Girls’ Education: 7 Obstacles and How to Overcome Them
Child marriage, poverty, and period stigma are stopping girls from realizing their dreams.
Children living in poverty face many barriers to education, but the stakes are especially high for girls. Globally, there are 130 million girls who are not currently enrolled in school. Investing in their futures has the potential to uplift their families and the world.
When girls receive quality educations, they see the benefits in all aspects of their lives. Women who complete secondary education are less likely to experience intimate partner violence and they report higher levels of psychological well-being. They go on to make higher incomes, and their children are healthier.
Keeping girls in school supports economic growth, promotes peace, and even helps fight climate change. To protect future generations, we must first invest in resources and policies that help prevent the obstacles below.
Poverty is the most important factor that determines whether or not a girl can access education, according to the World Bank. Even in areas where parents don’t have to pay school fees, it can be difficult to keep up with the costs of transportation, textbooks, or uniforms. Parents also often rely on girls’ income to support the household, and sending a girl to school means they spend less time helping in the home.
If families can’t afford the costs of school, they’re more likely to send boys than girls. When parents have to make the decision between buying necessities like food over sanitary napkins, girls are forced to stop learning because they don’t can’t manage their periods. Families will also allow their girls to enter child marriages if they can no longer afford to provide for them.
2. Child Marriage
Child marriage, the marriage of a child under the age of 18, happens all over the world but occurs disproportionately in developing countries. Parents let their daughters enter child marriages for various reasons. Some believe they are protecting their children from harm or stigma associated with having a relationship outside of marriage, but child brides who miss out on education are also more likely to experience early pregnancy, malnourishment, domestic violence, and pregnancy complications. For families experiencing financial hardship, child marriage reduces their economic burden, but it ends up being more difficult for girls to gain financial independence without education.
There are about 700 million women around the world who were married as girls, UNICEF reported in 2017. In sub-Saharan Africa, 4 in 10 girls are married under the age of 18, and South Asia, where about 30% of girls under 18 are married, has the highest levels of child marriage, according to UNICEF.
Once a month from the time a girl reaches puberty, there is a chance she will miss school and work for a significant portion of her life because she has her period.
Menstruation is stigmatized around the world and the cultural shame attached to the natural process makes girls feel too embarrassed to fully participate in society. In Nepal, for example, menstruating women are seen as impure by their community and banished to huts during their cycles.
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Some girls end up skipping class because they can’t afford to buy sanitary products or they don’t have access to clean water and sanitation to keep themselves clean and prevent diseases.
When schools lack separate bathrooms, girls stay home when they have their periods to avoid being sexually assaulted or harassed. Girls with special needs and disabilities disproportionately do not have access to the facilities and resources they need for proper menstrual hygiene.
4. Household Chores
Forced domestic work creates low self-esteem in girls and a lack of interest in education. Adult responsibilities, like taking care of sick parents or babysitting siblings, tend to fall on girls.
Around the world, girls spend 40% more time performing unpaid chores — including cooking, cleaning, and collecting water and firewood — than boys. Some of these chores put girls in danger of encountering sexual violence.
In Burkina Faso, Yemen, and Somalia, girls between 10 and 14 years old bear the most disproportionate burden of household chores compared to boys. In Somalia, girls spend the most amount of time on chores in the world, averaging 26 hours every week.
Gender-based violence can take many forms, including physical and sexual abuse, harassment, and bullying. Surviving rape, coercion, discrimination, and other types of abuse affects girls’ enrollment, lowers their participation and achievements, and increases absenteeism and dropout rates.
It is estimated that 246 million girls and boys are harassed and abused on their way to school every year, but girls are disproportionately targeted. Tanzania found that almost 1 in 4 girls who experienced sexual violence reported the incident while traveling to or from school, and nearly 17% reported at least one incident occurred at school or on school property.
Parents are less likely to let their daughters travel to school if they have to travel long unsafe distances.
6. Conflict and Crisis
Girls and women in conflict and crisis-affected areas encounter more obstacles to attend school. An estimated 39 million girls and adolescent girls in countries affected by armed conflict or natural disasters lack access to quality education. Refugee girls are half as likely to be in school as refugee boys.
In South Sudan, 72% of primary school-aged girls, do not attend school, in contrast to 64% of primary school-aged boys. Similarly, in Afghanistan, 70% of the 3.5 million out-of-school children are girls.
Around the world, there are three times as many attacks on girls’ schools than boys' schools. When schools are ambushed, children run the risk of death or injury, infrastructure is destroyed, and education systems are weakened long-term. Without education, girls lack the skills they need to cope with the crisis and help rebuild their communities.
The number of girls reported as human trafficking victims is on the rise. Of all the trafficking victims reported globally in 2016, 23% are girls compared to 7% of whom are boys. Traffickers exploit girls for forced labor and marriage, but most are pushed into sexual exploitation.
Women and girls who are trafficked face high rates of physical and sexual violence as well as mental and physical health issues. This form of abuse puts girls on track to get stuck in a cycle of poverty and slavery that stops them from receiving an education.
People living in areas affected by armed conflict in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, especially when they are separated from their families and end up traveling alone.
In the Middle East, girls and young women living in refugee camps are commonly married off without their consent and are sexually exploited in neighboring countries. As a result of the rise of the militant Sunni group Islamic State (ISIS), trafficking has skyrocketed in Iraq. Up to 10,000 women and girls in Iraq have been abducted or trafficked for sexual slavery and sent to Syria, Jordan or the United Arab Emirates. In Myanmar, due to the conflict between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army, ethnic Kachin women and girls are commonly trafficked to China, where the “one child policy” led to a shortage in the number of potential wives and mothers.
What's Being Done?
Global Goal 4 aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all, especially girls and women, by 2030. Several organizations are working to meet this goal through various strategies, from advocating to revise school curriculums and policies, to promoting equal access to technology in schools.
UNICEF is prioritizing girls secondary education initiatives that tackle discriminatory gender norms, and address menstrual hygiene management in schools. Education Cannot Wait, the world’s first fund dedicated to education in crisis and conflict, is promoting safe learning environments, improving teachers' skills, and supporting gender-responsive education programs. The Malala Fund, founded by Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, is investing in local education activists, advocating to hold leaders accountable, and amplifying girls’ voices.
ACTIVATE: The Global Citizen Movement is a six-part documentary series from National Geographic and Procter & Gamble, co-produced by Global Citizen and RadicalMedia. ACTIVATE raises awareness around extreme poverty, inequality, and sustainability issues to mobilize global citizens to take action and drive meaningful and lasting change. The series will premiere globally in fall 2019 on National Geographic in 172 countries and 43 languages. You can learn more here.