What it takes to educate more girls

On October 11, we celebrate the International Day of the Girl.

Young girl at Shreeshitalacom Lower Secondary School. Kaski, Nepal  Students at Shreeshitalacom Lower Secondary School. Kaski, Nepal. Photo: © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

Over the last decade and a half, there has been historic progress in getting more girls into school overall. In many countries, primary school girls are for the first time being educated at or near parity with boys.

Still, girls remain far less likely than boys to enroll in school. Of the estimated 124 million children out of school, 63 million are girls. In about 80 countries, progress on enrolling girls and closing the gender gap between at both primary and secondary levels has stalled. In another 30 countries, girls are in school but the quality of their learning is so low they are not acquiring competency in basic literacy and numeracy (Brookings). Finally, even in countries where gender parity is achieved, rural and poor girls still lag far behind in access and retention.

So what will it take to close those large and troubling gaps? The short answer is that it’s a complex challenge, requiring many different critical interventions. Among them are commitments to analyze the barriers to girls’ education, collect gender-specific education data and plan and enact policies that allow more girls to unlock their full learning potential.

Analysis of the barriers to educating girls

Two girls sing the national anthem of South Sudan at the Gudele West Basic School near Juba. South Sudan.

Two girls sing the national anthem of South Sudan at the Gudele West Basic School near Juba. South Sudan.

Photo Credit: GPE/David K. Bridges

Countries must start by identifying the barriers that keep girls from accessing and staying in school. Each country is different, but most may see a combination of familiar barriers:

  • cultural and economic dynamics that place a higher value on schooling for boys over girls (leading, for example, to early marriage and pregnancy or putting young girls to work)
  • the distances girls must travel to get to school, particularly in more remote areas
  • fear of sexual harassment or even rape
  • lack of proper, separate toilets and feminine hygiene products
  • the lack of female teachers, who can encourage girls to continue their educations and perform well
  • textbooks that reflect biases against girls and women
  • the costs of schooling, where education is not already free of charge, which test a family’s ability or will to send a daughter to school.

Such an assessment in South Sudan showed that girls there are far less inclined to enter school than boys and more likely to drop out. In 2013, only 500 girls were in the last grade of secondary school in the whole country, literacy rates were remarkably lower for girls (40% compared to 60% for boys) and only 12% of teachers were female.

With that analysis in hand, South Sudan drew on Global Partnership funding to build dozens of girl-friendly schools in the neediest regions.

These new schools will include separate bathroom facilities for girls. New teacher training and a revised new national curriculum aim to prevent gender-based violence and promote gender sensitivity.

While it is too soon to show the impact of these recent interventions, South Sudan is on a strong track to address the challenge of girls’ education in the years to come.

Gender-specific data

Three students at the blackboard in Kuje primary school in Abuja, Nigeria.

Three students at the blackboard in Kuje primary school in Abuja, Nigeria.

Photo Credit: A World At School/Nick Cavanagh

Good data is essential to planning and monitoring any country’s education system, though it is woefully scarce in many places. Such data allow a country’s education leaders to better understand the needs of girls and how well they are performing.

That’s why, for example, a Global Partnership grant of US$100 million to Nigeria is focusing on enabling the northern states of Jigawa, Kaduna, Katsina, Kano, and Sokoto to conduct robust monitoring and evaluation of gender-specific data, regularize the annual assessments of student learning and finance impact evaluations of school improvement grants and girls’ scholarship programs.

These and other initiatives put Nigeria on a better path than ever to reduce its enormous population of out-of-school children, a large number of whom are girls.

Clear and actionable policies

A student reads aloud from her notebook at the Shree Mahendrodaya Higher Secondary School. Sindhupalchowk, Nepal

A student reads aloud from her notebook at the Shree Mahendrodaya Higher Secondary School. Sindhupalchowk, Nepal

Photo Credit: GPE/Aya Kibesaki

Once they have a clear sense of the barriers to girls’ education and sufficient data to track the progress of girls, GPE developing country partners use that information to formulate education sector plans, the blueprints for policies and reforms aimed at building and strengthening their school systems.

Sector plans may call for specific targets for girls’ or boys’ enrollment and attainment, after-school programs that provide support and extra-curricular learning opportunities, special efforts to train and incentivize more women to become teachers, especially in more remote areas, cash transfers enabling families to send girls to school and much more.

In its sector plan, Nepal, for example, focused primarily on three main policies to promote girls’ schooling: more scholarships for disadvantaged students, especially girls: funding allocated to build separate toilets for girls; and affirmative action initiatives that encourage more women to become classroom educators and administrators. The country also has established gender focal points in all district education offices.

Not coincidentally, Nepal has achieved gender parity in net enrollment rates for primary, basic, and secondary education levels.

As with many other GPE developing country partners that have enhanced their efforts to educate girls, it offers us a glimpse not only of what is possible but what we know works: a true commitment to educating girls supported by persistent and concrete actions to fulfill that commitment.

Read more results stories from the work of GPE partners


The Global Partnership for Education Secretariat is headquartered in Washington DC and has approximately 100 staff. The Secretariat provides administrative and operational support to all its partners including...

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