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Education of Girls
Credit: Amy Vitale

Education of Girls

Call to action:

Ensure that girls everywhere can safely access and complete twelve years of free, safe, gender-equal, quality schooling.

Realizing the potential of women is foundational to planetary regeneration, but this requires girls to be fully educated and empowered. When girls finish their education, cycles of poverty and oppression can be broken, leading to healthier, smaller families and greater resilience. An educated populace of women improves a nation’s health, food security, and economy. However, only one in four nations has achieved parity in upper-secondary school enrollment, and very few poor, rural young women are able to complete their education in a number of countries deeply impacted by climate disasters. Girls are often the first to have to withdraw from school when families are stressed by poverty, war, political instability, cultural repression, or environmental degradation. Their leadership and participation is an effective, rights-based path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and leads to more effective and just climate action.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why we need to close the gender gap in education as a tool for building resilience and regeneration, and learn about the challenges girls continue to face. Providing quality education for girls results in measurably healthier communities. If every woman received a secondary education, twelve million children would avoid suffering malnutrition, saving three million lives. Better educational  attainment by women leads to communities that are more resilient to climate shocks. Female leaders are highly effective in conservation and climate activism, protecting key carbon sinks such as forests, oceans, and peatlands. Yet poverty, along with patriarchal tradition and the rise of fundamentalism, continues to hold girls back. One of the main reasons that girls’ education lags is its expense. This Global Education Monitoring Report outlines the legal, financial, and structural issues that stand in the way of equality. Benefits of girls’ education include:

  • Women who have completed secondary education are more likely to work and earn on average nearly twice as much as those with no schooling, according to a report by the World Bank.
  • A Brookings Institution study showed that for every additional year of schooling a girl received on average, her country’s ability to adapt to climate change improved as measured by the ND-Gain Index, which calculates a nation’s vulnerability in relation to its resilience.
  • A 2020 study showed that women-led nations had a measurably better handle on the coronavirus pandemic. However, the pandemic resulted in reduced attendance and increased dropout rates for girls. This Malala Fund report estimated that across low- to middle-income countries, millions of school-aged girls may have lost access to education.
  • This UNESCO fact sheet summarizes how girls’ education has positive effects on economic growth as well as a reduction in maternal deaths in childbirth.
  • Integrating reproductive health education into secondary school curricula empowers young people to make informed family-planning decisions, typically resulting in lower birth rates. In sub-Saharan Africa, women without education have 6.7 children on average, but the figure falls to 3.9 for those with secondary education. The state of Kerala in India has encouraged girls’ education through campaigns and policies, coupled with investment in providing access to family planning. Kerala currently averages 1.7 children per family, on par with many European countries.
  • Keeping girls in school is one of the best ways to prevent child marriage. For every year of secondary school completed, a girl’s likelihood of early marriage decreases. Girls Not Brides is a network of organizations working in one hundred countries to advocate for girls’ rights and education.
  • Governments with higher proportions of women leaders ratify international environmental treaties more often and adopt more stringent climate change policies. As a result, these nations have lower carbon dioxide emissions, suggesting that female political representation is an underutilized tool for addressing climate change.
  • Project Drawdown modeled the impact of increased voluntary family planning and universal education together in this policy brief, projecting that adopting this solution would have one of the largest projected impacts on emissions avoided by 2050.

Support organizations that promote access to free, safe, quality education for every girl. This could take the form of financial donations, offering services and materials, or organizing and educating your local community. This engagement toolkit was created by the “Let Girls Learn” Peace Corps initiative founded by former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama.

  • Follow or become a member of one of the many nonprofits working on the issue, such as Malala Fund or Brookings, to learn more ways to get engaged or start a local chapter (see Key Players below).
  • Amplify fundraising support by organizing an educational event such as a film screening, sale, or walkathon. This Take Action brief created by Girl Rising includes ideas for events to educate and motivate communities while generating donations.
  • The UN Girls’ Education Initiative launched #Education Equality in 2020, marking twenty-five years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which has been called the international community’s most progressive blueprint for advancing the rights of girls and women.

