Looking back on the last 15 years since the international community set a bold goal to educate more of the world’s girls, it’s possible to feel a mixture of accomplishment and futility.
On the accomplishment side of the ledger, more girls in developing countries are in primary school than ever before, and many countries are moving gradually toward gender parity in education systems. Indeed, in some places, the rise in girls finishing their primary education is outpacing that of boys. There are also countless stories of individual triumphs over forces that long kept girls out of school.
It’s also reassuring that in the last decade and a half, more people around the world – from grassroots activists to government and NGO leaders – have come not only to understand but also speak out for the imperative of educating girls. It’s heartening that there are far more voices making that case than ever before, through traditional media, social media, NGOs, high-profile events and government actions.
Girls face many education challenges
Still, in spite of undeniably good news, it’s hard not to feel discouraged.
Start with the stark reality that we remain far from the finish line set 25 years ago by the Education for All agenda. While it’s true that 48% of all children in school in developing countries are girls, the majority of all out-of-school children (31 million out of 58 million) are also girls.
Indeed, women represent nearly two-thirds of the world’s 781 million illiterate; cultural practices that marry off girls early and require them to care for their families instead of going to school are still widespread; in many countries where the number of girls completing primary school is surging, too few are moving on to lower secondary and secondary school, let alone to higher education.
So, while there has been some good progress, we are far from done. As we move ahead, we must be mindful of several important factors.
Education systems matter
The Education for All movement no doubt contributed to a rise in awareness about the need for giving more children across the developing world greater access to quality education. It also spawned more concrete action to fulfil that goal. But, as we’ve learned at the Global Partnership for Education, all the good will and expense will miss their mark unless they are organised into sound, comprehensive systems.
School construction, teacher training, development of new pedagogical approaches are important tools to improve education systems. But in isolation and without an overarching plan they will reach only a limited number of children. Developing countries need approaches that are sustainable, support the overall system and fit all the various inputs together into a coherent whole that can lift all boats over time.
Gender is only one dimension
Planning for and simply directing resources at girls is not enough to address the challenge of educating them. The reality in most developing countries is that gender inequality is only one obstacle of the many girls face. Poverty, disability, ethnicity, religion and geography (do they live in rural or urban areas? Are they near or far from schools?) are powerful factors determining whether or not a girl gets educated. If we’re not taking those other factors into account, we can’t possibly meet the goal of educating all girls.
Equity is the goal
The Sustainable Development Goals must aspire to deliver equity at every level of education, carrying forward the unfinished business of universal education, especially for those children who are very poor, those living in remote, conflict-affected and fragile regions, children with disabilities and, of course, girls.
Reaching those equity goals will require a revolution in measurement of educational trends and results, which will hold governments accountable and help them understand what’s working, what’s not and why.
Conflict and fragility are major impediments
We’ve also got to do better at ensuring that children – and girls in particular – in conflict and fragile environments don’t lose their once in a lifetime opportunity to get the knowledge and skills that lift them and their societies out of poverty and desperation.
We have to elevate education in emergencies so that it receives equal status with other priorities, and we need to integrate education as a primary component in all humanitarian action plans.
The world has to step up to the challenge
In spite of the growing recognition around the world that we need to give more children, especially girls, quality schooling, donor aid to basic education has dropped by 7% between 2010 and 2013, while overall development aid increased by more than 9% over the same period.
Ultimately, the shortage of funding and other critical resources hurts not only the people and societies we would otherwise support, but also the wealthy donor countries themselves. A world in which girls – and the women they become – reach their full intellectual, social and political potential is a more secure, healthier and prosperous world. When we reach – or at least approach – that state, we will all be better off.
This is an edited extract from The Unfinished Business of Girls’ Rights, Plan International’s State of the World’s Girls Report 2015.