As we have seen from the blog posts through the week on women and development, gender is a huge and sometimes complex issue affecting poverty worldwide. Women are far more likely than men to be poor, marginalised, ill and uneducated.
But there is a positive side to this equation as well. UNICEF calls it the ‘double dividend’ of gender equality: when you tackle this disadvantage you help not only a woman, but also her children, wider family and ultimately the whole community. That’s why the ‘Girl Effect’ video that featured in our blog post on Monday said ‘educate a girl, and she will do the rest’.
Education really is the key to unlocking the potential of poor communities. And educating a girl has the biggest impact:
- an extra year of education boosts a girl’s future wages by 10 to 20 percent, while an extra year of secondary school boosts them by 15 to 25 per cent
- when girls and women earn income, they typically reinvest 90 per cent of it in their family – compared to just 30 to 40 per cent of men’s income
- when a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education she marries four years later, and has 2.2 fewer children
- and each of these children is healthier – educated women are more likely to vaccinate their children, and of course to send them to school too.When you look at the effect of this happening for thousands of girls, the results are staggering. An increase of 1 per cent in the number of girls who have completed secondary education boosts annual per capita income growth – the rate at which the whole country’s economy is growing – by 0.3%. So if we educate girls, entire countries can raise themselves out of poverty more quickly.
So what is happening on this issue – are we seizing this crucial opportunity?
Yes – and no. Thirty years ago girls represented only 38 per cent of children enrolling in school in low-income countries. Today that percentage is up to 48 per cent, so girls are catching up with boys, but slowly. There are still 39 million girls of primary school age out of school in the world, which represents 39 million missed chances. Many of these girls will never enrol in school, instead spending their childhoods working in the home or outside it, and their adult lives in poverty.
Even when they are in school, girls are far more likely than boys to drop out or to underachieve, while the percentage of girls in secondary school remains unacceptably low. Discrimination within the classroom is a huge issue – in a study carried out in nine sub-Saharan African countries by the Institute of Development Studies (part of the University of Sussex) the research team discovered that in every country teachers believed that boys were more intelligent than girls. When chores such as cleaning the classroom needed to be done, they were done by the female students.
While solving this issue is complex, as it involves dealing with deeply-held cultural beliefs and practices, it is essential to tackling poverty at its root. We know now what works to get girls into school:
- Removing user fees for education (both formal fees charged by the government for tuition and informal fees such as for textbooks, uniforms, parent-teacher association contributions, and illegal fees charged by teachers who are often underpaid and must raise additional revenue). Even this may not be enough – girls’ work is often a source of income for poor parents, and in some cases ‘conditional cash transfers’ (giving a stipend to a family on the condition that the children attend school) are crucial.
- Creating an inclusive environment in the classroom, particularly through reforms to teacher training systems to tackle prejudice and train teachers in inclusive methodologies which encourage all children to engage actively in learning.
- Improving the quality of education, particularly ensuring that schools have adequate numbers of trained teachers who are actually present in the classroom. Education in low-income countries is often of a very poor quality, and parents and communities know this. When it seems as though education is not worth it, girls are the first to be removed from school.
- Addressing sexual harassment and violence. Far too many schools are not safe for girls, and abuse from fellow students and teachers is widespread. Working with communities, including the men, to change the attitudes that allow abuse with impunity is essential.
- Addressing girl-specific causes of drop-out including early marriage or pregnancy, care responsibilities (particularly in countries with a high burden of HIV/AIDS) and the lack of separate toilet facilities for girls and boys in many schools – which mean that girls either drop out of school when they start their periods or miss chunks of schooling every month.
Although the international community is increasingly recognising these issues there is still a long way to go. The Education Strategy recently published by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) is an important step forward – for example they committed to ensuring that every new school has separate, well-maintained toilets for boys and girls, and to developing these facilities in schools that already exist. But there was little in the strategy about creating inclusive environments within schools. As DFID also committed to training 130,000 new teachers every year this was a big missed opportunity: these teachers should be trained in inclusive methods, which would help girls to participate equally in the classroom.
And internationally, progress on getting more children into education is stalling, and aid to education has stagnated since 2004. 2010 is a crucial year for education – we must push to ensure that more attention is paid to getting the remaining out-of-school children, especially girls, into and achieving in the classroom. The job is not done yet!