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Educating Women and Girls Is Key to Meeting 21st Century Demands

01 July 2011
Close-up of Melanne Verveer (State Dept.)

Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer

By Melanne Verveer

Melanne Verveer is the State Department ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.

The education of women and girls is essential not only to promoting gender equality, but also to addressing the full spectrum of 21st century challenges. Research shows that investing in education is one of the most effective, high-yielding development investments a country can make.

Much progress has certainly been made since 2000, when nations around the world committed to Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 for the achievement of universal primary education; yet considerable gaps remain, particularly for girls. According to some estimates, 72 million children worldwide do not attend school, and 54 percent of the unschooled are girls. In addition, although gender parity in primary education has increased over the past decade, a parity gap of 6 million still remains — and it is even starker in the developing world. In Yemen, nearly 80 percent of girls out of school are unlikely to enroll, as compared with 36 percent of boys. In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 12 million girls are expected to not enroll.

The quality of education is also a serious problem because, even where school enrollment has increased, many children are still leaving school without basic numeracy and literacy skills, and are therefore ill equipped to compete and prosper. Improving girls’ access to secondary education is yet another area that needs greater attention.

Countries with the lowest standards of living and the highest rates of illiteracy are usually countries that do not educate their girls. Left unchecked, these inequalities in education will perpetuate violence, poverty and instability and will keep nations from achieving economic, political and social progress. Further, the lack of access to education can follow a girl for a lifetime; of the more than 700 million illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds are women.

Girls’ education is valuable both in its own right and because it fuels development. Creating incentives to support girls’ education — and, in particular, girls’ secondary education — catalyzes a range of positive outcomes. Empirical data show that increasing girls’ education correlates with economic growth, increased agricultural yields and greater labor productivity. Educated mothers are more likely to ensure their babies are vaccinated and receive proper nutrition, and they tend to have smaller, healthier and better educated families. Children of educated mothers are more likely to attend school themselves.

The payoffs are considerable.

Providing girls one extra year of primary school education can increase future wages by 10 to 20 percent, and an extra year of secondary school increases future wages by 15 to 25 percent. Secondary school also offers a valuable opportunity for girls to learn healthy behaviors. In some countries, for example, AIDS spreads twice as fast among uneducated girls. In places where child marriage is an accepted norm, providing parents a tangible incentive to keep their daughters in school is often the best means to prevent this harmful practice. The evidence is clear: When women and girls are educated, all of society benefits.

It is estimated that 31 of the 196 countries in the world are at risk of not achieving gender parity in primary-school enrollment rates by the 2015 MDG deadline. With fewer than five years left to meet both the MDG and the similar World Education Forum’s Education for All goal, the global community must step up efforts to address the barriers that keep far too many girls illiterate and out of school.

The United States is focusing on initiatives to “incentivize” girls’ education — to give parents tangible rewards, such as a bag of flour or a can of oil, for sending their daughters to school. In too many places, parents see no reason to educate a girl. A daughter is often viewed as a burden, relegated to performing arduous household chores and even forced into child marriage. We are stepping up efforts for programs that increase girls’ enrollment in and completion of primary, secondary and tertiary education with funding for direct educational resources, such as books, uniforms and school fees, which are common barriers to enrollment. Our investments also cover indirect costs of schooling through scholarships, stipends and school health and nutrition programs. Furthermore, we place an emphasis on capacity building for schools, teachers, civil society and communities to enhance the quality of education and the positive results.

Through our engagement with local leaders and communities, we are helping to raise awareness of the benefits of keeping girls in school and cultivating wider grassroots acceptance of girls’ education. From improving school learning environments and supporting teacher training in Afghanistan to targeting girls at risk for HIV/AIDS in Zambia, the United States is working on multiple fronts to ensure that the education of women and girls is an integral part of our engagement with the global community and our 21st century agenda. As Secretary of State Clinton has said, investing in women and girls is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)