by David E. Bloom and Mark Weston
August 25, 2003
Girls’ education is emerging as one of the top priorities of the international development community. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that “educating girls is not an option, it is a necessity,” and the 189 countries that signed up for the Education for All (EFA) initiative in 2000 showed their support by pledging to eliminate gender disparities in education by 2005.
Much progress has been made in recent decades. The number of girls attending school, even in the poorest countries, has grown rapidly in the past 50 years. High-income countries have achieved full equality of access to education, and in the developing regions of Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, almost as many girls as boys now attend school.
In some developing regions, however, millions of girls still receive little or no education. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are far from meeting the EFA target, and progress in Central Asia has slowed in the last decade. Of the more than one hundred million children in the world without access to primary schooling, 60 percent are girls, and in countries like Afghanistan, Niger, Nepal, and Yemen, female literacy is less than half that of males.
These disparities hurt not just girls themselves, but also their families and the societies in which they live. Girls suffer because they miss out on opportunities to socialize, acquire knowledge, and gain the skills and sense of autonomy needed to improve their personal well-being and their lot in life. Each additional year of schooling tends to increase an individual’s earnings by more than 15 percent, and education also improves women’s health and gives them a greater say in how their lives are conducted.
Families suffer, too, if girls are not educated. Mothers with education use the knowledge they have acquired to improve the health of their children and other family members. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa children whose mothers have received secondary schooling are twice as likely to be immunized against major disease as those whose mothers had not been to school. Educated mothers provide better nutrition to their children, too, and their knowledge of health risks protects their families against illness and promotes health-seeking behavior more generally. As a consequence, child mortality rates are much higher in families where the mother lacks education than in families where both parents have attended school. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, children whose mothers have more than seven years of schooling have less than half the under-5 mortality rate of the children of uneducated mothers.
The benefits to societies are also great. Girls’ education is now recognized as a cornerstone of development. Educated mothers invest more in their children’s schooling, thus improving both families’ and societies’ development prospects. They are also likely to have fewer children. For example, in Brazil, women with a secondary education have an average of 2.5 children, whereas illiterate women have an average of 6.5 children. Having fewer children allows families to invest more in the health and education of each child, thereby raising the productivity of future generations.
Of course, leaving women uneducated dramatically reduces the productive capacity of present generations too. Economies that fail to make use of the skills of half their potential workforce are at a huge disadvantage relative to those where everyone is contributing to the best of their ability. World Bank economists David Dollar and Roberta Gatti have studied the effect of girls’ education on economies. The return on investment in girls’ education, they find, is not lower than the return for boys and, particularly in lower-middle-income countries, is often significantly higher. Dollar and Gatti conclude that economies “that have a preference for not investing in girls pay a price for it in terms of slower growth and reduced income.”
Why, then, have some countries failed to close the gap? The main causes are cultural and economic. Schools in some developing countries are insensitive to girls’ needs. Verbal and physical abuse, a lack of sanitation, and long distances between home and school can all make schooling a hazardous experience and deter parents from sending their daughters to school. Certain cultural practices also make sending girls to school less desirable. In many societies, girls are not expected to make economic contributions to their families. Instead, they are expected to care for family members and carry out household chores, tasks for which education is not seen as necessary. Moreover, girls are seen as relatively transitory assets — not worthy of long-term investment — as they leave their parents’ household upon marriage. A vicious cycle is thereby created: Girls are believed to be less worthy of education so they receive less, which diminishes women’s prospects of closing the gap on men in the future.
Even where families are willing to invest in their daughters’ schooling, discrimination in the labor market can make investing in boys before girls a rational economic decision. In developing countries, women earn less than men even if they have the same education and experience, so the economic returns to individuals mean that boys’ schooling is inevitably seen as a better investment. The disparity is magnified by the fact that women tend to have less access to financial capital and less secure claims to financial capital and other assets than men. This perspective does not, of course, take into account the social benefits of girls’ education, but economic gains are a powerful driver of family decisions, particularly in poorer societies.
Promoting girls’ education, therefore, involves changing attitudes across society as well as spending money on increasing the number of school places available to girls. Donors providing funding for education can help by insisting that their funds are used to educate girls as well as boys. New means of engaging policy makers — perhaps through a bottom-up approach, where pressure is applied by civil society, or through better use of evidence to show the benefits of girls’ schooling — may also reap rewards. Religious leaders also need convincing, as do men in general, who are usually the main decision makers within households. Changing cultural attitudes toward women is a slow and difficult process. In those nations that have succeeded, such changes have typically required strong political leadership.
Businesses, too, need to change their ways by providing opportunities to women, since they are likely to benefit from access to both a deeper pool of well-trained labor and the skills and knowledge women bring to a task. The World Bank has found that gender-biased hiring and pay practices are more common in firms that have little or no competition, but as economies open up, employment prospects for women should improve and justify investment in their education.
