In recent years, huge strides have been made in girls’ education. In many countries, girls are now just as likely to attend primary school as boys. More girls than ever before are finishing primary school and transitioning to secondary education, and in many countries, female university graduates easily outnumber their male counterparts. So why do we still need to talk about girls’ education? In this article, we explore the systemic challenges which continue to prevent many girls from accessing and completing high-quality education, and the implications of these inequalities for millions of girls and their communities worldwide.
Over the last 25 years, gender parity in education around the world has skyrocketed. The percentage of countries with gender parity in primary education rose from 56% in 1995 to 65% in 2018. In the same period, this proportion of countries achieving gender parity at lower secondary level rose from 45% to 51%, and from 13% to 24% at upper secondary level.
Gender parity, however, is only a surface measure and does not capture the numerous issues which continue to prevent many girls fulfilling their right to education. Even in countries that have achieved gender parity, girls and young women continue to fall behind boys and young men in access to resources (such as well-paid jobs, smartphones, or connections to civic and political leaders) and the ability to enjoy their rights – for example, to freedom from violence and harmful practices like child marriage. In low-income countries, the number of out-of-school girls of primary school age fell by 48%, while the number of out-of-school girls and young women of upper secondary school age increased by 37% between 2000 and 2020.ii In some contexts, the pandemic took away hard-won gains in girls’ education. In others, notably Afghanistan, regime changes have created new barriers to girls’ learning. In still others, girls notionally have access to equal opportunities, but longstanding or cultural biases mean that they are less likely to access or take advantage of the options available to them.
Globally, deeply entrenched social norms and expectations can limit girls’ opportunities both in and out of schools. Early marriage and early childbearing can force others – especially the most marginalised – to drop out of school, further limiting their career opportunities. While educational opportunities in many contexts appear equal, girls are still subject to higher levels of gender-based violence, discrimination and abuse than boys. Even in countries where girls outnumber boys at in secondary and tertiary education, the education sector itself is far from being gender-equal, with continued overrepresentation of female teachers in lower-paid, temporary jobs.
What is more, progress in parity too often leaves the most marginalised behind, including the poorest girls, those living in remote areas, those with disabilities and those who are orphaned, refugees or living in crisis settings. Those girls who are least educationally marginalised are those who are already better able to attend and learn in school, whilst the additional funding and resources provided to support the most marginalised – such as girls with disabilities and those living in crisis – are too often insufficient. Simply achieving parity does not translate to the inclusion of such marginalised groups: when parity is the goal, and when parity reached, the most marginalised are frequently left behind.
Educating girls is critical to moving countries along the path to gender equality, making progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and changing the lives of women and their families – as well as the future prospects of the countries they live in. Schooling has the potential to effectively tackle harmful gender norms and unlock girls’ potential to lead more fulfilling lives, to exercise their human rights, to fully contribute to the economies and societies in which they live, and to become leaders in their communities. This can all lead to a wider group of leaders tackling injustice, discrimination such as gender-based violence, and contributing to a more peaceful and sustainable world.
Educated girls tend to marry later and to earn more as adults, enabling them to provide for their families, contribute to the global economy and have greater power in decisions that affect them. They also have lower rates of maternal and infant mortality – a UNESCO study found that if all mothers completed a primary education, maternal deaths would decrease by 60%, saving approximately 98,000 lives per year.iii The children of educated mothers also tend to be healthier, with lower rates of malnutrition and higher rates of vaccination.
The unfortunate reality is that although educating girls is vitally important, around the world too many girls face barriers to learning. These barriers can exist at various levels of the education system and wider society. High rates of early marriage, teen pregnancy and gender-based violence remain huge barriers to education, especially for older girls. Meanwhile, in their homes and communities, girls may face more domestic responsibilities than their male counterparts, alongside lower aspirations for their academic and economic potential. This can lead to limited support for their learning at home or fewer resources to support them to stay in school and learn.
