Why investing in girls’ and women’s education is a smart move

On International Women’s Day, UNESCO released a new fact sheet that shows investment in girls’ education has produced positive results over the last two decades. The most recent data reveal that currently fewer girls are out of school than boys, and that more women are enrolled in higher education than men worldwide. But there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in education globally.

Here is what you need to know about the latest data and why investing in girls’ and women’s education is crucial.

What are the latest trends in girls’ education?

Despite progress, a staggering 122 million girls remain out of school globally.  Girls’ disadvantage is exacerbated by several factors. One important factor is poverty. In Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, there are 72 young women in school – but only 22 poor young women – for every 100 young men.

Another factor is location. In Mozambique, for example, there are 73 young women in school for every 100 young men. But while there is gender parity in urban areas, there are 53 young women in school for every 100 young men in rural areas.

There are also regional differences. In sub-Saharan Africa, gender parity in enrolment has not been achieved at any level of education.

While girls have caught up and even surpassed boys in the completion of secondary education, only 94 young women complete secondary school for every 100 young men in Central and Southern Asia. Disparity also remains in sub-Saharan Africa, where despite progress only 88 young women complete secondary education for every 100 young men.

Girls fare better than boys in reading. Globally, for every 100 proficient boys, there are 115 proficient girls in reading at the end of lower secondary education. Boys have a small advantage over girls in mathematics in primary education, but this is reversed in lower secondary education. Yet, boys tend to have a considerable advantage over girls in mathematics at the higher end of performance.

While young women are outnumbering young men at university globally, only 9% of young women enrol in tertiary education when primary and secondary education is neither compulsory nor free.

Where is progress most needed?

Nine of the 10 countries with the highest out-of-school rates for girls are in sub-Saharan Africa, the tenth country being Afghanistan. In 8 of these 10 countries, at least 50% of school-age girls are not in school; in Afghanistan, 75% of girls are not in school.  These rates are staggering and must urgently be addressed.

What are the benefits of investing in girls’ education?

Globally, the loss in human capital due to gender inequalities is estimated to be around US$160 trillion, which is about twice the value of global GDP.

Educating girls has huge societal impact. It enhances women’s agency and their decision-making. It increases their living standards. It has benefits for the health and nutrition of their children. Education can help to end child marriage and early and unintended pregnancy.

It also increases women’s access to decent work and sparks economic development.

There is an urgent need to transition to a green economy. Why is investing in girls’ and women’s education crucial to doing so successfully?

Investing in girls’ and women’s education is indeed a smart investment for the green transition. We know that women are more likely to start businesses focused on sustainability. Yet, girls and women are less well prepared for and represented in green jobs. Green jobs require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and knowledge. But gender is one of the strongest determinants of the likelihood of pursuing education and careers in STEM.

In 30 out of 121 countries, fewer than 20% of graduates in engineering are women. In 61 out of 115 countries, fewer than 30% of computer science graduates are women.

We cannot afford to lose out on the innovative ideas of women.  And we also know that where education opens leadership opportunities for girls as adults, their participation in national politics can lead countries to adopt more environment-friendly policies.

What can we do to improve girls’ education further?

Governments and partners need to invest in several critical areas to ensure that all girls’ right to complete a full cycle of basic education is met. Following the Incheon and Paris Declarations, governments shall allocate at least 4-6% of GDP and at least 15-20% of total public expenditure to education.

As highlighted in the Call to Action on financing education, issued at the Transforming Education Summit, education investment needs to target the most marginalized.

This includes investment in the collection, analysis and use of data on girls’ education and in the development of gender-transformative learning systems.

The latter entails among others, gender-transformative teaching and learning materials and teacher training on gender-transformative pedagogy.

Governments also need to invest into nutrition, sanitation and hygiene at school.

The prevention of school-related gender-based violence and the provision of comprehensive sexuality education are also critical to keep girls in school.

Importantly, governments need to provide 12 years of free, publicly funded, inclusive, equitable and quality education, without discrimination, including making school affordable, reducing the direct and opportunity cost of schooling through cash or in-kind transfers for poor families.

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