Educating girls: the key to tackling global poverty


Ensuring girls enter and stay in the classroom is seen as crucial in the fight to eradicate global poverty, so how can obstacles such as child marriage be overcome?

Teenage girls attend a meeting in Dodoma, Tanzania, East Africa.
 The UN’s sustainable development goals call for gender equality and a quality education for all by 2030. Photograph: Alamy

Access to education shouldn’t be determined by a child’s gender, yet 130 million girls globally are out of school and 15 million girls of primary school age will never even enter a classroom.

Educating girls gives them the freedom to make decisions to improve their lives, which has deep social implications. Giving girls access to schooling is a central part of eradicating global poverty, according to the World Bank, which says better educated women tend to be healthier, participate more in formal labour markets, have fewer children and marry later. The UN’s sustainable development goals call for gender equality and a quality education for all by 2030. So what action needs to be taken to overcome the complex global barriers to not only getting girls into school but also providing them with a meaningful education?

These questions were tackled by a panel of experts from the non-profit, academic and private sectors, at a Guardian roundtable event in New York, chaired by Guardian journalist Anna Leach and supported by anti-poverty NGO Opportunity International.

Child marriage

A key obstacle to girls participating in school life is child marriage. Every year 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married.

The reasons for child marriage and a lack of education for girls are complex and interlinked, said Heather Hamilton, deputy executive of Girls not Brides. “Both come from the base view of girls as not as valuable as boys,” said Hamilton. “If we don’t have local values changing, and support girls as valuable people in their own right … we’re not going to see the shift in outcomes,” she added.

One project looking to tackle this is Girl Effect’s Yegna, an initiative using music and radio to spread awareness of girls’ rights in Ethiopia. It recently tackled child marriage through a radio drama. Research in the Addis Ababa and Amhara regions of the country found that while 53% of boys not aware of Yegna said they would report instances of child marriage, this jumped to 95% among boys who listened to the show. It’s not action taken yet, admitted Natalie Au, global gender director of Girl Effect, but it’s “an initial first step”.

While child marriage has cultural roots, poverty plays a huge role, said Dolores Dixon, executive director in Canada for Camfed, a non-profit working in African countries to support the education of marginalised girls. “Parents who can afford it would not necessarily hold back their children from going to school,” said Dixon, “but if you can’t afford it you will then have to make a choice … they feel [marriage] is the best option within the limited options.”

Young women who have been through Camfed’s education programme, who themselves may have faced child marriage, can be important advocates, said Dixon. “Communities can relate to the examples and their experiences and they can also see role models in front of them,” said Dixon.

Engaging these communities must be done sensitively. “It’s not trying to turn everything upside down, because you will immediately face resistance,” said Eva Halper, director of corporate citizenship at Credit Suisse, “it’s finding the right way to approach those challenges from the bottom up.”

Halper referred to a project run by education non-profit Room to Read in Tanzania. Girls in some communities there undergo lengthy initiation ceremonies when they reach puberty, after which they are considered adults able to work or marry. Room to Read’s approach with the community, said Halper, “is not to say: ‘Stop these initiation ceremonies – you can’t do that’ … but to reach a compromise of please delay it.”

Menstrual health management

The onset of menstruation is another key pressure point for girls’ schooling, especially in the developing world. A lack of gender separate bathrooms, no access to sanitary products, teasing from classmates, unsupportive teachers – all can disrupt a girl’s ability to participate in school.

“There is shame, there’s fear, there’s embarrassment,” said Marni Sommer, associate professor in sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. “I’ve been in countries where girls thought if they told anybody [they were menstruating] they’d die.” Sommer helped develop puberty books in Ghana and Ethiopia for girls to understand what’s happening to their bodies, while also building literacy.

Columbia University and Unicef joined forces in 2014 to map out a 10-year agenda for menstrual health management (MHM), to help girls to manage their periods in school “in a comfortable, safe and dignified way”. One of its achievements is to include MHM in all of Unicef’s school Wash (water, sanitation and hygiene) programmes across 48 countries.

The project’s inclusion of the private sector, social entrepreneurs, donors, researchers and governments has been key to its successes, said Nora Fyles, director of the secretariat for the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI): “This is actually a story of how to do advocacy and come up with an agreement of what is reasonable in 10 years to achieve.”

The value of working with different sectors was emphasised by Halla Holmarsdottir, vice-dean, Faculty of Education and International Studies, Oslo and Akershus University: “So often in education we talk to ourselves and there is such a need to talk cross-sector.”

India, for example, has had a policy on MHM since 2013, said Archana Patkar, programme manager at the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), but through the ministry of water and sanitation, not health or education.

And we mustn’t forget the role of men and boys when it comes to menstruation, added Patkar. Men in the governments of countries in Africa and south Asia, where WSSCC works, have been some of their biggest champions. “If you can actually talk about it with men and women, girls and boys, and replace that stigma, the silence and shame, with information and therefore dignity and pride … this gives us an opportunity to really open up the space for conversations.”

Once girls are in formal education, said Au, “that’s better than being out of school, but what’s that actual educational journey like for them?”

Keeping girls safe in school

Part of ensuring the education environment benefits girls is about making schools safe, supportive learning spaces. “Gender-based violence in and around school is a reality,” said Fyles. The international education sector has spent so long trying to get children into school, especially in the developing world, only to realise girls are facing dangers there, she added. “[Girls] don’t think about learning when they’re trying to figure out what the next exit is or whether they can go to the toilet and be safe.”

The global community has recognised the issue, said Fyles. The UN, for example, has included a commitment to address gender-based violence in its Education 2030 initiative.

“We know that there are some really, really negative experiences around school”, said Bourne, who referred to a report that revealed female university students in Liberia were often harassed and pressured into “sex for grades” – where lecturers pressure students to perform sexual acts in return for good grades cards or passing assignments. “But we also need to remember that schools are also really powerful places to help challenge some of the gender norms and some of the social norms that we see around.”

Part of that puzzle is providing teachers with the right training. “Teachers have their own agenda, their own experiences,” said Holmarsdottir.

She described a school in South Africa where students had chosen a girl as head prefect only to be overruled by teachers who decided it was a boy’s job. Teachers need to say to girls: “We do see that you have a role to play, we do want you to continue on, you are important,” said Holmarsdottir.

More creativity is needed when considering how to reach girls in remote communities, such as in northern Nigeria, who simply cannot access formal education, said Au. “It’s not just bums on seats in schools; we need to be a bit more innovative and progressive about how we go to where the girls are while also getting them into formal processes.”

For Girl Effect this meant a project giving girls in northern Nigeria mobile phones to access stories on topics such as safety, relationships and friendships as well as connecting them with trained mentors. “It’s a very alternative way for girls to be able to access information and explore their curiosities about growing up,” she said.

Life skills such as communication, persistence and negotiation, also have a role to play, said Heather Simpson, chief programme officer of Room to Read. But it’s an area often overlooked by ministries of education, she added. The Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) in Malawi is one organisation implementing life-skills education with women mentors, who are also providing menstrual pads. “This is the kind of really integrated approach that we need to be supporting,” said Hamilton.

“Girls are central to the global poverty story,” said Dana Rice, managing director of philanthropy for Opportunity International. But change will be held back until there is a shift in cultural ideas of what a girl is. “It’s about how girls value themselves, the voice that they have to articulate what they think, and communities really valuing them as contributors to their own development,” said Au.

Article originally appeared here.

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