Despite her huge efforts and progress across the globe, there are still too many women denied a decent education. Across South Asia, the Middle East and large parts of Africa, men are still much more likely to be literate than women. Sixty-five million girls are out of school globally. And for every 100 boys in secondary school in Africa, there are only 82 girls.
The statistics are well rehearsed. Mothers with six or more years of education have fewer children and higher childbirth survival rates.
Last week, International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, convened governments, business and aid agencies at the Girls Education Forum in London. Importantly, it didn’t just focus on getting girls into school, but giving them, in Ms Greening’s words, the “decent education that can give them the skills they need to live happy, productive lives”.
It was encouraging that in all the discussions there was recognition that girls education is not simply a matter of providing the school places – but about addressing the forces that keep girls out the classroom.
Poverty is usually to blame. If a family have to make a choice between financially supporting a boy or girl in school, they will tend to choose the boy, as they think an educated boy offers the greatest chance of future prosperity.
When the harvest is meagre and family income falls, it is girls that are taken out of school to work. In Uganda, a fifteen per cent decline in rainfall caused a five per cent drop in attendance by girls in seventh grade, but had no significant impact on boys.
The curriculum too often reinforces images of girls as housewives and mothers rather than doctors or lawyers. At home girls will often have to spend more time doing household chores before they can get down to her homework. And cultural expectations of early marriage – and the prevalence of youth pregnancy – result in girls dropping out altogether.
So what is to be done? The ‘Making Ghanaian Girls Great’ (MGCubed) project, funded by DfID’s Girl’s Education Challenge (GEC) fund, has increased girls’ enrolment and retention in 72 primary schools in areas of rural Ghana where girls have historically dropped out of education in large numbers.
Five thousand girls who are at risk of not completing their education take part in ‘virtual’ interactive lessons taught from a studio in the capital Accra, which are then broadcast into their classrooms. This ‘virtual learning’ is a better guarantee of the quality of education: unlike in many African classrooms, there’s always trained teacher available even if they are not physically in the room.
The project also widens the girls’ horizons beyond the traditional domestic roles. Through after school classes they are given the chance to talk to Ghanaian female role models – from pilots to actresses to government ministers.
Other issues are broached – from early pregnancy and early marriage – and combined with practical advice in areas such as malaria prevention and personal finance. Average attendance for girls in MGCubed classes has increased from 54 per cent to nearly 80 per cent and there has been a significant effect in raising maths scores.
So what wider lessons can be applied to girls programmes elsewhere? Firstly, if quality teaching can be guaranteed every day then it will result in better attainment, which, in turn, will encourage parents to allow girls to stay in schools.
Second, families need to believe that the financial sacrifices associated with allowing a girl to attend school are worthwhile if they are to be supportive. Girls must be taught useful life skills – such as financial literacy – that help them support their family’s livelihood – and malaria prevention lessons, which they can share with their community
Third, if we are changing attitudes to girls we need buy-in from boys. After they said they felt left out we set up boys after school clubs, in which gender is one of the issues that is addressed. We saw this as an opportunity for engaging them in supporting the girls in their education.
The programme did encounter real difficulties. In Africa, children often learn at school in a different language than they speak at home, which creates an additional barrier when they are learning to read. It makes far more sense to teach them literacy in their own language, at least when they start school.
Technology needs to be robust and simple enough to use that school staff can be trained to fix it when it goes wrong. (In case of MGCubed, due to dust from the Sahara covering the solar panels that the schools were relying on to power their internet connection).
If we are going to keep girls in schools we must support smart, scalable and sustainable projects. Above, all we must raise expectations among their community, and, most importantly, among girls themselves, about what they can achieve.
Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation