International Woman’s Day – Why Girls?

It’s no secret that I’m an advocate of girls and particularly girls education.

An adolescent girl stands at the doorway of adulthood. If she stays in school, remains healthy, and gains skills, she will marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and earn an income that she’ll invest back into her family. We know that adolescent girls are the key to breaking this cycle. Yet today only a tiny fraction of international aid is spent on her needs.

My entire final project for my Education for Development course was focused on the subject. I decided, for my International Woman’s Day post for this year to share that project with my blog followers – to illustrate a bit further just why girls are so very important. For those of you who want the condensed version, this video is a fantastic ‘in a nutshell’ of what ‘The Girl Effect‘ is:

After the jump you can read my final project that looks a little closer at these issues. It is a piece of academic writing so be warned! However if you are even vaguely interested in finding out more, read on. I have added links to projects and organisations within the text as well.

Final Project:

Impact of formal and non-formal education for adolescent girls – The Girl Effect

By Lynsey Logan

Patience and Bridget

Key Reading:

  1. Cynthia Lloyd (2009) New Lessons: The Power Of Educating Adolescent Girls
  2. Jad Chaaban and Wendy Cunningham (2011) Measuring the Economic Gain of Investing in Girls: The Girl Effect Dividend
  3. Maureen Lewis and Marlaine Lockheed (2006) Inexcusable Absence: Why 60 Million Girls Still Aren’t In School and What to do About It
  4. May A. Rihan (2006) Keeping The Promise: Five Benefits of Girls’ Secondary Education

In recent years, girls’ education has become an increasing focus of interest and policy within the field of development. Within my role as an educator and through involvement in girls’ education projects, my interest in girls’ education has increased over the years, and I am particularly interested in the impact that educating adolescent girls can have on other development issues, such as poverty and health. Due to the wide range of evidence in this area, I have chosen to focus any specific examples on regions in Sub-Saharan Africa due to my own personal and professional interests in this region.

Due to the evolving nature of this issue, and the continuing research and development taking place within the education sector, there were a large amount of recent articles and reports from which to select. The Coalition for Adolescent Girls has published numerous reports on the issue, from which I have chosen Cynthia Lloyd’s 2009 report, New Lessons: The Power of Educating Adolescent Girls. This report gives an overview of the wide variety of educational approaches, both formal and informal, being currently practised in the field of girls’ education, and comments on the impact of education for girls during adolescence. Chaaban and Cunningham (2011) give an account of the research and evidence linking investment in girls to potential increases in income for developing nations in their report, Measuring the Economic Gain of Investing in Girls. Lewis and Lockheed’s book, Inexcusable Absence, has been praised by Amaryta Sen for illustrating the complexities of getting socially excluded girls into school, not only in developing countries but in a worldwide contex. Finally, May Rihan’s book, Keeping The Promise, presents data and analysis on the importance of educating girls in developing countries, relating it to the impact on the day to day lives of real families.


Controversy and Debate

Although girls account for approximately half of the youth population in developing countries, they contribute less than their potential to the economy. There has been a distinct lack of investment in adolescent girls and little attention has been given to the specific challenges facing adolescent girls. However, in recent years, girls’ education has become an increasing focus of interest and policy within the field of development. Interest and funding from the development community has grown in response to a growing amount of evidence documenting the wide range of benefits of educating adolescent girls. Girls’ and women’s education now features in key global development commitments, including the Millennium Development Goals.

Adolescence, between the age of 12- 18, is seen as the critical period when girls are at a greater risk of life-changing events with irreversible and negative consequences. These risks include child marriage, early pregnancy, or school leaving and they not only impact girls themselves but also on the next generation (Chaaban & Cunningham, 2011). Approximately a quarter of girls in developing countries are not in school (Lloyd 2005) and between a quarter and a half of girls in developing countries become mothers before the age of 18  (United Nations Population Fund, 2005).

The merits of investment in adolescent girls have been seen to impact mortality rates, health, and benefit economically. Studies have shown that if all 1.6 million adolescent girls in Kenya completed secondary school, and all 200 000 adolescent mothers were employed instead of falling pregnant at a young age, the cumulative effect could have added $3.4 billion on to Kenya’s gross income every year.  (Chaaban & Cunningham, 2011)  

“Societies that have a preference for not investing in girls pay a price for it in terms of slower growth and reduced income.” (Dollar & Gatti, 1999)

Gender equality in education is a focus for development in both the Millennium Development Goals and Education For All. The Dakar Framework for Action (UNESCO, 2000) committed political leaders to eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls full and equal access to basic education of good quality.