Even when they are in school, girls too often face gendered barriers to learning. In some contexts – especially where gender intersects with other forms of marginalisation, such as extreme poverty, remote communities, the effects of crisis or conflict, and living with disabilities – this means that girls’ learning is falling behind that of boys. Meanwhile, cultures and attitudes within schools can reinforce cultural norms which limit girls’ learning, participation and aspirations, and school leadership may not be focused on quality instruction. Even where school leaders have the relevant data and will to enforce change, they often lack knowledge of how to address gender issues in their schools. There is also too often a lack of enforcement of safeguarding policies, and system incentives which are not geared towards ensuring that pupils (both girls and boys) learn in a safe and supportive environment.
In addition, there are specific barriers at classroom level which prevent girls from learning: these pedagogy-related challenges further hinder their ability to learn and thrive in school. Research shows that teaching and learning methods, curricula, school textbooks and learning materials, language and behaviour management approaches can all consciously or unconsciously reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, negatively affecting girls’ ability to learn. Teaching approaches can demonstrate higher expectations of boys, limiting aspirations, confidence and opportunities for girls, who are further disadvantaged when assessments are over-reliant on multiple choice and closed short answers, and when opportunities for collaborative and group learning in the classroom are lacking. Meanwhile, teacher training, recruitment and career progression processes also often reinforce or sustain gender biases.
As a result of all this, girls – and their peers, teachers, and communities – may have limiting beliefs about what they can do, perpetuating a cycle in which lower confidence and participation can be perceived as a lack of ability, and result in less support to succeed in learning. It is therefore critically important to ensure that teachers and school leaders have confidence and believe in the abilities of all their students, especially girls and those with disabilities, and that they continue to focus on improving the quality of pedagogy for learning as well as equity. Only then can we ensure that all girls and boys can reach their full potential.
As we have seen, barriers to girls’ learning can be complex and inequalities at all levels of education systems continue to limit opportunities for girls. To address this, our approach is not simply about improving access to education for girls, but rather about working at all levels of the education system to equip and empower girls, their teachers, their communities and educational leaders to challenge harmful gender norms and address the deep-rooted issues and power imbalances which continue to advantage men and boys over girls.
We work to not only highlight girl-specific barriers, but also to transform education approaches to ensure education systems are inclusive for all. We are dedicated to ensuring that all students have a safe, quality and engaging learning experience by addressing stereotypes and norms which act against this.
We base our approaches to girls’ education on strong evidence of what works, and back this up by detailed gender analysis in every context – to ensure the best results for the girls we work with and for. We draw on our portfolio of research and generate, disseminate and apply evidence on what works in ensuring girls’ learning. Our wealth of research, consultancy and delivery experience and expertise in girls’ learning gives us a strong and nuanced understanding of the challenges and how to overcome them. In addition, we closely monitor and evaluate our own work and programmes to understand the elements of programming that are most effective and enable the most effective approaches to be scaled. We also share this evidence of what works and use data to inform decision-making at all levels, and to help our partners to target resources and develop and scale good practices – because rising to the specific challenges of girls’ education matters.
To find out more about our work in girls’ education, click here.
Our Wasichana Wetu Wafaulu (Let our girls succeed) programme in Kenya is part of the UK-funded worldwide Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) to help some of the world’s poorest girls improve their lives through education. It builds on the success of our Wasichana Wote Wasome (Let all girls learn) programme that increased school enrolment for girls.
If we consider the specific needs of genders in the delivery of education as we do with other factors such as disability, then the benefits of gender-responsive education can be felt by all.
Gender gaps in education widen significantly at the time of adolescence due to the compounding disadvantage faced by girls, including negative gender norms, and health and safety risks. Our Girls’ Education Challenge project in Kenya works to support girls in a tailored way as they transition to secondary or vocational education and training pathways. In this case study, we illustrate the power of our guiding principle for adolescent girls’ education: as girls grow, we need to grow with them.