By Pauline Rose, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban last year on her return from school, will celebrate her 16th birthday on Friday by delivering to the United Nations a set of education demands prepared by young people. Sadly, Malala is far from alone in having to fight for access to education: 31 million girls of primary school age and 34 million of lower secondary school age are out of school.
Slow progress today in getting all girls into school will have lifelong effects: one in four young women in developing countries have not completed primary school (compared with one in six young men), and two-thirds of the 774 million illiterate adults in the world are women.
These numbers are sobering, especially since educating girls is one of the best investments we can make. In addition to the many economic, social and health benefits that education brings, a child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past age 5 than one born to an illiterate mother. Educated girls are more likely to marry later and have fewer children, lowering the risks involved with teenage pregnancy, reducing population burdens on the environment and speeding the “demographic transition” to a stable population with low birth and mortality rates.
In addition, educating girls helps ensure that future generations are also educated: in Latin America, children whose mothers have some secondary schooling remain in school for two to three more years than children of mothers with less schooling.
Globally, the number of girls out of school has halved since 2000, but progress has slowed in recent years and there are major challenges ahead. Some countries have actually seen an increase in the number of girls out of school in recent years: Pakistan had 100,000 more girls out of school in 2011 than 2010, and Yemen’s number of out-of-school girls increased by 30,000.
Gender often interacts with other factors – such as family income and location within a country – to determine whether a girl will have access to schooling. In most developing countries, poor rural girls are far less likely to attend school than other children. Pakistan, Malala’s home country, is one of 12 countries in the world where at least half of the poorest girls have never stepped foot in a classroom. The poorest girls in rural areas are over 16 times less likely to be in school than boys from the wealthiest households in urban areas.
According to data in our World Inequality Database on Education, on average, young people in Pakistan have had 5.9 years of schooling. The poorest young rural women, however, have had an average of only 0.9 years of schooling. Nigeria, the country with the highest number of out-of-school children worldwide, has similarly high inequality. Young Nigerians have had an average of 6.8 years of schooling, but poorest rural young women have been in school an average for only 1.1 years.
Countries with high numbers of out-of-school girls urgently need to take measures to support girls’ enrolment. Bangladesh offers a positive example: in the past two decades, it significantly increased female enrolment through a programme that gives stipends for the poorest girls to attend school. As a result, Bangladesh has dramatically reduced inequality in education. The average years of schooling of poorest rural females rose from 1.0 in 1993(a quarter of the national average, 4.2 years) to 3.9 in 2011– more than half of the new national average of 6.6 years.
Great improvements can be made in girls’ education, but only with greater effort. This Friday, Malala and hundreds of students from over 80 countries will take over the United Nations to demand quality education for all. They will ask that governments protect every child’s basic right to quality education. You can support Malala’s call by signing her petition to provide education for all 57 million out-of-school children worldwide.
*In a second blog post to mark Malala’s 16th birthday, on Friday we will release new figures on the number of children out of school in conflict-affected areas, updating the findings of the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report, The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education.