“Goal achievement presupposes some agreed understanding of the meaning of gender equality.” (Colcough, 2007)

 While gender parity is a static, quantitative measure, equality remains conceptually demanding and relies on a wide range of indicators (Subrahmanian, 2005). The challenge facing governments and development organisations lies in, not only increasing school enrolment numbers for girls, but in achieving full equality of education outcomes across all levels of education, including life-skills training and informal education. As primary education enrolment rates have increased, there has been a shift in focus from many international agencies and donors away from education programme support towards skills development.

UNICEF’s African Girls’ Education Initiative (AGEI) was among the first major international efforts to promote and develop girls’ education across Africa. Participating countries piloted hundreds of strategies designed to benefit girls. The approach was country-specific and highly varied, ranging from math and science camps for girls, to separate latrines for girls, training in school management and governance, and the creation of non-formal education centres in Guinea (Chapman & Miske, 2007). In spite of these initiatives, a review for UNESCO’s 2008 EFA report (UNESCO, 2008) found a lack of gender-sensitive approaches to teaching and learning. While the African Girls Education Initiative drew a great deal of attention to girls’ education as a policy issue, it also uncovered issues with sustainability, funding costs, and  difficulty in integrating alternative schooling and education into existing schooling systems (Chapman & Miske, 2007).

Ensuring girls avoid the dangers of their adolescent years is challenging. Cultural expectations, early marriage and pregnancy, and school fees are all contributing factors to the chances of a girl staying in school. However, the challenges do not stop with the girls. The challenge for international agencies and donors, national and local governments, and local communities and schools lie in ensuring all elements are in place for long-term success in girls’ education initiatives. It is an issue that raises many questions regarding responsibility, funding and investment, priorities and strategies. However it remains an important issue in education for development and in international development studies. 


“To educate girls is to reduce poverty. Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls.”—Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary General  (Annan, 2003)


 Simon McGrath illustrated that education is not the lead discipline when it comes to development. Economics remains the foremost in shaping development thinking (McGrath, 2010). However, the emerging links between girls’ education and economics give opportunity for education to step into the forefront of development policymaking. The theory of human capital and the use of education of as an important means for fostering social inclusion has become a growing influence within development circles.

Economically, girls’ education has been seen to be an important tool in poverty alleviation. Studies from The World Bank show that an extra year of schooling boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10-20 percent, with some estimates in the 15–25 percent range. “Increasing investments in women’s human capital, especially education, should be a priority for countries seeking both economic growth and human welfare. The case for directing educational investment to women is stronger the greater the initial disparity in investments between men and women.”(Herz & Sperling, 2004).

The importance of maintaining support in terms of aid and funding is highlighted in McGrath’s paper, with commentary on development agencies and staff escaping the effects of any failure in the development projects by moving on to another country  (McGrath, 2010). The importance of international donors and local agencies aligning their agendas can be seen as key to the success of such investment. Local awareness, cultural understanding and participatory development are invaluable in helping tackle many of the issues facing adolescent girls. It has been found in developing countries school drop- out rates for girls are higher than boys, reasons often being a tradition of early marriage or cultural norms prioritise investment in boys (Chaaban & Cunningham, 2011). Cultural understanding is essential if such norms are to be confronted and changed. The importance of global development agencies and donors working in partnership with local agencies is highlighted in Lloyd’s report on adolescent girls’ education. In the report she illustrates that the African advocacy NGO, the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), was an important and instrumental partner in many initial girls’ educational initiatives. Through collaborating and helping facilitate the work of the African Girls’ Education Initiative, they also partnered with governments to bring about policy change regarding gender equality. “Without national partners such as FAWE possessing vision, commitment, and familiarity with local conditions, much of the donor activity described… [within the report]…would not have been possible.” (Lloyd, 2009)

