Girl Power: Educating Girls in the 21st Century

March 5, 2009

  • Secondary classrooms are the new gender fault-line where inequalities in both learning and earnings potential show up
  • The quality rather than the level of education determines the economic success of individuals and economies
  • Raising education standards yields measurable results in the long-term, once students enter workforce

March 5, 2009—In a speech to his fellow Ghanaians in the early 1900s, the visionary educator, Dr. J.E. Kwegyir Aggrey, declared, “The surest way to keep a people down is to educate the men and neglect the women. If you educate a man you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family.”

The good news today is that girls have crowded into school in record numbers over recent decades.

They have shrunk the gender gap with boys, and won significant economic, social, and development gains for themselves and their communities, says a new Bank report.

Overall primary school enrollments for girls in poor countries jumped from 87 percent in 1990 to 94 percent in 2004, with also more girls than ever before now in secondary school, according to the report, Girls’ Education in the 21st Century: Gender Equality, Empowerment, and Economic Growth.

Girls’ education is key to lasting development. The business case for continuing to invest in girls’ education is beyond question, even in the teeth of the global financial and jobless crisis, write Joy Phumaphi, World Bank vice president for human development and Danny Leipziger, World Bank vice president for poverty reduction, in the foreword of the report.

 “Women’s economic empowerment is essential for economic development, growth, and poverty reduction—not only because of the income it generates, but also because it helps to break the vicious cycle of poverty,” they write.

The surge in enrollments is the result of the cardinal importance that governments and donors have attached to girls’ schooling over the last 20 years, says Mercy Tembon, country manager for Burundi, who is both a contributing author and the editor of the report.

It is also the result of the successful reach of scholarships, stipends, conditional cash transfers (CCTs), female teacher recruitment, free text books for girls, and other gender-related policies, she adds.

High School: New Gender Fault Line

While disparities are fading at primary school, fewer girls than boys are getting to high school. Secondary classrooms are the new gender fault-line where inequalities in both learning and earnings potential gather force and persist, the report says.

Especially hostage to under-achieving within the secondary system are girls in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, who live in small rural villages that are caught up in conflict, come from minority clans, or struggle with a disability.

“Here’s the challenge—and it goes beyond getting girls into high school and making sure they show up every day with their homework done—it’s all about helping them to master the life and job skills that will transform their lives,” says Tembon. She urges greater use of scholarships and conditional cash transfers to drive both the supply and demand sides of female education.

Education in Conflict Areas

Approximately half the world’s 70 million out-of-school children currently live in conflict-affected and fragile states.

The report offers insights into the challenges of educating children and teenagers in war-torn communities.

Professor Jackie Kirk, a gender specialist who was killed last year in Afghanistan, contributed a chapter on girls’ education in the country. The report is dedicated in memory of Professor Kirk.

Governments, development agencies, NGOs, and others cannot afford to row back on educating girls and boys under these dangerous conditions, no matter how challenging and difficult the task proves, Tembon says.

Economic Growth

The quality of education (what students know), not educational attainment (how long students stay in school), determines the economic success of individuals and economies, according to Eric Hanushek of Stanford University, a contributor to the report. This quality affects the education and income outcomes of both girls and boys.

" Children of mothers with five years of primary education are 40 percent more likely to live beyond age 5. "

But raising education standards doesn’t happen overnight. Tembon and the Bank’s new Education Director, Beth King, point to the difficulties that OECD governments face in improving learning outcomes, let alone low-income governments that have to raise scarce education spending while managing volatile donor flows.

Benefits to Future Generations

Raising cognitive skills for girls and boys alike requires changes in schools that bear fruit over 20 to 30 years, according to the report. If reforms succeed, their economic impact is not generally felt until new graduates make up a significant share of the labor force.

The social benefits of women’s schooling are also significant in developing countries. The report shows that a year of schooling for girls reduces infant mortality by 5 to 10 percent. Children of mothers with five years of primary education are 40 percent more likely to live beyond age 5.

When the proportion of women with secondary schooling doubles, the fertility rate is reduced from 5.3 to 3.9 children per woman. Providing girls with an extra year of schooling increases their wages by 10 to 20 percent. There is evidence of more productive farming methods attributable to increased female schooling, and a 43 percent decline in malnutrition.

Educating women has a greater impact on children’s schooling than educating men. Young rural Ugandans with secondary schooling are three times less likely to be HIV positive. In India, women with formal schooling are more likely to resist violence. In Bangladesh educated women are three times more likely to participate in political meetings.