By Vivian Onano /African Arguments/ – It’s hard to imagine that there are still girls today that have never seen the inside of a classroom. Never sat at a desk anticipating the day’s lessons. Never felt the white crisp paper underneath their fingertips. Never learned to read and write. And are likely never to do so. These girls are not missing out on school because of COVID-19. They were never in school in the first place.
Today, a new report focused on education worldwide was released. The study, by UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report commemorates 25 years since the signing of the momentous Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which promised to advance the rights of girls and women worldwide. One outcome of this visionary meeting back in 1995 was a commitment that all girls would have equal access to education. Two and a half decades later, the good news is that 180 million more girls are enrolled in school. Further, more girls are staying in school and graduating than ever before.
But this progress has not trickled down to the most disadvantaged girls. Only 2% of the poorest rural girls in low-income countries complete upper secondary education. If you are a 14-year old girl living in a rural village in Yemen or Niger, you will probably never attend secondary school. Enrolment rates are better in primary schools, but disparities between rural and urban areas persist. Only 21% of the poorest girls living in rural areas in Afghanistan will complete primary education compared to 86% of the richest boys living in urban areas or 62% of the richest urban girls.
Take Amirah who was born in a poor community in south-west Nigeria. She grew up in a small village, her family were nomads, and it was practically impossible for her to go to primary school. To make matters worse, her mother moved to the city in search of better opportunities and left Amirah with her father who didn’t see much value in girls’ education. At the age of twelve, deeply unhappy about missing out on school, Amirah ran away to find her mother in the city and begged her to enrol in school. She spent the next few years working and studying. Graduating at the top of her class, she was offered a place to study business at university, making her the first girl in her family to finish secondary school and complete a university degree. She is now a successful entrepreneur who employs 20 people in her company.
I keep thinking, what if Amirah had never completed school? The world would be deprived of a talented person who knows how to overcome adversity and use her skills to benefit others. Imagine how many other incredible women there are who could have been anything they wanted, if only they were given the chance to go school.The arguments that educated women can lift themselves and their communities out of poverty are well known and undisputed. The GEM report shows the impact of a mother’s education for girls in the poorest countries: the daughter of an educated mother will remain in school for half as long again as her mother, lessening the disadvantage from one generation to another. Amirah, and other university-educated women like her, are 25% more likely to work than if they only had primary school education.
What is urgently needed is to make good on the promise of the Beijing Declaration of ensuring equal access for girls in education. And we need to make sure that education is given central priority in the next Declaration on women’s rights to be signed early next year at the Generation Equality Forum – a commitment that will drive policy for the next generation of girls and beyond.
Some of these policies must tackle the persistent negative gender norms in society, where parents prioritise boys’ education, and girls marry early instead of going to school. We know what the measures are that close the gap and prevent early school leaving. Social assistance programmes for families with daughters that are condemned to work in care and housework roles are needed to stop education disadvantages being passed on to the next generation. Cash transfers and scholarships for poor households, quotas in tertiary enrolment for vulnerable groups, and making primary education free could change the outlook for this next generation of girls immeasurably. Lifting bans on pregnant girls from returning to school is another solution. The 2020 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) gender report by UNESCO lists the practical steps countries need to make; steps that are even more critical as COVID-19 risks pushing these inequalities to breaking point.
Everything starts with education. If girls are denied their right to go to school and the ability to learn how to read and write, they are not given a start in life.