Within the context of Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the main reasons why girls leave school is due to marriage or pregnancy. According to studies, in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, girls are expelled from school if they become pregnant. After giving birth, if they wish to return to formal education, they cannot return to the same school (Wilson, 2004). It is interesting to note that the same rules do not apply for boys who are responsible for pregnancies. In spite of the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child including and recognising pregnant girls’ rights to education, many countries are seen not be be acting in accordance with the charter. Even in a situation where a girl could be brought back into the education system following pregnancy, the opportunity is not given.  (Lewis & Lockheed, 2006)

 In economics-based writings, women and girls are often seen in their “production and reproduction” roles, rather than being recognised as individuals with rights and capacity.  (McGrath, 2010) Economically, the benefit of girls remaining in school is often identified as a means of population control. This is likely due to health benefits of girls’ education evidenced in decreased infant mortality and decreased adult and teen fertility rates. However, girls’ education should not be seen as simply a population issue, but rather as a rights issue. ‘Development is about transforming the lives of people, not just transforming economies.’ (Stiglitz, 2006) Further health benefits include improved post-natal care, immunisation rates and child nutrition, and delayed marriage age and reduced rates of domestic violence (Rihani, 2006). The Millennium Development Goals identify child health and maternal health, MDGs 4 and 5 respectively, as aims by 2015. With the increasing evidence of the impact of girls’ education on such global issues as child and maternal health, and additionally poverty, the idea of girls becoming ‘agents of change’ appears to be more and more crucial (Rihani, 2006).

Gender equality in education can be looked at as a right to, within and through education: the right to access and participate in education, the right to learn within gender-aware educational environments and with gender sensitive outcomes, and the right through education to opportunities after education (Subrahmanian, 2005).  Often, gender discrimination is rooted in a culture, value systems and in a community’s traditions. Initiatives to increase and tackle the issue of gender equality are often met with opposition at many levels of society, from families to religious leaders. In order to tackle the issue of girls’ rights to, within and through education, many cultural obstacles need to be overcome.  

Cultural obstacles in girls’ education often stem from families, and gaining parental involvement in the education of adolescent girls is a key issue for agencies working in the field. “Sending children to school entails a high opportunity cost without clear returns to the family, particularly in subsistence societies. Indeed, the need for child labour is the single most important reason for not sending rural children to school in developing countries, especially among the poorest families (Basu & Tzannatos, 2003). Sending children to school means losing labour.”  (Lewis & Lockheed, 2006) In many societies in developing countries, parents do not support their daughter’s education, mainly at secondary and tertiary levels. Often the reasons for this stem from the high status of sons in families, customs like child marriage, education systems which do not support adolescent girls’ after marriage or pregnancy. Financial incentives like scholarships or bursaries are strong motivators in the short-term, however they do not tackle the underlying attitudes, beliefs and systems. In developing girls’ education, it is important to note that more school places will not necessarily bring about sustainable change without communities and families being educated on the gender equality. An example of this is from a Kenya-based project which found such cultural practices like early marriage and violent acts against adolescent girls to be a major obstacle in their work towards gender equality in the community. Through working on increasing awareness of the rights of girls within the community and strengthening systems for reporting cases of violence, the project continues to work on changing attitudes as well as lives. (Plan International, 2010)

Millennium Development Goals

From a basic human rights point of view, the importance of creating and fostering safe environments within which for adolescent girls to gain education is an aspect of development that cannot be overlooked. Adolescent girls are often at risk of rape and abduction, which in addition to being a horrific experience for the girl, it also has societal implications for their family.  (Lewis & Lockheed, 2006) Research has shown a large number of parents have concerns about their daughter’s safety, not in school itself, but in travelling to and from school  (Kim & Bailey, 2003; Mbassa Menick, 2001; Mgalla, et al., 1998; Ohsako, 1997). With access to secondary schools being an important issue for international agencies, ensuring safety in the journey between home and school should also be high on the agenda as these parental concerns may hinder attempts at increasing girls’ uptake of education.  In addition, McGrath wrote of a series of studies that have shown sexual violence and rape is prevalent within society in South Africa, with many attacks taking place within school and committed by teachers (McGrath, 2010). With such environments being the norm within some societies, a challenge for local agencies lies not only with gender-relevant curricula, but also in gender-sensitive and safe learning environments.

