Receiving a quality education in the developing world is difficult enough, but for girls, it is exponentially more challenging.

Women make up two thirds of the 775 million illiterate adults. While recent initiatives such as the Global Partnership for Education and Let Girls Learn have made girls education a vital concern, 31 million girls of primary school age around the globe remain out of school. This is simply unacceptable.

Previously noted by my colleague, there are myriad reasons why girls (and boys) are denied access to education. However, one that often goes overlooked is perhaps the biggest impediment to getting girls in school: access to clean water and hygienic sanitation methods (a policy area known as WASH).

Many villages in the developing world lack immediate access to clean drinking water, and the nearest well is often miles away. Who do you think is tasked with getting water for their family? You guessed it, girls. Everyday, girls and women spend an estimated 152 million hours walking to fetch water. 

Image: Flickr: AMISOM

To get water, girls leave in the early hours of the morning, hindering their focus and attendance in school. The time spent walking is equivalent to 26% of women’s time in rural Africa. With that much time spent on foot, it’s easy to understand why girls’ education is an afterthought to many families.

The second part of the WASH and education equation revolves around schools’ bathroom and sanitation facilities. Even when girls are able to attend school, most schools do not offer proper latrines, which is problematic for two reasons:

First, girls are forced to find private areas to urinate or defecate. Unfortunately, these areas are not that secluded. A survey in Bhopal, India found that 94% of women had been harassed and one third physically assaulted while going to the bathroom in the open. These devastating statistics play a major role in girls dropping out of school.

Second, girl’s menstrual periods are a taboo topic in many impoverished nations (and many developed as well-I’ve seen Carrie). When schools lack proper bathrooms (and in some cases even if they do), girls miss an average of 4 days per month.  School’s without safe and sanitary bathrooms can make girls uncomfortable and that discourages them from attending when they are on their period, once again resulting in increased dropout rates.

Going back to education: investing in girls’ education has an incredibly positive impact on economic growth and GDP of developing countries. Recent studies have shown that an increase of 1% in girls secondary school attendance increases an entire country’s GDP by .3%. Statistics like this show that prioritizing girls’ education can be a key lever in lifting families, communities and countries out of poverty.

But no matter how much money is spent on building schools, none of it will make any difference if water and sanitation conditions in those areas are not improved to enable girls to take advantage of the educational opportunities.

To improve educational outcomes the world must improve sanitation. Go to TAKE ACTION NOW and email the leaders of Sweden, and tell them to lead the world by putting hygiene and sanitation into the hands of everyone.


Defeat Poverty

Bathrooms and wells could be the key to girls' education

By Ryan Nardi