Speak up and take action for girls’ rights to education. Write an op-ed for a newspaper or submit an article to an online magazine such as this one.

Demand passage of legislation that supports universal education. This can involve legislation to combat gender bias in education or to remove obstacles to finishing school, both domestically and globally. In the U.S., the Keeping Girls in School Act aims to fund international efforts to remove barriers to gender-equal secondary education. You can send an email to government officials urging them to advance the bill via this campaign.

  • Join the international #RightToEducation campaign run by UNESCO to say no to discrimination in education and find out here if your country has ratified the legally binding Convention Against Discrimination in Education that makes free, compulsory education for all a fundamental right.

Volunteer as a mentor, teacher, or tutor for underserved girl students. There are many ways to get involved on these levels both online and in person. Search for relevant opportunities through a volunteer/job board such as Idealist.org. Here are a few examples of programs needing volunteer support:

  • The School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA) organizes volunteers who give instruction both remotely or at schools for girls in several countries.
  • Mentorship brings together women and at-risk girls to help inspire and support their futures. This U.S.-based program is organized by Step Up and offers several ways to get involved.
  • Global Vision organizes international volunteer and internship opportunities with a number that focus on the empowerment of girls and women.
  • California-based Children Rising connects volunteer tutors with youth in need of support in the state.

Groups

Teachers and Educators

Promote gender equity in your classroom. Teachers can be instrumental in creating inclusive learning environments through their choice of language, educational materials, and approach in the classroom. Here is a primer on how to create more gender-equal environments and avoid common mistakes.

Provide encouragement and tools for girls to excel in subjects where they are underrepresented. Supporting girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is one of the fastest-growing trends in education, as research has shown that educators can counter disparities through small changes in their practice that challenge stereotypes and engage different learning styles.

  • Girls Who Code is an organization working internationally to close the gender gap in the technology job market through programming camps and clubs, online resources, campaigns, and advocacy.
  • The American Association of University Women advocates for women and girls on academic, legal, and economic levels, helping them to pursue leadership roles and equal opportunities in education.

Integrate curriculum that empowers ecoliteracy, climate leadership, and development of skills for a green economy from an early age. According to a survey of students in thirty-seven countries, 86 percent of respondents reported they did not get enough information about climate change, nearly half said they did not know anything about the Paris Agreement, and only 20 percent learned about climate activism in school.

  • This Brookings report discusses the importance of connecting the efforts of girls’ education agents to those focused on preparing youth for regenerative careers.
  • The Ministry of Education in New Zealand launched a new curriculum in 2020 that teaches primary schoolers about the science of climate change, the work of young international activists on the issue such as Greta Thunberg, and national commitments to addressing the effects.
  • Climate Generation, Stanford Earth, and NASA are among the many resources for educators teaching about the global climate crisis.

Families and Communities

Support girls’ education, training, and leadership. Families and communities have an important role to play in closing the gender gap, both in improving girls’ chances of academic success and providing a safe, quality education. This report reviews evidence around leadership-building initiatives for women and girls, and found that role models, formal education, and supportive family environments are important, along with institutional change such as quotas.

  • Parents, grandparents, and guardians can follow some of these suggestions for helping girls to excel in traditionally male-dominated subjects, providing materials for building, and playing with toys and games that promote STEM early in life.
  • When communities are involved in local schools, there are benefits to both students and community members. Partnerships among agencies such as libraries, child welfare agencies, and community centers can contribute to student resilience and safety and engage and connect elders to youth to improve neighborhoods.

Schools and Universities

Connect teachers and students to financial and practical resources promoting equitable and effective learning. This can include accessing grant funding for achieving equality in education via diverse approaches including closing the digital gender divide (more on this under Governance) and promoting reproductive health. It also involves developing curriculum and other tools geared toward improving education for girls and providing opportunities for training and mentorship. Here are a few examples of valuable resources for schools:

Maintain gender-equal learning environments in your institutions. This starts with hiring diverse teachers and administrators and creating an inclusive, safe school culture. Providing teachers with training on inclusion is essential, along with appropriate working conditions and strong professional networks.

