Every day, in cities across the world, millions of girls are unable to attend school and access their right to an education, despite the growing benefits that investing in girls’ education brings. While there are many complex aspects of female education in both developed and developing nations – including female numbers within different levels of education, female populations in STEM fields, and health education for women – one of the most prominent issues is access to education for girls at primary and secondary levels, particularly in developing nations. For a number of reasons, girls across the world are denied an education either due to internal factors surrounding their gender, or more external factors related to limited access to education due to regional violence or displacement.
Education is important for all children; the opportunity to learn about the world and their place in it, meet new people, develop crucial skills for life, and set them up for an independent and fulfilling life are all critical. However, there is no question that girls are more routinely denied this right, in comparison to boys, despite the benefits educating girls can have for both girls themselves, and their families and communities.
Educating girls empowers them with knowledge and gives them self-confidence, independence, and goals and dreams, that in turn allow them to pursue more in life, all of which contribute to their own happiness and empowerment and those of their families and communities. Educating girls lessens their chances of being victims of domestic violence, keeping them healthier and safer. Staying in school, particularly through secondary school, where the number of girls begins to drop, can also lessen the likelihood of child marriage and teen pregnancy for girls, which in turn can lower fertility rates, population growth, and child and maternal mortality rates. According to The World Bank, “giving girls access to schooling is a central part of eradicating global poverty,” as educating girls creates a larger workforce, higher wages, and a stronger economy which combined, “can help lift households, communities, and nations out of poverty.”
Combined, all of these effects of investing in girls’ education can empower girls, create stronger social communities and families, and work together cyclically to ensure that each successive generation of girls is also educated, healthy, independent, confident, and equipped with the tools to further global change.
Today, there are an estimated 2.2 billion children in the world, and of these children, around 264 million (just over 8%) are out of school, according to UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) 2017 Global Education Monitoring Report. This total includes approximately 62 million of primary school age and 200 million of secondary school age. Of the total children out of school, 53% are girls, and this includes over 34.2 million primary school-aged girls, who were out of school in 2016. UNESCO also estimates that there are currently 15 million girls of primary school-age who will never set foot in a classroom. Gender disparity “at the expense of girls” in terms of access to primary education is highest in North African, Sub-Saharan African, and West Asian countries, and poverty and violence/conflict are the most prominent reasons for this.
Therefore, simply by virtue of their gender, girls are less likely to be formally educated than boys, particularly past primary school. Traditionally, a woman’s role was in the home, and in many communities, this tradition is still upheld and results in fewer girls being sent to school. Within these traditions, a woman’s role in the family differs considerably to that of a man’s, and so within more poverty-stricken homes and communities, families may consider it to be more cost effective to send a son to school, and keep a daughter at home.
Child marriage also plays a major role in the fewer numbers of girls who are in school. Child marriage disproportionately affects girls; there are an estimated 700 million women alive today, who were married before the age of 18. On average, 15 million girls under 18 are married every year, amounting to 41,000 girls every day. Girls who are married as children are far more likely to drop out of school after they are married, leading to the aforementioned adverse factors that stem from little or no education.
There are also several more external factors that limit or prevent girls’ education. The high levels of varying violence in many areas of the world – and in particular, in places of conflict – can often make it unsafe for girls to be in school. Additionally, fewer schools (especially in rural areas), mean longer travel times to and from home, which can be dangerous in areas that have a high risk of violence. Girls living in active conflict zones have been forced to flee their homes due to violence, or have settled in makeshift refugee camps or shelters, are also unable to attend school.
Poverty also plays a large role in inhibiting girls from attending school, as poorer families find it less costly to keep girls at home. Poverty can also lead to underfunded schools which simply don’t have the facilities to host an increase in pupils, or else do not have adequate facilities for girls (namely adequate and clean bathrooms for girls, particularly in secondary schools).
Lastly, girls may often face ethnolinguistic difficulties and challenges, whereby schools are taught in languages different from a girl’s own, largely due to a fewer number of schools that cater to larger majority populations.
While girls face many difficulties in simply obtaining access to education, without even factoring in the many difficulties they can still face after entering a classroom, there are a number of global and local initiatives aimed at increasing the number of girls in school, keeping them in school, and ending all forms of gender disparity in education.
The UN is currently working with governments across the world to reduce gender disparity in education, as are many global and national NGOs, and in the past two decades, gender disparity in schools across the world has decreased. Organisations such as the World Bank and UNICEF are also focussing on ending issues such as child marriage, which prevent girls from attending school.
While these NGOs, programmes, and initiatives are extremely important and have already shown results of an increase in girls in schools across the world, there is still a long way to go until all children of school age are enrolled in school, or else are receiving a formal education. A major component of enrolling girls in school and keeping them there through to secondary education is changing attitudes about girls and women that cause part of this gender disparity to begin with.
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