Girls’ education goes beyond getting girls into school. It is also about ensuring that girls learn and feel safe while in school; have the opportunity to complete all levels of education acquiring the knowledge and skills to compete in the labor market; learn the socio-emotional and life skills necessary to navigate and adapt to a changing world; make decisions about their own lives; and contribute to their communities and the world.
Girls’ education is a strategic development priority. Better educated women tend to be more informed about nutrition and healthcare, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and their children are usually healthier, should they choose to become mothers. They are more likely to participate in the formal labor market and earn higher incomes. All these factors combined can help lift households, communities, and countries out of poverty.
According to UNESCO estimates, around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age. In countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries. And in many countries, among girls who do enter primary school, only a small portion will reach and far fewer will complete secondary school.
There are multiple barriers to girls’ access to and completion of education:
Poverty is one of the most important factors for determining whether a girl can access and complete her education. Poor households lack resources to pay for schooling and associated costs (e.g., for textbooks, uniforms, school supplies, and transportation). Poor households with multiple children may choose to invest in boys’ education rather than that of girls while also relying on girls to help with household chores and care for younger siblings and other family members. Studies consistently show that girls who face multiple disadvantages — such as low family income, living in remote or underserved locations or who have a disability or belong to a minority ethno-linguistic group — are farthest behind in terms of access to and completion of education.
Violence also prevents girls from accessing and completing education – often girls are forced to walk long distances to school placing them at an increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV) including sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment (SEA/SH) and many experience violence while at school. In addition to having serious consequences for their mental and physical health and overall well-being – this leads to lower attendance and higher dropout rates among them. Adolescent pregnancies can be a result of sexual violence or sexual exploitation. Girls who become pregnant often face significant stigma, and even discrimination, from their communities. The burden of stigma, compounded by unequal gender norms, can lead girls to drop out of school early and not return.
Child marriage is also a critical challenge. Girls who marry young are much more likely to drop out of school, complete fewer years of education than their peers who marry later. They are also more likely to have children at a young age and are exposed to higher levels of violence perpetrated by their partner. In turn, this affects the education and health of their children, as well as their ability to earn a living. Indeed, girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as those children with little or no education. According to a 2017 report,[LSM1] more than 41,000 girls under the age of 18 marry every day.
Lack of schools, inadequate infrastructure and unsafe environments: In addition to an insufficient number of schools to meet education demand (particularly in rural areas) – many schools lack water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities including separate toilets for boys and girls and a water source. Further, many schools lack basic features to promote a safe and inclusive environment – for example, they lack perimeter fences, well-lit pathways and do not use universal design. The lack of an adequate environment can act as an important barrier to girls’ regular attendance in school.
Limitations in teacher training and teaching and learning materials which reinforce gender biases: In many settings, curricula and teaching pedagogy is not sensitive to the specific needs of girls. Further, teachers may not have had sufficient training or support in reducing gender biases in the classroom. They may not be trained or feel comfortable in responding to GBV and other issues girls may face in school. Additionally, teaching and learning materials and curricula may reinforce negative stereotypes about girls and women.
COVID-19 is negatively impacting girls’ health and well-being and – in addition to facing loss of learning as a result of prolonged school closures and limited access to remote learning opportunities – many are at risk of not returning to schools once they reopen. Research shows that the incidence of violence against girls and women has increased during COVID-19, jeopardizing their health, safety and overall well-being. As school closures and quarantines were enforced during the 2014‐2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, women and girls experienced more sexual violence, coercion and exploitation. School closures during the outbreak were also associated with an increase in teenage pregnancies.
There is likely to be an increase in drop-out rates and a large portion of girls who will not return to school. Girls who are pregnant may, in some instances, be discouraged from returning to school and/or face stigma which drives them to either drop out or to not return to school. Many girls’ responsibilities in terms of household work and caregiving are likely to have increased during the school closures – reducing the time available for studying. Indeed, research shows that when primary caregivers are missing from the household (which may often be the case during the pandemic/as a result of COVID-19), girls are often given additional responsibilities in terms of caregiving and household tasks – further reducing the time available for studying and reducing their overall engagement in schooling.