  • This list of eight ways schools can reduce inequities discusses gender mainstreaming, a strategy that incorporates gender perspectives into an examination of policy and institutional structures to reveal and address bias.
  • This report outlines recommendations for computer science and other STEM departments at schools and universities for retaining girls, including sponsorship of groups and events for girl students; active recruiting of female faculty; mentorship; and training to address implicit bias.

Engage families through community education, shared leadership, and ongoing communication. When families and communities are involved in schools, education improves on social, emotional, and academic levels. This Handbook on Family and Community Engagement discusses successful partnerships between schools and community groups such as libraries, religious institutions, and women’s groups. Girls’ education initiatives that engage communities as a central feature have had a proven impact, such as:

  • In Tanzania, a Room to Read initiative includes parent engagement workshops where communities connect with women graduates and discuss how to overcome challenges to girls finishing school.
  • The Citizens Foundation, a literacy program with an online platform for out-of-school girls in Pakistan, facilitates community groups to address girls’ education and works to make school management committees more representative.

Investors

Invest in universal education and reproductive health services to promote climate resilience and emissions mitigation. Though low-income countries generally have lower greenhouse gas emissions, many have challenging conditions where women in particular are being impacted by climate change.

  • According to this report, thirteen of the twenty lowest-ranked countries in girls’ education are in sub-Saharan Africa. Somalia, for example, is ranked at the bottom. The Somali Girls’ Education Promotion Programme seeks to address barriers to girls’ education.
  • The Education Finance Playbook is a practical guide on achieving quality universal education for donors and agencies.
  • The Guttmacher Institute estimates that meeting the family-planning needs of every woman globally would cost $68.8 billion per year.
  • Girls’ Education Challenge, based in Britain, is the largest global fund dedicated to the issue, providing education to over a million girls in its first phase, through mobilizing governments, communities, and schools, and providing materials and safe spaces for learning.

International Agencies

Develop collaborative partnerships among girls’ education, reproductive health, and climate response agents. Agencies promoting reproductive health and girls’ education have conventionally been in separate silos. When the initiatives are linked, they strengthen one another: family-planning interventions work best in communities with higher levels of female education, and girls with access to contraception are more likely to complete school. Every additional year of schooling for girls is positively associated with higher percentages of women delegates to UN climate change conventions. This report discusses supportive partnerships that can be built among education, reproductive health, and environmental groups to most effectively address girls’ needs. Education about puberty, sexuality, and family planning, integrated into both school subjects and extracurricular programs, are most impactful when they also cover issues of gender and power. Here are examples of successful cross-sector initiatives:

  • In Nigeria, a collaboration between a local university and an initiative of the University of California developed the Center for Girls’ Education program. It offers mentored safe spaces where girls are trained in life skills such as community organizing and sustainable agriculture along with resources to promote academic success and reproductive health.
  • This program for teen girls in Guatemala uses a collaborative approach that integrates agroecology training with education on sexual health and self-esteem.
  • A number of agencies working in West and Central Africa came together in 2021 at a conference to strengthen their girls’ education initiatives. Organizations from eight nations are part of the Gender at the Center Initiative, a collaboration between organizations and government agencies dedicated to advancing gender equality in education.

Companies

Partner with and give to organizations that are supporting girls’ access to education. Financial support can go a long way in closing the gender gap and improving the chances that at-risk girls can finish school and build stronger communities. Companies can also benefit from aligning their brand with the girls’ education—see this article for some good examples of cause-related marketing (see Key Players below).

  • Besides financial support, businesses have found other ways to give, donating supplies such as books and sanitary items, or offering educational software as described here.
  • More companies are offering community volunteer programs where employees can get paid time off to help out, and studies show these programs boost productivity, employee engagement, and retention. This article discusses best practices and what to avoid when implementing these initiatives.
  • Corporate matching gift programs, where companies match employee donations to nonprofits, are an impactful way to offer financial support.

