No, I am not referring to the Meryl Streep movie. This is my take-away from a panel that Plan International USA hosted on October 17th to discuss issues in girls’ education raised in our recent publication, Learning for Life. This publication is the sixth in a series of annual reports published by Plan focusing on the unique challenges facing girls, and the unique benefits that investing in girls generate not just for the individual child, but for her family and her community.
As noted by the Center for Global Development, one person in eight is a girl or young woman age 10–24. Young people are the fastest growing segment of the population in developing countries, and their welfare helps shape key economic and social outcomes -- including the size and competitiveness of tomorrow's labor force, future economic growth, improved governance, and healthy civil societies. Moreover, educational and health achievement of future generations is directly related to the physical and intellectual condition of today’s girls and young women, who will be central in preparing the children of the next decade. But today, around the world, girls are much more likely to have lower educational attainment, to be abused, to be forced into servitude, to be undernourished.
Education is without a doubt the most powerful intervention to improve prospects for girls. According to the Global Campaign for Education : “Education enables girls and women to improve their livelihoods: Widespread research demonstrates that investing in girls’ education is an effective route to ensuring both long-term economic growth and sustainable social development. One extra year of primary school boosts a girl’s eventual wages by 10-20%. Women and girls also make good use of the money they earn, reinvesting 90% into their families compared to only 30-40% for men. Increasing women’s education also increases national growth, a 1% increase in the number of women with secondary education can increase a country’s annual per capital income growth by an average of 0.3 percentage points.”
Conversely, the costs of not educating girls are high. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, “the cost of inaction is far higher. And the costs are borne not just by women, but by all of society. There is strong evidence that failure to educate women impedes growth: a one-year increase in the schooling of all adult females in a country is associated with an increase in GDP per capita of around $700. Research also shows how stalled progress in girls’ secondary school enrollment means foregone reductions in fertility, maternal mortality, child mortality, and malnutrition.”
Bottom line: the return on investments that improve educational attainment for girls is high. And I am not talking about just access to education and years in school. The development community, after years of focusing on infrastructure (training more teachers, building more classrooms, emphasizing number of years in school), has shifted its focus to emphasizing educational outcomes. And even definitions around what improving learning outcomes mean are being refined. For example, today USAID (the US bilateral foreign aid agency) is focusing most of its support for education on improving reading “fluency.” Not skills but fluency. As one of our panelists, Dr. Penelope Bender (USAID Senior Education Advisor), noted at our discussion this week, the objective is not to get boys and girls to recognize letters but to learn to really read and comprehend; without reading fluency little other learning is possible.
In the discussion, the panelists also pointed out that learning outcomes are not improved just because we have classrooms, teachers, curricula and books. For real improvements, we need “conducive learning environments.” This is particularly true for girls because they face discrimination in a variety of subtle (and less subtle) ways. “Conducive learning environments” means working with parents so that they learn to become and value being involved in the learning process – challenging if the parents are unschooled themselves and if their cultural setting is less likely to value spending time and money supporting the girls in the family. Such environments also require for kids to be well-nourished (ensuring a proper meal is among the more effective interventions for improving learning outcomes in the school) and that teachers (and all students) are well-prepared and sensitized about things such as sexual discrimination. It also means that girls have access to separate bathroom facilities (so that if they are menstruating they are still willing and able to come to school)…and the list goes on.
There is no silver bullet in terms of ensuring girls have access to and receive quality education. But when we make this happen, we do begin to change the world.
On October 11 Plan celebrated the first International Day of the Girl. I was very fortunate to have met seven of Plan’s Youth Ambassadors in New York, who were there to participate in a number of events to commemorate and discuss with policymakers the meaning of this day. These seven young women (ages 14 to 23) shared their stories – stories of huge adversity (of being beaten or trafficked or discriminated), but also of courage and hope. They remind us how important investing in girls can be as a catalyst for broader and more sustainable improvements in their families and communities.
So, in some ways, it is not all that complicated. Actually, it couldn’t be simpler: invest in girls and start to change the world. But let’s recognize that this is not just about providing access to buildings and books and teachers. It is also time-consuming work focused on changing attitudes and behaviors one family and one community at a time. Simple…