Girls’ education: How far have we actually come and where do we go now?

Suborna's story

Suborna was forced into marriage by her parents before she was eight years old. She eventually escaped with the help of Child Forum Coordinators in her village in Bangladesh.

Now a World Vision sponsored child, Suborna has gone back to school and is in the 10th grade. She is also an advocate for other children in her community, and works as a facilitator, coaching volunteer groups to campaign locally on social issues like child rights, women’s empowerment and domestic violence.

Suborna’s story is but one of millions of individual examples of why empowering and educating women and girls is fundamentally important to the individual and to society at large. Girls’ education is the single most powerful development multiplier[1] – we’ve known this for years.

Building a platform for women's empowerment

In September, 1995, thousands of practitioners, academics and activists participated in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Their backgrounds were diverse but they came together with one purpose: to see women empowered. Out of this meeting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was born.

The Platform mapped out a world where all women and girls could realise their full potential by exercising their human rights, accessing quality education and participating in their community as active citizens.

Twenty years later, the Platform’s vision is closer to becoming a reality than at any time before. More women and girls live under constitutions guaranteeing gender equality, are protected against gender-based violence and have access to education. However, no country has finished the work the Platform for Action began.

How close are we to our goals?

Globally, 80 per cent of adult women can read, but in the least developed countries only 51 per cent of women are literate. According to a recent UNESCO report, 58 million children of primary school age are out of school – 53 per cent of those children are girls. Many of those children live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

In 2015, 70 per cent of countries are expected to reach the goal of gender parity in primary education – a crucial outcome of the Millennium Development Goals. However, 22 per cent of countries will still be far – or very far – from that target.

Knowing what we do about the power of educating women[2], even one girl remaining out of school should be completely unacceptable to us all. So why are we still talking about – and struggling to accomplish – equal access to quality education for all women and girls?

Some of the hardest work lies ahead

There are many barriers to girls’ education such as violence, attitudes towards women and harmful traditional practices. For example, girls are more likely to be taken out of school to carry out domestic roles in supporting their families. Girls like Suborna may be married as children and be unable to access education thereafter. Around the world there are, 700 million women who were married before they were 18 years old. More than one third of those girls were married before they were 15 years old.

United Nation’s estimates suggest that every year around 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to – or at – school. Violent actions targeted at school girls in Nigeria and Pakistan have highlighted how threatened some groups feel about the idea of girls gaining a broad-based education. Despite all of the progress we’ve made toward universal primary education, the most difficult work is still to be done – especially for women and girls.

We've come so far, but we can't stop now

Twenty years ago the Platform for Action made the education and training of women one of its 12 ciritical areas of concern. Let’s not let that sense of urgency wane as we embark on our goals for the post-2015 development agenda. If anything, our concern for all women and girls should increase as new and persistant threats to development continue to block the path to education for all.

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[1] Research conducted by the World Bank, World Economic Forum and the OECD show that an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 per cent, and an extra year of secondary school by 15 to 25 per cent. There are direct links between increased rates of girls’ school enrolment and increased GDP.The economic development of a whole country can be positively influenced by educated women.

[2] Educated young women are six times less likely to be married as children, and when they do, they have smaller families. A child born to a mother with a secondary school education is 50 per cent more likely to survive beyond the age of five.