“To educate girls is to reduce poverty.” So declared former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2003, who added that “study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls.” With the recent publication of Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies, another study can be added to the growing list of research that supports Annan’s claim.
The Girls Grow report, commissioned by the U.N. Foundation and written by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, reveals that rural girls in the developing world face an especially difficult path to education. As there are 283 million rural adolescent girls in developing nations across the globe, countries and communities that neglect to outfit these girls with full educations stunt their own and much of the world’s development. Rural economies in particular, which tend to be more greatly impoverished than urban areas (a feature noticed by our own Martha Adams in her visit to India), suffer from the vast inefficiencies that arise out of an inability or refusal to promote girls.
Changing this paradigm, Girls Grow suggests, would lead to healthier, more sustainable societies. For example, the report cites evidence that an increase of just 1 percent in female secondary school attendance can add 0.3 percent to a country’s average annual per capita growth. Moreover, women with a secondary education marry later, which lowers fertility rates, are four times as likely to use contraception, and are 50 percent more likely to immunize their children.
However, as 10×10 has witnessed in some of our visits to rural locations, rural girls face significant obstacles in their pursuits of educations. Some of the more prominent ones include:
- Work: As 10×10 discovered and reported in our visit to Ethiopia, girls frequently, especially in rural areas, labor more than boys and men. Many lower-income households in the developing world rely on their children to perform critical household tasks, roles that more often than not fall to girls, who are perceived to hold less economic (and social) value than their male counterparts.
- Distance to school: The distance from home to secondary schools is usually much longer in rural than urban areas. For example, Choet, a fifteen-year-old Room to Read student we met in Cambodia, travels 8 miles each way to school after first rising at 5 a.m. to work for her family in rice fields.
- School conditions: Many rural schools in the developing world suffer from inadequate funding and lack of resources, not to mention deeply ingrained hierarchical systems that give preferential attention and treatment to boys.
- Costs: While school fees are a significant barrier to education for families across the developing world, they are a greater problem for rural households, where poverty is usually more extreme and where, as mentioned, sending girls to school is of a lower priority.
Despite drawing attention to the many obstacles confronting rural adolescent girls, Girls Grow also offers encouraging signs that these barriers to education can be and are being overcome. The report abounds with examples of organizations and directives that have successfully empowered girls around the developing world. From a literacy and life skills program in rural Upper Egypt to a goat-keeping program to pay for girls’ education in Kenya, the developing world teems with creative and successful projects that keep girls in school and out of systemic cycles of violence, oppression, and neglect.
The challenge to more meaningful change appears to be channeling the spirit of creativity and practicality employed in projects like those above, into more thorough, macro-level strategies. Girls Grow, for instance, recommends that universal primary and secondary education be nationally mandated. Certainly this would be a good place to start, but organizing its implementation is of course easier said than done.
Reports like Girls Grow reinforce the importance of educating girls and offer us encouraging reminders that, in some places, this missive has not fallen on deaf ears. But above all, these studies challenge us to be vigilant in demanding equal opportunity for girls around the world, to do our part, whatever that may be. Remember, “educate girls, change the world.”
For a more comprehensive insight, read the Girls Grow report and of course, be sure to continue to follow 10×10 as we bring back more stories from around the globe. Also, let us know what you think are the best ways to promote increased educational access for girls. They can be practical, philosophical, or anything else—let’s hear them.