nets. This leads to better health outcomes and can reduce child mortality. Plus, out-of-school girls are three times more likely to be infected with HIV than girls who remain in school.

A more educated society can promote greater peace and security. The probability of civil war can be cut by almost two-thirds when secondary school enrollment rises from 30% to 81% and if it is distributed equally across the population.

Education improves gender equality. When educated, a woman’s higher earning power can elevate her standing within her family and community, which can give her more of a say in important decisions. It can also lead to lower levels of child marriage – a tradition which is often the result of poverty but which also exacerbates it by limiting women’s and girls’ potential and exposing them to abuse.

Source: Global Partnership for Education

Current development objectives, called the Sustainable Development Goals, expand on earlier successes. The goal for education (SDG4)  aims for free schooling for all children and adolescents through to upper secondary school. Primary education alone is just not enough.

Despite the massive and obvious benefits of investing in education, insufficient funding means that large numbers of young people remain without an education or the prospect of getting one. Putting together primary and secondary-aged children and youth, the total number out of school comes to 264 million. That’s 264 million individuals who will never have the opportunity to explore their own potential.

Just as worrying, even some children who are in school are just not getting the basic skills they need as large class sizes, and a paucity of trained teachers, have limited the quality of classroom learning. A recent study by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics found that 617 million children (three quarters of whom are in school) did not meet minimum proficiency standards in literacy and math.

The case for investing more in education has never been stronger.

On 1-2 February, global leaders have a chance to address this shortfall when they meet in Dakar, Senegal, to replenish the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), a fund whose core mission is to provide grants to low and lower-middle income countries and which accounts for 12% of total funding for education in these countries.

The Education Commission estimates that the GPE will need US$2 billion annually by 2020, rising to US$4 billion a year by 2030 to ensure that countries can invest in solid, evidence-based, national educational plans.

Recipient countries must also pay up and are incentivized the do so under the GPE funding structure. In fact, to qualify for a GPE grant, a recipient must agree to a target of 20% of total budgetary spending on education. Additional funds are released based on agreed upon performance indicators such as learning outcomes and equity in education.

Investing in global education benefits everyone as it supports greater global economic growth and promotes peace worldwide. We know, without a doubt, that a quality education is one of the most important investments we can make to achieve long-term, sustainable development. Education is crucial if individuals, communities and nations are to prosper.

Let’s hope that world leaders can agree to this important funding initiative to give the world’s children the education that they need to get ahead – and that the world needs to achieve peace and hope for the future.

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