So much yet to learn about girls' education

Oh, yes, another diagram on girls’ education. Not very clear, is it? I suppose that top line is boys’ enrolment in school and the bottom is girls’. Or maybe that bottom line is sub-Saharan Africa? Or is it girls’ enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa? One thing is for sure, whatever it is, the bottom line is probably girls. Or Africa. Poor rural girls in Africa, maybe. Yes. Then that middle line would have to be…
By Eileen Kane, who established the first Department of Anthropology in Ireland and chaired the Irish Aid advisory program. Recently she has worked almost exclusively on issues related to girls’ education for organisations such as the World Bank, UNICEF, USAID and various NGOs

Actually, this is an imaginary diagram, designed to provoke thought among development practitioners – policymakers, managers, educators and researchers. Yes, it is on girls’ education, but a different aspect – “How Much Evidence Do We Have About Girls’ Education – Benefits, Challenges and Strategies?”. The top line suggests how much we know about benefits. The middle one reflects our understanding of the obstacles. And the bottom line reveals how little we know about the most important aspect: what we should do to address the obstacles and gain the benefits, particularly in Africa, where the biggest challenges lie.

So while the diagram is hypothetical, the conclusion, is real1 – we have a lot of compelling evidence about benefits and obstacles, but not nearly enough about what really works in various contexts and why, so that we can reach more girls effectively.

Why educate girls? Girls’ education increases economic growth; reduces child mortality and malnutrition; brings improved health to women and those they care for; delays the age of first marriage; lowers fertility rates; increases women’s domestic leverage; improves functioning in the wage labour force; and enhances family economic strategies.

There are broader outcomes, as well: if developing countries improve their economies but maintain current rates of population growth, the consequences for increased environmental degradation will be enormous. Since women usually manage food, water, fuel, intensive agriculture and birth spacing, a woman with at least six years of education (the minimum to maintain literacy) will be a critical actor in population control, farm productivity, livelihood diversity, resource conservation and use of effective technologies. Indeed, the World Bank has concluded that improving female participation in education leads to one of the highest returns in environmental protection. Another beneficiary is good governance: girls’ education leads to greater political participation of women, and recent research shows that governments are less corrupt when women are more active in politics or the labour force. For example, controlling for other factors, corruption falls as the proportion of parliamentary seats held by women increases; as does the quality of various social protections2.

Even when various studies define these effects differently, findings on the measurable benefits of girls’ education hold true3. The causes are clear. For example, improving girls’ education is the cause of economic growth, not the result. Also, each of the effects mentioned here could be achieved in other ways, but only girls’ education achieves them all4. In fact, evidence of the development benefits of female education is “so persuasive” according to an earlier World Bank study, that “new, econometric studies of the impacts … on development are probably worthwhile only in extraordinary circumstances”5.

In 2000, 189 countries adopted eight Millennium Development Goals, including these:

- “Achieve universal primary education: ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of ordinary schooling.”

- “Promote gender equality and empower women: eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005 and in all levels of education no later than 2015.”

If the MDGs for education were met, the number of births per woman would be reduced by 0.6. Child mortality would also be reduced: not only does one more year of female education have the impact of reducing child mortality by 18.1 per thousand, but increasing the ratio of female to male educational attainment by 10% would reduce the under-five mortality rate by 14.2 per thousand. If the goals were met, this translates into saving the lives of 35,000 children a year in Mali alone6.

Yet today 60% of the children not in primary school are girls. Will the goals be met? At the current rate of progress, all the international agencies agree the answer is no. In terms of reaching universal primary completion by 2015, for example, which by definition includes completion by girls, 70% of the seventythree low-income countries for which data are available are “off track” or “seriously off track” according to World Bank analysis. Within sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is closer to 85%. In fact, if the current rates of progress for completion are anything to go by, universal primary completion cannot be reached until well beyond 20507. Part of the reason is girls: they and other disadvantaged children will be the last to be included and the hardest to reach.

Recently, researchers have looked at the effects of girls’ education from yet another angle, asking what happens if countries do not improve girls’ participation in education. The stark statement that “gender inequality in education is bad for economic growth”8 highlights the issue. Research shows that the national economic and social costs of not educating girls and not achieving gender parity in education are high; and higher, in fact, for Africa than for any other region. Some of the negative consequences will be evident by 2005, and will increase thereafter. In addition four of the other MDGs – improvements in child mortality, maternal health, reduction of disease including HIV/Aids, and environmental stability will not be met or will be severely hindered without progress in girls’ education.

