No single intervention in the lives of girls in developing countries ensures that they will have the chance to live their full potential. But one does stand out as holding great promise: Education.
Attaining an education is widely and consistently linked with economic growth, better health and advancing equality and human rights. Evidence shows that when girls, in particular, have equal access to a quality education, they are more likely to become productive, healthy and empowered citizens, parents and partners. And, when they go to school, families’ and community members’ views of girls change for the better, helping to contribute to more gender-equitable norms and attitudes. These benefits have long been recognized by national governments, multilateral institutions, development practitioners and corporate donors.
Despite this realization, adolescent girls are not being adequately served by the education and international development communities. This is because until recently, programmatic efforts concentrated on just getting girls into school rather than focusing on keeping them there, or ensuring that they learn something. There is increasing recognition that too often, girls drop out of school early because of poverty, or because of parents’ concerns for their safety, or because they are expected to marry, bear children and shoulder domestic responsibilities. They may leave school because the quality of education is low, and the opportunity costs of sending a girl to school for a sub-par education are too high. We are also finding that many girls are not learning much even if they stay in school because the quality is so poor, or because challenging girls is not a high priority.
That said, the next generation of education programs must focus on keeping girls in classrooms, at least to the secondary level. We also must ask ourselves, what are we educating girls to do? We need to ensure that schools help girls develop the skills, knowledge and social networks necessary to navigate the global health, environment and economic challenges they are likely to face as adults in the 21st century. Instead, we are still at a stage where large numbers of girls leave school uneducated, often stepping into adult roles as wives and mothers much too early, and lacking the ability to prevent the perpetuation of inter-generational cycles of ill health, poverty and inequality.
One reason that adolescent girls’ needs aren’t being met is because international development programs on education, reproductive health, livelihoods and girls’ empowerment tend to operate in isolation of each other. These groups share common long-term goals, such as improving girls’ autonomy and well-being, but they seldom combine or coordinate strategies and resources. This lack of coordination is hindering progress at a very critical time, as the population of girls in the developing world is at an all-time high.
ICRW wants to change that. With funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we recently convened a two-day consultation of educators, girls’ health, livelihoods and empowerment specialists as well as donors and researchers. Our goal was to address how these varied sectors working on behalf of girls could collaborate to guarantee that girls’ education facilitates healthy, safe and productive transitions to adulthood. We want to ensure that education isn’t only available to girls – especially in poor corners of the world – but that it is also transformative for them. By that I mean that girls finish school not only adept at reading and mathematics, but that they’re also armed with the skills necessary to seek opportunities, demand their rights and earn a living.
The good news is that this call for coordination and shared investment resonates with the various actors in international development. There is an emerging realization that with 600 million – and growing – adolescent girls in the developing world, the education, reproductive health, economic development and girls’ empowerment communities need to work together to ensure that we are reaching girls with the right services at the right time. The consultation at ICRW was the first step in changing that reality by starting to build a joint plan of action among a diverse group of stakeholders. Like ICRW, these groups want to help lead new collaborative efforts in the areas of research, funding and on-the-ground interventions that can be replicated on a larger scale.
Organizations committed to supporting adolescent girls will achieve more by working together than apart from one another.
Anju Malhotra is ICRW’s vice president of research, innovation and impact.