The State of the World's Children 2004

The multiplier effect of educating girls

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© UNICEF/2003/Page

Girls’ education is the most effective means of combating many of the profound challenges to human development. Providing girls the opportunity to complete their education yields benefits for all.

Ensuring children the best start to life

Ensuring the best start to life means investing in health care, nutrition, water, sanitation, and education for young children and their mothers. This investment will help children to be healthy and alert, instead of forever playing catch-up physically and mentally.

Learning begins at birth. Early education is integral for survival, growth and development, with all basic services interdependent. Preventing iodine deficiency and anaemia, for example, improves health and nutrition – and it protects early brain development.

The rhythm of schooling

Girls in particular benefit from pre-school. It raises their self-esteem and their parents’ aspirations for them. Another important, but often overlooked, benefit is preparing girls for the rhythm of schooling rather than the rhythm of household chores or income-generating tasks.

Fighting HIV/AIDS

In the absence of a vaccine protecting children and young people against HIV/AIDS, education is the best defence against the disease. The more educated and skilled, the more likely they are to protect themselves from infection; and those in school spend less time in risky situations. This is particularly important for girls, who are more easily infected with HIV during sex than boys.

The best school-based defence against HIV/AIDS is incorporated into a life skills programme.  For programmes to be most effective they must:

  • Provide gender-specific information on HIV and its prevention
  • Teach critical analysis, communication and decision-making skills
  • Challenge gender stereotypes
  • Develop practical links to youth-friendly, gender-sensitive health services.

Children affected by HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS has profound implications for education. Children orphaned by AIDS are often the first to lose support of their extended families for attending school. Girls are disproportionately kept out of school to care for sick relatives. And schools are losing teachers to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Creating a protective environment

After families, education is the next perimeter of a protective environment for children. Schoolchildren can learn skills and information that help protect them from exploitation such as child labour.  Literate girls can avoid hazardous labour, sexual exploitation and trafficking. They are also less vulnerable to extreme forms of intrafamily violence.

Helping children in emergencies

Education is not a luxury in emergencies that only is ensured after other elements are in place. It is a priority. Safe environments must be established so that girls and boys can learn, play and receive psychosocial support. The goal is to create a child-friendly space, a concept that was developed during the 1999 response to the Kosovo crisis, the earthquake in Turkey and the violence in what was once East Timor (now Timor-Leste).  These child-friendly, gender-sensitive spaces can become hubs for providing water, play, schooling, mother-support, health care and psychosocial support.

The benefits to communities

Efforts to get more girls into school improve the development of the community. Education-prompted measures that address disparity by boosting household income help the whole family. School feeding programmes, which are of particular benefit to girls because they suffer more from poor nutrition, feed all children. Safe water and sanitation, key to getting and keeping girls in school, improve the well-being of the entire community. When schools become girl-friendly, they ultimately bring services to all children, their families and communities.

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Video feature: Zambia



12-year-old Angela Mwila’s family lives in central Zambia, far from the nearest road. Her extended family gathers for a meal near their compound.
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Chores are a regular part of childhood. Angela has several to take care of before heading off to school, such as gathering water and tending the fire for tea.
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Zambia is one of the countries most affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Children start learning early how to protect themselves from the disease, as here in social studies class.
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Playing netball against the boys gives girls the emotional and physical confidence to ward off unwanted sexual advances, making them less likely to become infected with HIV/AIDS.
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