Governance

Improve funding for education and remove financial obstacles to enrolling in school. In many of the world’s poorest countries, families must pay for school fees, uniforms, and books, preventing low-income students from attending. Free universal education for every child should be prioritized through high school. Education programs can reach needy students and families through exemptions from fees and materials, scholarships, or conditional cash transfers.

  • Offer students healthy, free meals at school. This simple motivation for attendance has proved highly effective in raising completion rates for both girls and boys and promoting equity and inclusion. Brazil, China, and India have some of the largest school feeding programs, addressing poverty and malnutrition while improving learning outcomes.
  • Support families directly though conditional cash transfers. In the past several decades, the use of these transfers to families has improved educational attainment by up to 1.5 years in Latin America. In Turkey, similar programs in rural areas raised attendance dramatically and were expanded to reach refugee children in 2017.
  • Invest in providing twelve years of quality, universal education for all. While targeted actions are important to address issues that affect girls specifically, research shows that general interventions can also effectively deliver gains for girls. When Kenya made school free at the primary level and then extended that support through secondary school, they made rapid, measurable improvements in closing the gender gap in education.
  • Support the neediest students in a community to provide benefits for all. This report describes how learning outcomes improved in general when an initiative was introduced to underwrite the lowest-income pupils in a district.
  • Pass legislation supporting universal education and protecting girls from discrimination in schools. As of 2021, at least 106 nation-states had ratified the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education, which requires free and compulsory primary education, and secondary education to be available and accessible to all. Despite these aspirations, a 2020 report on inclusion and education showed that only about half of all nations had passed laws focusing on gender equality in schools.

Adopt gender-sensitive policies that get at the underlying barriers to equal education. These should include efforts to improve infrastructure issues such as transportation, technology, and sanitation, as well as addressing common obstacles such as gender-based violence, bullying, and discrimination. Culturally appropriate, targeted campaigns related to preventing child marriage, voluntary family planning, increasing recruitment of female teachers, and closing the gender gap in the labor market can greatly support girls’ education efforts.

  • This tool developed by the Global Partnership for Education and the UN Girls’ Education Initiative offers evidence-based guidance for developing gender-responsive education sector plans.
  • The Girls’ Education Policy Index measures initiatives according to a number of indicators and helps point the way to efforts with proven outcomes and best practices to help donors and governments effectively invest.
  • Active recruitment of women teachers by governments in nations where they are underrepresented is an effective way to support girls’ education and gender parity in general, according to the Center for Global Development.

Bridge the digital gender divide to improve girls’ access to education, promote participation in STEM, and increase women’s employment opportunities. This policy report discusses the root causes of the gender gap in access to technology and details needed action in six areas. Beyond extending networks, it suggests grant schemes that boost enrollment of women in STEM, campaigns to tackle bias and stereotypes, and steps to be taken to facilitate women’s participation in the labor market.

  • This article explores the untapped potential of women in STEM and describes some successful government initiatives aimed at closing the gap. International conventions in recent decades saw the implementation of gender action plans geared toward developing women and girls’ full participation and leadership in climate action through cooperation across STEM and education sectors.
  • This policy brief contains recommendations for governments on closing the digital gender gap, starting with collecting and analyzing relevant data, setting targets, and addressing underlying barriers to accessibility.
  • This USAID portal includes a toolkit, primer, and story map with case studies related to closing the digital divide, as well as information about a grant program for projects addressing barriers to technology for women.

Learn

Watch

Here are summaries of five films that champion education for girls, and here is a list of seventeen films and television series that feature women in STEM.

Girl Rising (documentary film)

Women Are the Answer (documentary film)

Read

What Works in Girls’ Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Investment by Gene B. Sperling and Rebecca Winthrop with Christina Kwauk.

Here is a list of books for children, teens, and adults that celebrate women and girls in science.

Listen

On Educating Girls (National Coalition of Girls’ Schools podcast series)

Educating and Empowering Girls” (BBC Radio, 39 Ways to Save the Planet)

Inside Global Girls’ Education (Teach for All series)

Educating Girls (Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia podcast series)

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