We’re building a new UNICEF.org.
As we swap out old for new, pages will be in transition. Thanks for your patience – please keep coming back to see the improvements.

The State of the World's Children 2004

Educated girls, a unique positive force for development

© UNICEF/2003/Yeo

Education is everybody’s right. No girl, however poor, however desperate her country’s situation, is to be excluded from school.

Education saves and improves the lives of girls and women, ultimately leading to more equitable development, stronger families, better services, better child health.

A positive spiral

Educating girls has a wide-ranging impact on society and human development. Long-term benefits include:

Enhanced economic development. Decades of research have found an important link between the expansion of basic education and economic development. Girls’ education has an even more positive effect.

Education for the next generation. Educated girls who become mothers are more likely to send their children to school, passing on and multiplying benefits.

The multiplier effect. Education has a positive influence in a child’s life from health to protection from HIV/AIDS, exploitative labour and trafficking.

Healthier families. When mothers are educated their children are better nourished and get sick less often. 

Fewer maternal deaths. Women who have been educated are less likely to die during childbirth because they tend to have fewer children, better knowledge of health services during pregnancy and birth, and improved nutrition.

The development gap

The international community committed itself to girls’ education, yet it is not a priority for development investments. The reasons are complex and are grounded in reliance on faulty development models.

Growth models. Early ideas about development were rooted in the belief that economic growth, measured by gross domestic product, would lift countries out of poverty and reduce inequality. Despite many attempts to refine this model, the results were dismal. Additionally, this model was faulty because it was gender blind, and failed to consider the status of women in relationship to men and the ‘unpaid care’ economy – work usually done by women.

As growth models faltered in the 1980s, structural adjustment – reducing expenditure and giving more scope for prices and incentives to find their own level in the marketplace – was touted. Drastic spending cuts in education, health and food subsidies resulted. This disproportionately hurt the poor and failed to produce significant economic growth.

In the 1990s, it was understood that economic growth alone cannot produce human development. In fact, human development fosters economic growth.

Development transcends economics.  Poverty cannot be reduced in any substantial manner without promoting women’s empowerment.

Models of universal education. Education policy failed to recognize the key role girls’ schooling plays if a country is to achieve education for all. Despite general enthusiasm early on for education as vital for a nation’s advancement, millions of children were still out of school in 1980.

The 1980s structural adjustment made things worse. In countries that underwent adjustment, per capita spending on education declined.

The 1990 Jomtien World Conference on Education For All recognized that the chronic neglect of children’s right to education – especially girls’ education – was exacerbated under structural adjustment. It helped re-establish education at the heart of development

Models for girls’ education. While the Jomtien Conference and the Education For All movement recognized the importance of closing the gender gap, it mistakenly assumed that the general drive towards education for all would automatically reduce the gender gap.

Local beliefs, traditional practices and attitudes about gender roles often hold girls back from school. But parents’ objections to their daughters’ going to school are often caused by safety or economics rather than a belief that girls should not be educated. They may correctly fear that the school is unsafe or the journey is perilous or too long. Families may believe that they cannot afford to sacrifice their daughters’ help or income.

The problem is really on the supply side – the availability of safe, accessible, gender-sensitive schools, employment possibilities for women, or educational information for families. In many countries, when the importance of education is explained or tuition fees eliminated, parents eagerly send their daughters to school.

Poverty’s double edge for girls

A recent report on poverty found that 135 million children in the developing world between the ages of 7 and 18 had no education at all, with girls 60 per cent more likely than boys to be so ‘educationally deprived’. Educational deprivation and poverty go hand in hand. Gender disparity in education is significantly greater for children living in poverty. Thus, girls are in double jeopardy, affected by both gender and poverty.

The alternative: A human rights, multisectoral model for development
An alternative approach to development that will allow girls their right to education, meet the commitments of the international community and maximize the multiplier effects of investing in girls’ education is a human rights, multisectoral model.

Human rights
The rights of children are inextricably linked to the rights of women. Neither will be realized without ending discrimination in all forms, especially gender-based discrimination.

Many of the obstacles that keep girls from enjoying their right to complete their education are found far from school – unsafe water, communities ravaged by HIV/AIDS, families caught in poverty’s grip. Solutions to the education crisis lie in many areas, such as providing school meals or improving access to safe water.

The Millennium Development Goals have linked progress on education, health, poverty relief and the environment with girls’ right to equality in schooling. This holds promise for the lives of all children and the fate of all nations.

Download chapter 2 PDF file (461 KB)



Español   Français

New enhanced search