It’s time to reprioritize girls’ education
Grade 9 students at Norsup Secondary School, on the island of Malekula in Vanuatu.
“If you educate a girl, you educate a nation”, says an African proverb. While investing in girls’ education is important for their own good, the benefits reverberate more widely to children, families and their communities when women and girls have access to education.
Last month, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. Its theme was “Gender equality today for a sustainable future”. Amid the buzz of important discussions on the gendered impacts of climate change and COVID-19, equal pay and gender equality at home and at work, I was reminded of how COVID-19 has worsened the fate of girls over the past two years, especially when it comes to their protection and education.
We know that most educated girls lead healthy, productive lives and earn higher incomes as adults, building a better future for themselves and their families. Evidence shows that communities with educated girls are more prosperous, resilient and peaceful. Women’s Economic Empowerment and Maternal Health programs claim that women invest more of their income – 90 cents of every dollar – in their families and communities than men, who invest 35 cents of every dollar.
However, the pandemic has increased the risks for girls already disadvantaged by prevailing social, cultural and traditional practices. Its ripple effects have increased poverty and deepened inequality in a gendered world that is already experiencing the effects of conflict and displacement, climate change and food insecurity.
An estimated 10 million more girls will be forced into early marriage over the next decade due to the economic pressures of the pandemic, combined with harmful social customs. The loss of livelihoods, coupled with school closures and increased childcare needs, has increased the burden of unpaid domestic work for girls.
Many girls have been forced into transactional relationships for basic goods, putting them at increased risk of sexual exploitation: since the pandemic, access to reproductive health services has dropped and teenage pregnancies have increased. increased, increasing the risk of girls dropping out of school due to stigma. and educational laws and policies unfavorable to teenage mothers.
Education is fundamental to both gender equality today and a sustainable future, yet millions of girls around the world are being denied the right to an education – a tragedy compounded by mass closures schools over the past two years. An estimated 1.9 million girls and young women were out of school (pre-primary to tertiary) in 2020 due to COVID-19 in the East Asia and Pacific region alone . Some analyzes suggest that, in the worst case, 53% of adolescent girls may not have returned to school after confinement.
A World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF report, The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Pathway to Recovery, warned of a global spike in “education poverty” triggered by school closures related to COVID-19. The report found that more than 1.6 billion learners were affected globally and that pandemic-related disruption could cost this generation of students nearly $17 trillion in lifetime earnings. As education shifted to remote learning, children from low-income families, students with disabilities, women, and young learners were further disadvantaged due to limited access to required technology.
There is evidence that fourth grade girls in South Africa suffered 27% more loss in learning English than boys, while South African girls generally outperform boys in reading. In Kenya, 74% of adolescent girls reported being distracted from learning by household chores, reflecting the gendered nature of unpaid work. There are stories of fathers in Nigeria ‘actively’ discouraging their daughters from using technology for education while helping their sons continue to learn online.
Despite being heavily impacted by the pandemic, education has not been prioritized in stimulus spending. Only 3% of COVID-19 stimulus packages in high-income countries have been allocated to education, while less than 1% have been allocated in low- and lower-middle-income countries. In Asia and the Pacific, only 0.4% of stimulus spending went to education.
When Australia invests in education through its aid program, it produces results. The latest Australian Aid Performance Report, produced for 2018-2019, found that investments in education were the most effective of all sectors, outperforming aid investments in governance projects, infrastructure, health and agriculture.
However, education has not figured prominently in Australia’s recent aid budgets, despite the impact of the pandemic on children’s education in the Pacific region and beyond. Australia’s development aid for education has actually been reduced by 22% in nominal terms in recent years, from $698m in 2015-16 to $541.3m in 2021-22.
We cannot forget the global commitments and aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG 4.1 to ensure that all girls and boys complete primary and secondary education. At this critical time, the safe reopening of schools must be a priority, which includes keeping schools open whenever possible.
Donors like Australia can help strengthen education systems and support early warning systems to monitor absenteeism and non-return of students, especially girls, when schools reopen. When students do not return, referral systems need to be put in place to address this issue. Australian aid to education should be lifted, given the scale of the challenge. It should also be recalibrated to focus on girls’ education.
In 2018, for example, just 23% of Australia’s education aid spending went to children, according to World Vision’s analysis of OECD aid purpose codes and descriptions.
To achieve “gender equality today for a sustainable future”, we need a renewed focus on education in general and girls’ education in particular. Then, we will show that we have understood the African proverb according to which girls’ education is at the heart of progress.
This article first appeared on Devpolicy Blog (devpolicy.org), from the Development Policy Center at the Australian National University.
Mercy Chipo Jumo is Senior Policy Advisor on Children’s Rights at World Vision Australia.
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