Getting to Equal: How Educating Every Girl Can Help Break the Cycle of Poverty

September 22, 2011

  • Investing in girlsInvesting in girls is both smart economics and the right thing to do. is both smart economics and the right thing to do.
  • Educating girls is one of the strongest ways not only to improve gender equality, but to promote economic growth and the healthy development of families, communities and nations.
  • Despite tremendous progress in getting girls into school, the global community must commit to making sure education counts and that it reaches the most marginalized girls who need it the most.

September 22, 2011 - Women and girls are in the spotlight this week as the World Bank launched its World Development Report 2012, “Gender Equality and Development,” and ignited a global conversation on how investing in girls is both the right thing to do and smart economics. Joined by the Nike Foundation, the Bank hosted its global Open Forum on Gender and the message was clear: the girl effect all starts with education.

Investing in Education Improves Gender Equality

Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

Educating women and girls is fundamental to development and growth because learning and skills enable all people to live healthier, happier, and more productive lives. Research shows that providing girls with an extra year of schooling can increase individual wages by up to 20 percent, while also lowering birth rates, which can have a profound economic impact. An increase of one standard deviation in student scores on international assessments of literacy and mathematics is associated with a 2 percent increase in annual GDP per capita growth. The benefits of education can also transmit across generations as more educated people have fewer children and provide their children with better health care and education. Curbing the intergenerational transmission of poverty is especially important for girls and women.

The Bank plays a key role in advancing gender equality through girls’ education, building on an over 20 year foundation of research, funding, policy dialogue, and partnerships. The Bank’s commitment and actions are illustrated in a new Companion Note to the WDR, Getting to Equal: Promoting Gender Equality through Human Development. The Companion Note links the WDR 2012 framework (the interactions between households, markets, and institutions) and policy recommendations to the Education Strategy 2020, Learning for All, with examples of global success stories.

Reaching the Most Disadvantaged Girls and Making Education Count

A combination of effective policies and sustained national investments in education have resulted in tremendous gains in access to schooling. Yet WDR 2012 points toward three challenges for the future of girls’ education: improving learning outcomes, addressing the needs of severely disadvantaged populations, and reducing segregation in fields of study. Evidence shows that it is what students learn—not the number of years that they spend in school— that leads to growth, development, and poverty reduction. As the WDR 2012 notes, “Only 27 percent of children ages 10 and 11 in India can read a simple passage, do a simple division problem, tell the time, and handle money.” The WDR 2012 and the Education Strategy 2020 stress learning and addressing constraints faced by populations contending with multiple disadvantages: gender, poverty, rural/urban divides, ethno-linguistic background, and disability.

When an education system fails to deliver learning, the failure is often severe for poor and disadvantaged children and young people. The Education Sector Strategy 2020 addresses the final education policy recommendation of the WDR 2012 in that it aims to improve the labor-market relevance of education by focusing more on the match between skills acquired and skills required. With women representing 40 percent of the global labor force and growing, any discussion of the linkages between education and the labor market must include how all people are given the opportunities to pursue the livelihood they desire.

Moving the Pendulum Forward on Girls’ Education

As one of the founding agencies of the Education for All (EFA) movement, the Bank, along with United Nations partner agencies, has worked to improve the quality of education and learning for all, especially girls. It also has served as both a convener and a bank of knowledge, helping re-energize the global debate on gender equality in education and accelerate the collective global response to the persistent challenges of women’s equality and empowerment. A growing number of Bank-supported impact evaluations of education projects, such as those in Cambodia, Colombia, Malawi, and Pakistan, are shedding new light on the gender impact of scholarships and other demand-side interventions, as well as on governance reforms that enhance school performance and accountability. In September 2010, the Bank pledged an additional $750 million through 2015 to help countries meet the education MDGs of universal access and gender parity. The Bank will continue to work through partnerships such as the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative and the Global Partnership for Education to advance gender equality in education.

