The road to gender equality is through quality education
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Two school girls in class. Ethiopia. Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme

Op ed by Alice Albright and Stefania Giannini

Twenty-five years ago, world leaders from 189 countries signed the Beijing Declaration and launched the Platform for Action, a bold roadmap for women's equal participation in every facet of society and life.

Today, as we observe International Women's Day, no single country is on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of gender equality by 2030. Despite hard-won gains over last quarter century, we are still 100 years from closing the gender gap. For girls and women today, that's as good as never.

To be sure, there has been progress: girls' enrollment rates have doubled in the past 25 years. The global gap between the number of girls and boys in school has narrowed to near or full parity, and in some places, girls now outnumber boys in some levels of education. UNESCO estimates that since 2000 the number of girls not getting any education has dropped substantially from 205 million to 129 million.

But 129 million is an appallingly large number of girls who are being denied their fundamental right to a quality education and to the future that learning unlocks. Moreover, the challenge to girls' education doesn't stop when girls get into the classroom. They are up against entrenched social, economic and cultural barriers that mean that for 6 out of 10 girls in low-income countries, primary schooling is the end of their educational road, and barely 1 in 10 will graduate from high school. The odds are worse for the most marginalized: refugees, girls living with disabilities and girls from poor families and rural areas.

Just as appalling is that millions of girls who are in school are not learning the skills they need. In some countries, as few as 2 in 10 girls can read and understand a simple story by the time they finish primary school. Even when girls do go all the way to higher education, they are grossly under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the very fields that are shaping the economies and societies of the future.

This sheer waste of talent and potential is an alarm bell calling for a profoundly new approach. This shift will only happen when leaders and their citizens recognize -- and dismantle – power inequities in their societies that uphold the status quo.

Progress in education is proof that this is possible. When countries make and follow through on concrete commitments to change, they can accelerate the velocity of gender equality progress. Today, about 85% of the developing countries with whom the Global Partnership for Education works included gender equality in their long-term education plans. That means they're doing more to lower the common barriers to girls' education: by enrolling and retaining girls, making sure they get good quality learning materials, reducing sexual harassment and violence in and around school, installing proper menstrual hygiene facilities and boosting the number of female teachers who can motivate girls and be role models in their communities.

These approaches work. In Ethiopia, which has made girls' education a priority in recent years, more girls are attending and staying in school and improving their performance. The wide gap between the number of girls and boys who completed primary school has all but disappeared. Kenya has also invested intensively in girl-friendly interventions – especially in more remote areas – and as a result, girls' grade 1 enrollment has increased. Girls are now outperforming boys in math. Similarly, in Nepal, thanks to the government’s efforts, more girls than boys are enrolled in and completing school.

The Beijing Platform for Action recognized that equal access to education is vital if more women are to become agents of change. That's why we've joined Generation Equality to keep education front and center of the movement to accelerate action on the vision outlined 25 years ago.

An equal generation is an educated generation. We must play our part to ensure that all girls and women everywhere have the knowledge and skills they need to lead the charge and break down the barriers to gender equality for good.

Alice Albright is the CEO of the Global Partnership for Education, and Stefania Giannini is Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO.

Two school girls in class. Ethiopia. Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme
Gender equality

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