When considering girls education and adolescent girls becoming ‘agents of change’, areas where this is significant are human trafficking, civic participation and youth violence. In considering how education can help shape new visions of society and development, these areas are vital and high on international development agendas. While there are many far-reaching reasons and situations relating to why children are trafficked, lack of education “fosters a conducive environment” (Rihani, 2006) for child trafficking. Studies in Nigeria have shown a strong relationship between low levels education levels and trafficking of women and girls. According to the studies, a large proportion of women and girls’ who have been trafficked have only primary education or have dropped out early from secondary education. The girls also have not had any access to vocational or life-skills training (Rihani, 2006).  

Strategies for promoting girls secondary education have been highlighted and identified in many reports and development writings. May A Rihani identified short, medium and long-term strategies within ‘Keeping The Promise’ that relate both to global and local actors, but also help to understand the role such actors play within the world of girls education and the impact such investment could have in the long-term. She identifies three short-term strategies to help increase access and retention of adolescent girls, specifically: building secondary schools within reasonable distance of every community; installing latrines at the schools which has been recognised to increase enrolment and retention for girls and female teachers; and creation of a safe environment for girls to learn within. In the medium term she highlights curricular relevance and the issue of improving quality through promoting student-centred, gender-sensitive learning, HIV-prevention education and increasing the relevance through teaching life-skills. Long-term strategies focus on motivation and end-results through providing additional training and promoting motivation through role-models and mentoring.  (Rihani, 2006)   

In relation to the importance of life-skills, the capabilities perspective of education  (Unterhalter, 2003)  is becoming more widely acknowledged, in so much as recognising that individuals require “the freedom to achieve actual livings that one can have reason to value.”(Sen, 1999). In considering this, curricular relevance can be seen as being a significant factor in the success of adolescent girls’ education. The role of non-formal education can also not be overlooked. Projects like the joint UNESCO and Packard Foundation initiative, launched in Ethiopia and Tanzania aim to tackle skills gaps through community-based learning. Working in partnership with the national governments, the project sets up literacy programmes to help parents, especially mothers, to support girls’ education and will create “safe spaces” where the girls can gain leadership and entrepreneurial skills to empower them to bring about change in their communities.  (UNESCO, 2012). The opportunity for participation and playing a role in their community, known as active citizenship, is a key aim in adult women’s education. It enables women to acquire skills that can be transferred to political action and organisation. (Stromquist, 2006) By introducing such leadership and empowerment in adolescent girls’ education, you reach a wider demographic, and, in looking to the future, negate the need for adult women’s education.

Girls’ education and advocacy can also be instrumental in tackling greater human rights violations. A project in the forest region of Guinea empowers girls, and mothers of girls, who have not undergone genital cutting to become peer educators in condemning the practice and working towards eradicating the tradition. The Early Girl Child Marriage project in Kenya  successfully reduced the rates of child marriages in the schools it was implemented through a community based system of monitoring child marriage and working with legal and health services to support families in such situations  (Plan International, 2010).

Further examples of alternative education lie in community schools. In West Africa, a growing number of primary schools are managed by their local community, with 20% in Togo, 32% in Mali and most in Ghana  (Gershberg & Winkler, 2004). The schools follow curriculum set by the government, so are in keeping with the formal education system. According to studies on community schools in Ghana, Guinea, Mali and South Sudan, there was an increase in girls’ participation in education and community school enrolment showed greater gender parity than government schools (Miller-Grandvaux & Yoder, 2002). There may be many reasons for this increase. The local management, and in turn vital local and cultural awareness, may make it easier to be aware of the specific struggles within their community, and so manage the schools and educational approaches in a more appropriate way. The local accountability and community involvement also contributes to the success of these schools. Parental participation is likely to be higher in community-managed schools and therefore accountability higher, leading to less corruption (Rihani, 2006).

