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Why aren’t all girls getting the education they deserve?

By Aaron Benavot, director of the GEM Report, UNESCO

One answer: poverty.

Despite every government in the world promising free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education to everyone, 130 million girls are out of school today. It’s difficult to comprehend what that means for each one of the one hundred and thirty million girl children and adolescents, but a new blog from the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report released for International Women’s Day helps to break down that number with some disturbing facts:

  • Nine out of ten of the poorest girls in South Sudan have never been to school.
  • In Afghanistan, South Sudan, Niger, Bukina Faso and Guinea the poorest women have been to school for less than half a year in their entire life.
  • In 33 countries, none of the poorest young women have completed more than 4 years of education, which means none of them have completed even a basic cycle of primary education. None of them!

For girls’ education, poverty matters. In all countries, some girls – usually the richest – are gaining access to primary education. But too many of the poorest girls are missing out.

Another answer: conflict.

Violence and armed conflict have a horrendous impact on education. Schools are often deliberately destroyed during conflict, with girls’ schools targeted three times more often than boys’ schools. According to the GEM Report’s WIDE database, six of the ten worst performing countries for girls’ education are affected by conflict. The conflict in Afghanistan resulted in a loss of 5.5 years on the total average years of national schooling; Burundi’s civil war lost the country over 3 years on the total average years of national schooling. Girls exposed to the civil conflict in Tajikistan in the 1990s were 12% less likely to complete the years of compulsory schooling than girls before the conflict.

Female students at Faiz Muhammad High School in Kabul, Afghanistan take their end of year assessments (Arete/Ivan Armando Flores/UNESCO)

How can governments keep their promise of 12 years of education for every girl?

Despite the grim news, there are some positive stories from countries that have seen significant improvements for girls. For example, we can learn from the Gambia, which has made fast progress in enrolling girls in school. Five years ago, 48% of the poorest girls had never been to school, today only 35% have never been to school – still too many, but impressive progress in just five years. This is paying off for general levels of education among young women over time as well, with the poorest young women today having completed two more years of education than they did, on average, five years ago.

The Gambia and Sierra Leone, which has also made significant improvements for girls, can help point the way for others. For example, both countries included a gender goal in their education plans in 2000 and in 2012, which the GEM Report found helped them achieve gender parity in enrollment in primary education. Other governments should follow this lead and include clear gender goals in their own education action plans.

Hawanatu Kafula enjoys school in Gollu, Sierra Leone. (UNESCO/KATE HOLT)

But we need to know more …

The GEM Report blog ranks the worst performing countries for girls’ education, drawing on new data from its WIDE database. WIDE looks at the influence that circumstances over which girls have little control, such as wealth and conflict, play in shaping their education opportunities. It helps governments target their resources to those most in need, and the international community to hold them to account for closing social and economic inequalities in education – something the GEM report will be looking at in depth in its next report.

When the GEM Report last posted this ranking five years ago, South Sudan wasn’t on the list. Now it has the unfortunate top ranking – not because girls’ education has deteriorated, but because South Sudan wasn’t included last time due to the lack of relevant data. Conversely, Somalia, which had the top ranking five years ago, doesn’t make the list this time because there hasn’t been any update to basic enrollment data since 2006. That means we simply don’t know how girls are faring there today.

A lot more needs to be done to address equity in education and improving data helps us do that well. Much of our data comes from school censuses that often fail to shed light on equity issues because they only measure who is in school, and don’t break that down enough by the circumstances explored above. An international household survey dedicated to education would help to close many of the information gaps we have, and is something we could all support to help ensure that everyone gets the education they have a right to receive.

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