Fortunately, the other side of the coin is that countries that are “seriously off track” in terms of reaching universal primary education, or have declining gender parities have most to benefit, in terms of economic growth, by getting their girls in school and expanding girls’ education faster, particularly at primary level where investment will bring higher rates of return9.

The evidence is persuasive; the obstacles, not outlined here, are well known, so what is the problem? It is not simply money or lack of commitment. We just have very little good information on what actually works to get girls into school and educate them. In fact when Kane and Yoder10 looked at more than 2,500 studies relating to girls’ education, only 250 dealt with strategies, and of these, only 32 contained enough information to draw conclusions of any kind. Nine years later, we are not much better off.

Resources are scarce and mistakes are going to be costly, so let us look at some of the things that work.

Girls and other disadvantaged groups are particularly vulnerable to the effects of generic problems of poverty, low GDP, HIV/Aids, poor education resource mobilisation and management, and poor quality of education. These cannot be compensated for by focusing only on the education sector and on girls. Improving employment and labour policies, out-of-home childcare, labour saving technologies, transport, and HIV/Aids communication and support programs are all critical.

Most successful approaches consist of a flexible package of interventions that respond to a constant analytical process of “thinking through” challenges and change. Projects that have used this approach to iterative design have produced dramatic rises in girls’ enrolment and persistence

Some strategies are “gender-neutral”, but have greater benefits for girls than boys: examples include expanding the supply of places, reducing distance, improving quality, lowering the age of enrolment, automatic promotion, open admissions, reducing costs, providing early childhood development programs, and making school scheduling flexible.

Research shows that interventions that take special account of girls have often been shown to help boys, too. Research shows that girls respond particularly well to improvements in quality, such as alternative programmes outside the formal school system; first language/ local language instruction in the early years of schooling; local/female teachers, with positive relationships shown between the presence of female teachers and girls’ participation at primary level; and single sex schools for improved achievement and for meeting cultural concerns.

Projects that reduce household costs of school attendance by abolishing fees, providing scholarships and stipends, assisting with transport costs and materials, and recognising opportunity costs have had well-documented positive impacts on access and retention in a range of countries. This may be one of the major policy areas where benefits can be seen in the short term.

Distance affects both sexes, as research in much of Central and Western Africa shows, but various studies also show that household demand for girls’ education is generally more sensitive to problems of distance than is boys’.

Most community “participation” is in fact financial. Real participation, ranging from identifying issues and potential approaches, to the rarest forms, e.g., participation in management, teacher supervision and curriculum development, has helped not only to create relevant local action but also to contribute to more responsive national planning.

  • 1. Kane, Eileen 2004 (forthcoming). Girls’ Education In Africa: What Do We Know About Strategies That Work? Washington D.C.: The World Bank.
  • 2. Dollar, David, Raymond Fisman and Roberta Gatti. 1999. Are Women Really The “Fairer” Sex?: Corruption And Women In Government, Working Paper no. 20776. Washington D.C.: The World Bank.
  • 3. Abu-Ghaida, Dina and Stephen Klasen. 2002. The Costs of Missing the Millennium Development Goal on Gender Equity. Draft. World Bank.
  • 4. The Population Council. 2001. The Un- finished Transition: a Population Council Issues Paper. New York: The Population Council.
  • 5. World Bank 2001. Engendering Development through Gender Equality in Rights, Resources and Voice, Policy Research Report, Washington, DC, The World Bank and Oxford University Press.
  • 6. Abu-Ghaida, Dina and Stephen Klasen, op cit.
  • 7. Mingat, A. 2003. Magnitude of Social Disparities in Primary Education in Africa: Gender, Geographical Location, and Family Income in the Context of EFA. Document prepared for the Joint Workshop organised by UNICED and The World Bank, Ouagadougou, June 25-27 2003. Draft.
  • 8. Dollar, David. and Roberta Gatti. 1999. Gender Inequality, Income and Growth: Are Good Times Good for Women? Policy Research Report on Gender and Development. Working Paper Series No. 1. Washington DC: The World Bank.
  • 9. Knowles, S. P., K. Lorgelly and P.D. Owen. 2002. Are Educational Gender Gaps a Brake on Economic Development? Some Cross-Country Empirical Evidence.” Oxford Economic Papers 554:118-149. 10. Kane, Eileen and Karla Yoder. 1998. The Girls’ Education Literature Review. USAID Girls’ and Women’s Education Activity. American Institutes for Research.
< Previous  |   Next >