Even if governments and businesses are persuaded, however, reforming education systems to increase girls’ attendance is no easy task. Those countries with the greatest disparities in access to education, like Afghanistan, India, Ethiopia, and Yemen, are among the poorest countries in the world. Building new schools, improving sanitation in existing schools, reducing costs so that schooling is more affordable for families, and convincing families of the value of girls’ schooling require significant resources. For resource-strapped governments, many of these tasks are out of reach.
In such circumstances, a focus on the bare necessities is likely to pay dividends, and the critical factor in determining whether attending school is a rewarding experience is the quality of teaching. A good education can be delivered without buildings, uniforms, or even books, but it cannot be achieved without good teachers. Training and attracting women teachers should be a high priority for poor countries attempting to educate girls. Women teachers make families more comfortable about sending their daughters to school, and they are more sensitive to girls’ needs. Many developing countries already have high ratios of women to male teachers, but the historic neglect of girls’ education means that many of these women are poorly trained themselves.
Those countries that have lagged in promoting girls’ education have also lagged developmentally. It is expensive — both politically and financially — to eliminate gender gaps in school enrolment. But if developing countries wish to improve their living standards and catch up with the industrialized world, not educating one’s girls to the same extent as boys will surely prove even more expensive.
David Bloom is Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography at Harvard University. He is also a co-principal investigator of an American Academy of Arts and Sciences project on universal basic and secondary education (UBASE). This project has assembled a task force to examine the rationale, means, and consequences of providing a quality education to all the world’s children at the primary and secondary levels. Mark Weston researches and writes on issues of international development, mainly in the areas of governance, health, and education, for a variety of organizations.
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Meena (not her real name) didn't tell her parents when the older boys started harassing her on the hour-long walk to school from her home in Madanpur Khadar, south Delhi – grabbing her hand and shouting "kiss me" – because she knew she would get the blame, as if she had somehow encouraged them. She was right: when her family found out, they banned her from going back to school, worried about the effect on their "honour" if she was sexually assaulted. The plan now is to get her married. She is 16.
Gulafsha is luckier: her mother is determined she will become a doctor. But there are 70 pupils in a class at her school, and the teachers often simply don't turn up. The drinking water tanks are so filthy the pupils bring their own water. "I have never gone to a toilet at school in all these years, they are so bad," the 14-year-old says. She doesn't know how, but somehow her mother saves 900 rupees a month to pay for private tuition in three subjects.
Sumen, 35, is battling for her child's future, too. Her nine-year-old son has learning disabilities and she has tried and failed to get him into school every year since he was old enough. Finally, the authorities have agreed he should get some education, but it's only for one day a week. Sumen, a domestic help who never went to school herself, wonders if she should have tried to teach him at home: "But if I haven't studied, how much could I do for him?"
Four years ago, the World Bank upgraded India from a "poor" country to a middle-income one. As commentators were at pains to point out in November, when the UK announced it would end aid to India from 2015, the country has a space programme, 48 billionaires and its own aid budget. Under its Right to Education (RTE) Act, passed in 2009, a free and compulsory education is guaranteed for all children aged between six and 14, and the most recent figures for primary school enrolment stand at an impressive-sounding 98%.
But going to school, as those monitoring progress on the millennium development goal of achieving universal primary education have increasingly realised, is one thing: the quality of the education you get is another. Within government schools pupils face numerous challenges, says Oxfam India's Anjela Taneja. Overcrowded classrooms, absent teachers and unsanitary conditions are common complaints, and can lead parents to decide it is not worth their child going to school.
A 2010 report by the National Council for Teacher Education estimated that an additional 1.2 million teachers were needed to fulfil the RTE Act requirements, and last year the RTE Forum, a civil society collective of around 10,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), found that only 5% of government schools complied with all the basic standards for infrastructure set by the act. Some 40% of primaries had more than 30 students per classroom, and 60% didn't have electricity. The RTE Forum also reported official figures showing that 21% of teachers weren't professionally trained.
Earlier this year, the independent Annual Status of Education Report into rural schools found declining levels of achievement, with more than half of children in standard five – aged around 10 – unable to read a standard two-level text. "If you want to end child labour, you have to fix the education system," Taneja says. "People are aware of what education is and what it is not."
Nor do enrolment figures necessarily reflect who is actually attending school, she says. The number of primary age children not in school in India was put at 2.3 million in 2008, but other estimates suggest it could be as high as 8 million. According to an Indian government report, the primary drop-out rate in 2009 was 25%.
It is girls, and marginalised groups such as the very poor and the disabled, who are often left behind. While girls attend primary school in roughly equal numbers to boys, the gap widens as they get older and more are forced to drop out to help with work at home or get married.
Of the out-of-school children in 2008, 62% were girls; they make up two-thirds of illiterate 15- to 24-year-olds. And two-thirds of those not in school were from those lowest in the caste system, tribal groups and Muslim communities, despite those historically oppressed groups making up only 43% of India's children. Meanwhile, neighbourhood "low-budget" private schools serving low-income families desperate – like Gulafsha's mother – to provide their children with a "quality" education have mushroomed. But they are unregulated, and can lack trained teachers and proper infrastructure, says Taneja.
