Educating girls

Education is a key development variable and a demographic one. It affects decisions about family size and child spacing as well as levels of infant and maternal mortality. It applies to women as well as men, because education, above all, enables people to take change into their own hands and to shape their own destiny. But it is particularly important for girls and women. Among the 900 million illiterate people in the developing world, women still outnumber men by two to one.

Figures released in 2007 indicate that the UN has fallen well short of its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of getting as many girls educated as boys by 2015. It is estimated that 46 countries may fail to attain this goal. According the UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, in 2005 72 million children of primary school age were not in school, with close to 60 per cent of them girls.

Outdated sexual stereotypes, poverty, HIV/AIDS and armed conflict are blamed for the failure to achieve this goal. Many girls are denied schooling because cultural traditions define a female's place as in the home, and social pressure is exerted for them to marry early, sometimes as young as the age of 10, the UN says. Male privilege and entitlement (ensure) that when educational opportunities are limited, boys will take available classroom space.

Many of the countries highlighted in the report are in sub-Saharan Africa, but Turkey, which recently began accession talks to the EU, was also listed. The problem is worst in the rural east and south-east of Turkey, and poor areas of the big cities, where children are often used for seasonal work. A high-profile campaign by Unicef, backed by the Turkish government, has helped to close the gap to just under 6 per cent on average.

Health benefits

As shown in China, Costa Rica, and Sri Lanka, basic education of girls and women is good for health. Educated individuals tend to adopt healthier lifestyles, make more efficient use of scarce resources such as food and health care, and avoid risks caused by the abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs. In most societies, norms regarding childbirth and child care, the status of women, personal hygiene, and sexual behaviour exert powerful influences on health and are deeply rooted in local culture.schoolgirl In fact, education for girls has a catalytic effect on every dimension of development: lower child and maternal mortality rates; reduced fertility rates; increased educational attainment by daughters and sons; higher productivity; and improved environmental management. Together, these can mean faster economic growth and - equally important - wider distribution of the fruits of growth. In addition, educating girls opens the door to economic and political opportunity for future generations.

  • The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development called for universal access to primary education before 2015 and the elimination of the gender gap in primary and secondary education by 2005.
  • According to UN reports the global community, and Africa in particular,is witnessing rapid growth in the population of school-age children, who now number about 1 billion. By 2050, the number of school-age children in Africa is expected to double from 330 million to over 600 million.
  • Mia MacDonald, co-author of the State of the World 2003 reported that 60 per cent of the world's 113 million children then not attending primary school were girls, and two-thirds of the people around the world who cannot read or do simple maths were women. Countries with higher female literacy rates and educational levels have lower fertility rates than countries with lower education levels. Those countries where women have low education levels see higher mortality rates for mothers and children under age 5.
  • According to the World Bank, if, by 2010, every young child was completing primary school, per capita GDP levels in the developing world in the year 2035 could be as much as one-third to one-half higher than they otherwise might be.
  • The other effects are equally important: better educated children, healthier families, and more sustainable development progress. More education for girls also will enable more and more women to attain leadership positions at all levels of society: from health clinics in the villages to parliaments in the capitals. This, in turn, will change the way societies deal with problems - and raise the quality of global decision-making.
    Female education has a direct effect on fertility
    Female education has a direct effect on fertility.


  • Girls' educational achievements have a direct influence on the timing and number of their children: educated women have fewer children, and have them later. Today, some 400 million adolescent girls stand on the brink of adulthood. If many choose to delay childbearing, even for a few years, they will enhance their health, education and employment prospects. In the year 2100, the developing countries' population will be smaller by 1.2 billion if the average age at bearing the first child is delayed by five years.

Link to World Bank website pages on Educating girls