Why Educating Girls Makes Economic Sense

Let’s talk girls on the occasion of International Women’s Day

© UNICEF/HTIA2011-00204/Dormino

We all know that it’s important to educate girls – it is the one consistent determinant of progress for practically every development outcome, from mortality declines to economic growth, democracy and equity.

Nevertheless, how do we know that investing more in girls’ education is worth it, in terms of the economics?

On International Women’s Day, we are reminded of the challenges that remain in not only giving girls access to education, but also in keeping them in school and learning, as well as ensuring that their education equips them for their futures.

We are also reminded of the opportunities: investing in girls’ education delivers concrete, far-reaching economic and social benefits for all.

Benefits of investing in girls

The yields from investing in girls’ education are substantial. An educated girl is likely to increase her personal earning potential, as well as reduce poverty in her community. According to the World Bank, the return on one year of secondary education for a girl correlates with as high as a 25% increase in wages later in life. The effects carry from one generation to the next: educated girls have fewer, healthier and better educated children. For each additional year of a mother’s education, the average child attains an extra 0.32 years, and for girls the benefit is slightly larger.

Improved literacy can have a remarkable effect on women’s earnings. As stipulated in the 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, in Pakistan, working women with high levels of literacy skills earned 95% more than women with weak or no literacy skills, whereas the differential was only 33 % among men. Educated women are empowered to take a greater economic role in their families and communities, and they tend to reinvest 90% of what they earn into their families.

Investing in girls’ education also helps delay early marriage and parenthood. In fact, if all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64%, from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.

At the wider societal level, more educated girls lead to an increase in female leaders, lower levels of population growth and the subsequent reduction of pressures related to climate change. The power of girls’ education on national economic growth is undeniable: a one percentage point increase in female education raises the average gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 percentage points and raises annual GDP growth rates by 0.2 percentage points.

How UNICEF invests in girls’ education

At UNICEF, we believe that educating girls – both at primary and secondary levels – tackles the root causes of poverty. Moreover, it is not just time in school, but skills acquired that count. UNICEF’s approach to girls’ education is threefold:

  • We work with governments to strengthen policies and laws that support and protect girls, including from violence within schools;
  • We support the provision of educational opportunities for the most vulnerable girls, including through scholarships, cash transfers, peer group support and mentoring, inclusive curricula and gender sensitive teacher training, and;
  • We advocate for girls’ education at community, national and global levels.

UNICEF is also proud to host the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) and serve as a lead technical partner in advancing the rights and achievement of girls through advocacy, partnership and the sharing of good practice.

Girls’ education is a core component of UNICEF’s work at the country level. In South Africa, UNICEF, the government, and the private sector are partnering to provide not just technology education, but also active mentorship for 10,000 under-privileged girls. In Malawi, a World Bank-led initiative called the Zomba Cash Transfer Program provides cash transfers to girls to stay in or return to school. In Afghanistan, UNICEF supports non-formal and community-based schooling, with a focus on girls who had dropped out or never enrolled, contributing to increases in the number of girls who stay in school to grade five. 

The path forward

Investing in girls’ education is not only the right thing to do, it’s also smart for overall economic and social development. Together with our partners, we are working urgently to articulate more ambitious targets for the post-2015 agenda in terms of girls’ education and gender equality in schooling. We will use momentum from this year’s International Women’s Day as an opportunity to collaborate and map a way forward that truly catalyses the transformative potential of girls’ education.


Jo Bourne is UNICEF's Global Chief of Education and a member of GPE's Board of Directors. Her career has been guided by a passion to enable children – especially children living in the poorest countries in the...

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