Education projects help promote Gender Equality

Improving Services to reduce Gender Gaps in Human Capital

Enrolling more girls in school in Yemen

Yemen has made significant progress toward universal primary education over the past decade, including increasing girls’ enrollment from 49 percent in 1999 to 78 percent in 2009. Despite this growth, many girls from rural areas remain out of school—and those who are enrolled tend tobe over-age, with most dropping out before completing the primary cycle. With financing from the Bank’s Fund for the Poorest and the InternationalDevelopment Association, the Basic Education Development Program aims to increase school enrollment in the country (with a particularfocus on gender equality in impoverished districts) and improve the quality of teaching. As of 2009, the project had built almost 4,000 classroomsand trained over 90,000 teachers. To close the gender gap in education, the project has provided conditional cash transfers to more than 30,000girls from the most underprivileged rural households, starting in 2008. It has also focused on recruiting and training female teachers to makegirls’ education more culturally acceptable. The gross primary school enrollment rate in the country rose from 68 percent to 87 percent over theperiod 1999–2009, with larger gains for girls than for boys. This improvement in overall basic education also contributed to a considerable rise inthe grade 6 completion rate for girls, from 38 percent in 2001 to 51 percent in 2009.

Making Markets work for Gender Equality

Improving education access and quality through private schools in Pakistan

Pakistan faces significant challenges in public education: 30 percent of primary school-age children are still not inschool, the primary school gender parity index (GPI) is 0.8, and half of the country’s population is less than 17 years old. At the cost of just a dime a day per student, the government is subsidizing private schools as a promisingsolution to these challenges. In Punjab, the largest province and home to 60 percent of the country’s total population,the Bank is helping expand access to quality education and promote better governance and accountability inthe education system. The Punjab Education Sector Project (PESP) is a performance-based project that supportsthe government’s reform program, which aims to increase school enrollment and completion rates, reduce genderand urban-rural disparities in school participation, and strengthen the measurement of student learning. Underthe government’s program, over 400,000 eligible girls receive targeted monthly stipends pegged to school attendancein the 16 lowest literacy districts. In addition, the government financially supports approximately 2,000 low-cost private schools that serve almost one millionstudents from lower-income quintiles.

Another Bank-supported project promoting gender equality in education in Pakistan is the Sindh EducationSector Project (SEP), which supports a government reform program that directly affects the schooling conditionsof 3.8 million students. Since 2007 (the baseline for the project), the primary net enrollment rate has increasedfrom 50 to 54 percent, or an additional 600,000 children, and the ratio of female-male primary net enrollmentin rural areas rose from 61 to 76 percent. The government program also includes a public-private partnershipprogram that offers subsidies for individuals or organizations to set up and operate free, coeducational,primary schools in underserved rural communities, with subsidies tied to quality-related standards. Preliminaryresults from the first year showed large gains in getting children into school and even larger gains for girls, erasingthe pre-existing gender gap. The program counted among the cheapest interventions in developing countriesfor generating enrollment gains. Both the publicprivate partnership programs in Punjab and Sindh provinceshave also generated significant achievement gains in program schools; in the case of Sindh, achievementgains in the target communities have been as large as two standard deviations in a span of two academic years. Aprevious, similar pilot project in Balochistan province also resulted in substantial increases in school enrollment, with the gains for girls well exceeding those for boys.

Breaking Normative Barriers to Gender Equality

Creating more engineering educational opportunities for women in India

Through the Second Technical/Engineering Education Quality Improvement Project (TEQIP), the Bank is working with the government of India to strengthen higher and technical education vital to addressing current skill shortages in the country’s economy. The project is improving the quality of engineering schools and thus helping expand the pool of highly qualified engineers, including by targeting women. Specific interventions include promoting the capacity building of technical education policy planners and administrators and strengthening monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to improve the governance of institutions. The project’s Equity Action Plan helps ensure that students and teachers from tribal communities and other vulnerable groups, including girls, benefit equally from the project. Despite rising female enrollment in engineering programs in India, increases are not occurring in all disciplines, and the “gender-friendliness” of many campuses needs to be improved. This means ensuring that all refurbishments financed by the project will follow infrastructure guidelines to improve the ability of campuses to serve both women and disabled students, as well as expanding access to training for female engineering faculty.

