Children are recommended to have 12 years of schooling, but a new report says that's a “distant reality” for young girls living in poverty.
Instead, many girls from rural and low-income areas around the world are spending five years or fewer in school, according to the study from the University of Cambridge.
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The report, which was released on Monday, examines gender disparities within education throughout 53 Commonwealth countries, specifically focusing on low-income countries. Research shows that in Pakistan and Nigeria, for example, girls living in poverty attend school for an average of one year. However, boys from wealthy urban communities in these same countries spend about 11-12 years in school, highlighting both gender and wealth inequalities in education.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), more than 3 million girls in Pakistan and nearly 5.5 million girls in Nigeria are out of school.
While the recent study focused on the commonwealth, gender education inequality is prevalent around the world. There are still 31 million girls of primary school age out of the classroom, according to UNESCO. Women and girls also make up about two-thirds of the people who are impacted by illiteracy.
Young girls in poverty are often unable to receive an education for various reasons, including the threat of gender-based violence at and on the way to school. “Period poverty” also prevents girls who cannot afford menstrual hygiene management products to skip school during their periods because of health risks and social stigma.
“Much more needs to be done to implement these interventions at far greater scale. It is vital that current political uncertainties do not jeopardize the prioritization of investment in girls’ education,” said Pauline Rose, director at the University of Cambridge’s Research for Equitable Access and Learning Center and one of the report’s authors.
Failure to educate girls costs countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost productivity and earnings, according to the World Bank.
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“We know that educating girls is a powerful investment with the benefits rippling across sectors from health and climate change to economic development and beyond,” said a spokesperson the Global Partnership for Education.
When more girls are able to receive an education, communities improve. If every mother was able to complete her primary education, there would be about 65% fewer maternal deaths and 15% less child deaths, according to a study by UNESCO. If those women all received a secondary school education as well, there would be a 50% drop in child deaths, saving 3 million lives annually. And if all young girls received a secondary education, it is estimated that cases of child marriages would decrease by about two-thirds.
The researchers behind the new study are urging leaders to fight for women’s education.
“The most marginalized girls, the ones getting left behind, those from the poorest backgrounds, the remote areas, don't have the same voice and visibility,” said Rose. “That's why there is a very vital role for NGOs and others to be pushing this evidence, to be saying ‘this is where the problem is, and you need to do something about it.’”
The report suggests that increased visibility from political leaders could help to combat the education gap. An increase in resources and emphasis on early education would also be helpful. Other methods for closing the gap include more funding, ensure safer education environments, instilling non-discriminatory gender-sensitive teaching habits, and providing sanitary pads in schools.
“We've got a lot of evidence on what works to improve girls’ education, but the gap is [how to] actually make that happen,” said Rose. “That's why our key message is really about the vital importance of visible political leadership to actually translate what we know works into action.”