What would your life be like with only five years of schooling? For many girls around the world, this is the most education they can expect and they are the lucky ones. Across Africa, 28 million girls between the ages of about 6 and 15 are not in school and many will never even set foot in a classroom.
March 8th is International Women’s Day, an occasion to celebrate the tremendous progress achieved in securing access to a basic education for girls in the poorest countries. But for us, it is also a stark reminder of the millions of girls who are being left behind.
We live in a world where violent extremists are bent on destroying the lives of school girls, their families and communities. And beyond the horror, we see the daily grind of poverty forcing girls to sacrifice their right to education and hope for a better life.
We know there is a multiplier effect to educating girls. More educated women tend to be healthier, earn more income, have fewer children, and provide better health care and education to their own children, all of which can lift households out of poverty.
Yet we also know that child marriage and risks of early pregnancy continue to pose a major barrier to schooling for many girls. Every year of child marriage reduces the likelihood of secondary school completion in Africa by four to five percentage points. This means than in a typical African country, a girl marrying at age 15 or 16 has virtually no chance to complete secondary education. In some cases, fear of rape and harassment also prevent girls from going to school.
Breaking down the barriers is a joint effort
Our respective organizations are committed to getting all children in school and learning and much progress has been made over the past 15 years, especially on attainment. Examples include Uganda’s free universal secondary education policy (the first in sub-Saharan Africa) and Ghana’s capitation grants. However, at a global level, while the share of children out of primary school has fallen from 15% to 9% since 2000, little progress has been achieved since 2007.
No single organization can break down the complex barriers facing girls, especially in Africa. As part of our collective effort, we are supporting the work of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) to produce the data needed to make a difference in the lives of girls across the continent. Together, we are driving a data revolution in education to ensure that countries collect and use more relevant data.
The UIS has developed a new data tool, entitled Left Behind – Girls’ Education in Africa, which illustrates the progress to date as well as the enormous challenges ahead as the international community crafts the next set of global education goals. To what extent are girls enrolling in school compared to boys? Which countries and regions have made the greatest progress in reducing the gender gap in primary and lower secondary education? And what kinds of classroom conditions are shaping the learning experiences of African girls across the continent? These are just some of the issues addressed in this interactive tool, which is automatically updated with the latest available data.
For example, we know that poverty is the biggest barrier to a girl’s education. But if she lives in a rural area, belongs to an ethnic minority, or is caught up in a conflict zone, the odds against her accumulate. If a girl has not started primary school by age 10, chances are she never will go to school in countries like Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Senegal.
Learning conditions need to improve
For those children who enroll in school, poor classroom conditions can interfere with learning. On average, three pupils share a single mathematics textbook across the region. Only 22% of schools have access to electricity, and slightly less than half have access to drinking water. In half of African countries with data, there are more than 50 pupils per class.
In terms of infrastructure, schools without toilets, or with shared toilets, pose a health and safety risk for girls and a significant cultural barrier which keeps girls away from such schools. Yet according to UIS data, one out of every three primary schools across Africa does not have any toilets – let alone facilities reserved for girls.
But perhaps most striking, the data shows that the dire shortage of teachers may get even worse as many African countries struggle to keep up with the rising demand for education from a growing school-age population. Today, the region needs to create 2.3 million new teaching positions and fill 3.9 million vacant posts in order to accommodate a maximum of 40 pupils in each classroom.
But it is not enough to just hire more teachers. Africa needs more qualified teachers who get support and training to improve their teaching. There is also a need for more female teachers who can be positive role models for girls.
Let’s make sure girls get the future they deserve
It is not difficult to predict what the future holds for girls who never go to school. They will join the ranks of the 77 million young women unable to read or write a single sentence, let alone decipher a medical prescription or help their children with homework. Young women make up two-thirds of the global illiterate population. About 29 million live in sub-Saharan Africa and they face a life in poverty. Hence, it is crucial to ensure that girls get a basic education.
The good news is that these girls have not been forgotten. The international community is putting the final touches on a new set of goals and targets to achieve gender equality, as especially in the field of education, as part of the post-2015 global development agenda. Goals are also being considered for child marriage as a key barrier to girls’ education.
Greater resources and targeted programs will help tackle the specific social and economic factors that deny girls their right to education, but it will take more than promises to get every girl in school and learning. Together, UNESCO, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education focus on improving gender equality and empowering girls and women through quality education.
Data is the basis for any meaningful policy decision and tools like the one we are launching today are useful to visualize where the biggest challenges are and where we need to focus.
We invite you to explore and share this new tool and join us on Twitter (#leftbehind) to share your views.
For more data and reports about children out of school, see www.allinschool.org.