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To boost national GDP, let girls graduate

By Katelyn Barnes

Investing in teenage girls can strengthen the economy, according to a report from Plan International and Citi Global Insights. It causes a snowball effect — when adolescent girls have access to a quality education, the formal labor sector expands, and women’s participation in the market as consumers increases. The return on investment for creating interventions that target women’s education and economic empowerment are too large to ignore. Plan and Citi’s research reveals that if the completion rate for girls’ secondary education were to reach 100% by 2030, the GDP of countries with emerging economies would be lifted by an average of 10%.

The economic return of a girl's education

What would it cost for low-income countries to reach a full completion rate of secondary education for girls? The answer is $1.53 per girl per day. The report’s analysis determines the low cost for the interventions needed to increase access to education, and address other barriers like child, early, and forced marriages and unions (CEFMU), as well as gender-based violence (GBV). The cost of these intervention scenarios differs by country — the report looks at beginning these investments in 2018, finding that El Salvador would only have needed to spend $1 billion to cover the expenses of girls’ high school education by 2030, while India would have spent nearly $270 billion by 2030 because of its much larger population. If all Indian girls were to finish their secondary education and begin participating in formal employment, though, the country would gain $800 billion annually by 2030 — far surpassing the investments India would need to eliminate barriers to girls’ education.

Barriers to unlocking girls’ potential


The World Bank’s 2016 report found that, in low-income countries, only one in three girls completes their lower secondary education. The same report found that each additional year that a girl stays in secondary school “reduces the likelihood of marrying as a child on average by 6.1 percentage points.” When adolescent girls do not have access to a safe and quality education, they often have little economic agency and participate in precarious, informal work. Barriers to girls’ education leads to early marriages, increased births, a lack of financial literacy and little economic independence from their families.


CEFMU is a direct contributor to the low number of adolescent girls who complete their secondary education. The World Bank estimates that in some countries, CEFMU may account for anywhere from 10-20% of dropouts for girls at the secondary level. A study from UNESCO estimates that if 100% of girls completed their secondary education in low-income countries, CEFMU rates would drop 64%, and 59% fewer girls would become pregnant. The report found that the economic responses to these drops in CEFMU and early births are enormous.

—    In Niger, reducing early childbirth could produce an additional $1.7 billion annually by 2030.

—    In Nigeria, the gain from ending child marriage could reach $7.6 billion annually, while in Bangladesh it could produce up to $4.8 billion annually.

—    For every dollar spent on holistic interventions that protect adolescent girls and increase their access to secondary education in lower- to middle-income countries, a $2.80 return could be seen.

These numbers account for the money countries lose annually when women do not take an active role in the formal workforce and there is a correspondingly high population growth rate. When eliminating CEFMU and early childbirth, as well as ensuring adolescent girls are provided with a quality, secondary education, more women can enter the workforce and population growth can be reduced.

Violence and access to resources

Various forms of violence and abuse, such as intimate partner violence and trafficking, can also seriously harm adolescent girls’ likelihood of completing their secondary education and participating in the formal labor force. Plan International recently interviewed 7,000 adolescent girls and boys from 11 countries about issues they faced, and one-third of adolescent boys and girls said they agreed that girls never or seldom feel safe on their way to or from school. With other barriers to girls receiving education already deeply entrenched within societies globally, this particular effect of violence is detrimental.

Support for keeping girls in school

Low-income countries have much to gain from investing in girls, even if it takes more time to see greater returns. Uganda and Mali, which both have high rates of CEFMU driven by poverty and gender inequality, would need a decade’s worth of interventions before their GDPs finally saw resulting growth, but the projected increase could be 18-20%. When achieving high school education for girls by 2030 has the potential to lift national GDP levels by such large numbers, how can we not respond to the call to keep girls in school?

Along with many in the international development sector, Plan has been at the forefront of the fight to ensure adolescent girls complete their education by rallying behind important pieces of legislation like the Keeping Girls in School Act. Recently reintroduced in Congress with bipartisan support, the bill commits to ensuring girls’ education is a priority internationally, and that a U.S. strategy is in place to eliminate barriers that prevent girls from attending school. The bill requires the U.S. to join grant programs that address the barriers to girls’ education, listing 15 roadblocks that girls and women face throughout their lifetime. Among these roadblocks, the bill lists CEFMU, early pregnancy, cost of secondary school and lack of safety when going to and at school — all of which the Citi/Plan report included in its cost analysis.


  1. USAID must update its education and gender strategy to recognize the enormous economic benefits of girls finishing secondary school.
  2. Bills that protect adolescent girls, like the Keeping Girls in School Act, must gain enough momentum in Congress to become law.
  3. Girls’ education should be central to the U.S. government’s global COVID-19 strategy and to the work of the new White House Gender Policy Council.

Armed with the new analysis this report provides — when girls graduate from secondary school, GDP will rise by an average of 10% — global gender equality champions have new data to strengthen their advocacy with the most senior U.S. government decisionmakers.

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