Non-formal education is another example of alternative schooling, and in many ways is more adaptable to the needs to the specific communities in which the projects are run. Non-formal education can range from basic literacy training to skills development and empowerment programmes. Gomes (2004) notes however that there has been a distinct lack of evaluation in non-formal programmes which often prevents their implementation on a large scale. However, in spite of this lack of evaluation, many global agencies and charities are partnering with local communities, goverments and NGOs to fund and introduce non-formal education. Organisations like the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, and United Nations Girls Education Initiative, and campaigns like the multi-charity ‘Send My Sister to School’ and Plan International’s ‘Because I Am A Girl’ show the significance of this issue in the sphere of international development. Many of these campaigns are linked with successful, local partnership projects which invest in non-formal girls’ education. The Sidoni Education Committee in Mali combines basic academic skills training in reading, writing and maths with income-generating activities like soapmaking or agricultural training (Plan International, 2010). Training in skills that can be transferred to benefit the girl and her family economically allows for increased motivation for the family and community as they see the results of such skills training. It is also interesting to note that it has been found that students who pursue education past primary level are less likely to engage in crime or youth violence.  “Students who can see better opportunities for regular employment ahead and children who are in school instead of on the streets are more likely to be positive agents than negative ones. They are participants in their communities.” (Rihani, 2006)

The main areas donors and policymakers to consider in the growing area of girls education involve expanding options for schooling for girls through opening out to community schools, non-formal empowerment projects, mentoring as well as improving the quality and relevance of formal education for adolescent girls. Additionally, policymakers and donors face the issue of how to provide incentives and motivators not only to the adolescent girls, but to their families in order to encourage them to send the girls to school. There is a distinct lack of funding for new and innovative alternative means of education for excluded groups and particularly for reaching at-risk adolescent girls (Lewis & Lockheed, 2006). However, the successes of programmes like BRAC in Bangladesh in increasing school enrolment and completion provide evidence for alternative, non-formal education, and make investment in similar programmes a feasible option. The approach necessary for the community in which projects are set up will need to be widely varied and adaptable to the circumstances of that community. Some communities may require basic, structural and physical change, such as the construction of separate latrines for girls and boys in schools. Some communities may require education and awareness training in gender issues and girls’ rights. In order to understand the needs of a community and the reasons why girls’ are not in education requires a step-by-step approach and thorough research.

 An important point to note is the ongoing research taking place in this area, and the lack of data from certain global areas.  “A particularly glaring omission is knowledge regarding exclusion, gender, and schooling in Africa. Too little is known about a continent that is home to more than 30 percent of the world’s out-of-school girls and an estimated 40 percent of excluded girls.”  (Lewis & Lockheed, 2006) Policymakers, donors and international agencies could play a pivotal role in funding further research and evaluation into this emerging area, as further evidence serves to provide a stronger push for governments to invest in girls’ education.

It is also important to note that governments in low-income and developing countries often struggle with meeting Universal Primary Education targets and goals, and meeting the needs of adolescent, out-of-school girls is often out of reach as far as national budgets are concerned. Donor financing is crucial in helping both national and local governments meet the needs of adolescent girls through non-formal or formal education, and begin to see the impact and results of the investment.

Through studying the evolving issue of girls’ education, as an educator, I find every answer leads to more questions, and the issues and obstacles are wide and varied. The struggles of local and national governments to meet targets and goals in tackling poverty, basic education and health, often mean that adolescent girls are not a part of the planning. Yet, evidence is mounting to show the domino effect, known as ‘The Girl Effect’, that can happen when investment is made in adolescent girls. With evidence being gathered that adolescent girls’ education can impact on almost all other key policy areas, the case for governments to seriously consider their funding and approaches to girls’ education is becoming stronger. As yet, many governments are unwilling to move forward with initiatives in girls’ education due to the need for further evidence. I believe donor financing could play a significant part in ensuring this further research and evaluation takes place. With further research and evidence, the pressure on governments and policymakers will increase. From a rights-based view, I also feel that the need to support adolescent girls’ education is not simply an economical issue, but is significant in a view of a society where all members of the society have capacity, value and their right’s respected. 

4 thoughts on “International Woman’s Day – Why Girls?

  1. Gosh, what an informative post! Perfect balance with the Girl Effect video (amazing video) and your paper. I have bookmarked it and will turn to it in the future again I am sure.
    Thank you for linking up and Happy IWD, here is to a future where every girl is given the chance to learn and discover and enter adulthood with an education.

  2. Thank you for your lovely comment and for taking the time to read one of my heftier blogs!!! Thanks for the opportunity to link up – I’m loving reading all of the other connected blogs!
    Happy IWD 🙂

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