Madanpur Khadar, a "resettlement colony" begun in 2000 to house families moved on from newly cleared slums, has 145,000 residents. But the number of plots given out for homes is only really enough to accommodate around 60,000 to 70,000 people, explains Alok Thakur of Efrah (Empowerment for Rehabilitation, Academic & Health), a grassroots organisation working to promote socio-economic development in some of Delhi's poorest areas.
The buildings are made of brick, but 90% of households have no toilets, Thakur says. The sewers running along the edges of the bumpy, often unmade streets are only partially covered. Here and there great piles of glistening, treacle-dark sludge have apparently been dredged out. Animals root through heaps of rotting rubbish, and one large open space has become a shallow lake of foul-smelling filth. Pigs snuffle at the detritus littering its margins.
Kamlesh's hands quiver as she reads her testimony, the microphone bouncing her words off the surrounding buildings. Efrah has organised a "jan sunvai", or public hearing, giving residents the chance to air their grievances about the colony to a panel of experts, and the 35-year-old mother is speaking on education. At the area's three primary schools, the students number 2,176, 1,148 and 1,311, her submission says. They have 33, 14 and 20 teachers respectively. The quality and quantity of teaching is insufficient.
Inside one of the schools, some of the gloomy, bare-walled classrooms have low benches and desks. In others, the little girls sit on the floor, books in their laps. In several, no teacher is present; one man appears to be responsible for three of the small rooms. When the heavy metal gates at the entrance are opened at the end of the school day, an incredible crush of children pours into the squelchy mud of the lane outside.
Back at the hearing, the kind of street harassment suffered by Meena – sometimes referred to as "Eve-teasing" – and its effect on girls' education is another major concern. The brutal gang rape and murder of a Delhi student in December sparked protests across the country calling for changes in cultural attitudes and policing, but young women here say they feel scared by the way some men behave. "We complain to the police and [they] stand where they are and watch the girls being teased," Meenakshi, 18, tells the audience.
A series of measures have been brought in since the December attack aimed at making women safer, but despite these, there has been a spate of attacks on women in Delhi since the beginning of March, including four reported assaults on girls under 18. Only a fraction of such attacks are reported.
The Global Campaign for Education (GCE), a coalition of 26 NGOs and teaching unions, wants all nations to allocate at least 6% of GDP to education. India has been promising that since 1968, Taneja says, but the figure has never topped 4%, and it is currently 3.7%. It is an issue of political will, rather than a lack of cash, she suggests: education is not a vote-winning issue in a system of frequent elections, where pledges need to be deliverable immediately.
Nor do policymakers have a personal stake: the political classes don't tend to send their children to government schools. "It seems to me we can afford everything else," Taneja notes.
As the 2015 deadline for the millennium goal on primary education looms, the experiences of girls and women such as Meena, Gulafsha and Sumen have a particular resonance. On current trends, a Unesco-commissioned report concluded in October, the goal will be missed "by a large margin".
Progress was initially rapid, but has stalled since 2008, and 61 million children remain out of education. But as thoughts turn to replacement goals, attention is focusing not just on how to reach the remaining children, but on those who are now going to school but simply aren't learning, says Save the Children's Will Paxton, who leads on policy for the GCE UK. "The scale of the issue is pretty enormous," he says. "Not least because if they don't learn anything they disengage and drop out."
Targets to tackle inequality in who gets to go to school, and to push nations to help the most marginalised young people in education, will be another GCE focus. "Our argument is that the existing MDG doesn't really do enough to provide a strong incentive to worry about the hard-to-reach groups," Paxton says.
Meena, who comes from a Dalit family – the caste formerly known as "untouchables"– had imagined herself working for the police, or becoming a teacher. "My parents are looking for a boy for me," she says. "They say I can get married and then I can study. But I know that once I get married, it will become very difficult. My dream will never come true."
Some names have been changed
• Rachel Williams's trip was funded by the Global Campaign for Education UK and the National Union of Teachers
What we learned in Delhi, by Millie and Sam
Since returning from Delhi, Millie Wells has thought about girls like Meena a lot. "I was just walking to school and thinking how different my life is from hers," she says. "It's really hard to comprehend."
Millie, 15, from Ringwood school in Hampshire, and fellow pupil Sam Whittingham, 14, won the Steve Sinnott award to become 2013's young ambassadors for the Send My Friend to School campaign.
They travelled to Delhi to find out what stops children getting a good education, and now, armed with compelling first-hand accounts, will encourage other young people to lobby UK politicians on pushing for universal primary education.
Sam was impressed by the differences being made to children's lives by the projects he saw. "They knew they couldn't change everything in one go, but they helped small groups to chip away at the problem," he says.
The public hearing in Madanpur Khadar sticks in Millie's mind. "The people spoke with so much passion," she remembers. "They were trying to cope with what they had and campaign within their own community. It was amazing."
For free Send My Friend to School 2013 school packs and resources go to sendmy friend.org