Using Household Incentives to Achieve Gender Equality

Keeping boys in school in the Caribbean

Many poor households in both the Caribbean and Central America are unable to invest in secondary schooling for their children due to cash constraints and other factors, resulting in school dropouts. Particularly among boys, limited opportunity for gainful employment contributes to their engagement in crime and violence and an impoverished adulthood. Conditional cash transfers can be designed to address this problem by properly identifying the constraints to secondary schooling and responding with the right incentives to keep boys in school. In 2008, the Bank’s Jamaica Social Protection Project was set up to improve the design of the government’s PATH program, which aims to offset the higher opportunity cost of boys staying in school. The PATH program provides greater benefits to boys than girls for school attendance, which rise incrementally for every additional year of secondary school completed, and a bonus for graduating from high school and moving on to tertiary education or training. Preliminary results and qualitative analysis indicate that the project has already helped increase the school attendance of secondary school-age boys and thus close the gender gap.

Getting more girls into school in Cambodia

Most Cambodian children attend school, but low completion rates remain an issue, especially in rural areas and among girls. Among rural girls, only 78 percent of 15-19 year-olds complete grade 1 and only 17 percent complete grade 7. In 2005, the Bank launched the Cambodia Education Sector Support Project (CESSP) to address constraints in supply, demand, quality and efficiency, with a special focus on poor and underserved communities. The project has promoted gender equality in a number of ways. First, the project encouraged girls’ school enrollment and attendance by expanding schools in poor areas to shorten travel distances and promote community oversight; improving school sanitation facilities, with separate facilities for girls; and providing a clean and safe physical environment. Second, the project is also using teacher training as an avenue to challenge gender stereotypes, leading to greater awareness-raising about the importance of equal access for boys and girls to education and other opportunities. Third, by expanding the government’s effort to provide scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a disproportionate number of scholarships targeted to girls. The project funded scholarships of $60 and $45 to students ready to make the transition from primary to secondary school, provided that students enrolled in school, maintained a passing grade, and were absent without “good reason” fewer than 10 days in a year. The program resulted in more than a 20 percentage point increase in enrollment and attendance in participating schools for both girls and boys 18 months after they first joined the program, and 4 years later were found to also have increased the transition rates to upper secondary school, especially among girls.

Creating opportunities through early childhood development programs in Mozambique

Regardless of income, women worldwide bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility for child care, which often limits their ability to pursueeducational or economic opportunities. Access to subsidized, quality child care is positively associated with increases in the number of hourswomen work, particularly in formal sector jobs, suggesting that better access to child care affords women greater flexibility and income-earningopportunities. In collaboration with the Government of Mozambique and Save the Children, the Bank conducted an impact evaluation of innovative,community-driven early childhood development (ECD) centers in the rural Gaza province, where 42 percent of children who do not receiveECD services are stunted and 50 percent are at risk in terms of cognitive functioning. These delays have significant implications for children’sreadiness to learn and, therefore, their future success. The ECD program enrolls poor and vulnerable children aged 3–5 in high-quality, low-costECD services that build the foundation for lifelong learning. The program promotes cognitive stimulation and language skills, as well as goodhealth, nutrition, and hygiene practices at home, which mostly benefit women. After 2 years, girls who participated in the programs were significantlymore likely to be enrolled in primary school at the right age than girls who did not participate. Participants also scored significantly betteron measures of cognitive, fine motor, and socioemotional development, and were better prepared to learn. The gender equality impacts extendeven further, as big brothers and sisters were more likely to be enrolled in school, and both fathers and mothers were more likely to be engagedin income-generating activities, presumably because the preschool program frees up several hours of each day previously spent in child rearing.