Why girls’ education can help eradicate poverty

September 25, 2013

Educating girls and young women is not only one of the biggest moral challenges of our generation, it is also a necessary investment for a peaceful and poverty-free world. Until we give girls equal access to a good quality education, the world will continue to suffer from child and maternal mortality, disease and other byproducts of poverty.

This week, when world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly debate why many of the Millennium Development Goals remain out of reach, they should look no further than education disparities across the developing world. UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report team has released new evidence that shows how education gives girls and young women the freedom to make decisions to improve their lives.

Education is linked to the age at which women marry and have children. In sub-Saharan Africa and in South and West Asia, child marriage affects one in eight girls; one in seven gives birth by the age of 17. Education can empower these girls to have a say over their life choices — by giving them the confidence to speak up for their rights, and to demand the opportunity to continue their studies. Our analysis shows that if all girls in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia had primary education, there would be 14 percent fewer child marriages. If all girls received a secondary education, 64 percent fewer girls would be locked into marriage at an age when they should still be in school.

Education also helps girls and young women defy social limits on what they can or cannot do. It empowers them to decide how many children they will have, and how frequently they will get pregnant. By learning about the health risks associated with years of consecutive childbirth, women can choose to delay getting pregnant. In Pakistan, for example, only 30 percent of women who have no education believe that they have a say over how many children they will have. This proportion rises to 63 percent among women who have secondary education. Giving uneducated girls a secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa would reduce the number of births per mother from almost seven to four. In practical terms, too, improving literacy among girls and young women offers enormous economic benefits. Until there are equal numbers of girls and boys in school, there will still be more illiterate women than men, and many fewer women than men in secure, well-paying jobs. When a young woman is seen as a potential wage-earner for her family, she has a better likelihood of making her own choices and resisting cultural and family pressure to have children.

Education is also closely linked to health. Our analysis provides evidence that educated girls are far more likely to be able to protect their children from preventable diseases, and to stave off malnutrition in their children’s early years. At least 12 million children — a quarter of the world’s population of malnourished children — could be saved from malnutrition if all mothers in poor countries were given a secondary education. Malnutrition is not only about food: it starts with poverty, which can be avoided if women receive the education they need to read and earn a living.

Providing girls with a quality education also equips them with the confidence to confront people in power and challenge the inequalities that still exist for girls and women worldwide. Consider Mariam Khalique, a teacher in Pakistan who has used education to build her female students’ confidence and to encourage them to stand up for their rights. One of her pupils was the young education activist Malala Yousafzai, whose global advocacy work is proof of the transformative power of quality schooling.

Gender imbalances in education seldom make the news. But the evidence gathered by the EFA Global Monitoring Report team shows that when such inequalities are eliminated, educated girls and young women go on to improve their own prospects and those of their families and communities.

As we near the deadline for Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All goals — many of which are far from being achieved — world leaders must remember this simple truth: education transforms lives.

PHOTOS: Female students Shaista (R), 12, and Rabia (L), 10, read aloud while taking part in class in Buner district about 220 km (137 miles) by road from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on August 10, 2009. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood 

An Afghan girl reads at the Ishkashim high school for girls in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, near the border with Tajikistan, April 23, 2008. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood 



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This woman is hopelessly naive. She has almost all the cause-effect relationships she mentions backwards. Apparently she thinks a well educated girl can reason with and prevail over an eight hundred pound gorilla with a club. Education for girls in primitive countries will only follow social change, not lead it.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

JRT, I have to disagree, although yes it seems a daunting task for a young girl. However, education, and I mean real education of useful and honest things leads change. Education dominated by religious tenants does not. Education of real information at all ages and in all people brings about greater success, tolerance and happiness. Sure, not for the few who would control, dominate and torture all others, but for the average majority it’s true.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I have to agree with JRT, although for different reasons.

In poor countries (particularly the Middle East) there are very limited jobs, very little space in schools, and plenty of people to fill these positions. The reason that males get priority in things such as education or work, is that males are obligated to provide for their families. Females simply don’t have this social pressure put upon them. Every female that goes to school or gets a job takes that spot away from a male. When that happens, the male and his family go hungry. The female, not obligated to support their family with their income, spends their income on whatever they like. You would very much like that these mothers would altruistically provide for their families, but it just isn’t the case.

The point is that forcing more women into the stressed education systems of poor countries is not only ineffective, but quite possibly detrimental.

I would love to see the impoverished women have access to education. We have entire continents of amazing brains that are trapped by their poverty. But if are truly going to make progress towards this goal, we need to focus on the economic development of the country.

Posted by MaxClark | Report as abusive

Why limit the issue to female education? It makes no sense.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Every single time any person learns something new, they grow a new “neuro pathway” or block of energy/knowledge, which in turn expands consciousness. So, if we are all connected (and I believe we are,) then all of greater consciousness grows when someone learns, and when that little light is sparked. Make sure the lessons are of a constructive nature. Unfortunately, there are many in positions that use the learning tool(brain)to create ethnocentricity, which breads hate and discontent, making people and countries easy to exploit.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

ptiffany. Control of the uterus, simple as that. If you really want to get to “it”, all laws can be taken back to this simple little organ, and on how to control and regulate it.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

@JRT has the “eye on the right ball”.

Ms. Rose has eyes but does not see. “Education also helps girls and young women defy social limits on what they can or cannot do. It empowers them to decide how many children they will have, and how frequently they will get pregnant.”

While this is completely true, education is an obvious and continuing threat to the “traditional way of life” in many countries. The Taliban and similar organizations literally exist solely to combat it, and that fight is either equal nor one that can it necessarily be won in this lifetime.

“Providing girls with a quality education also equips them with the confidence to confront people in power and challenge the inequalities that still exist for girls and women worldwide.” Once again, absolutely true. But the “people in power” are not stupid.

They do not welcome either confrontation or challenge. In many cases their power springs from and is based upon “the inequalities that still exist for girls and women” in their society and others. Is it honest to encourage naive immature females to challenge “City Hall” that have NO protection from a predictably violent response?

Without a strong western military presence and local society support for such education, the primary result of such effort and sacrifice is an early death or banishment for the “best and brightest”. No matter where she goes or where she chooses to live, Malala will never, ever live a “normal” Afghan life.

So long as she breathes she must “watch her back”, for she has been transformed from an ordinary human being with feelings all of us have and share into a symbol that can only be exploited or destroyed. I both admire and pity her.

To raise up people, like Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, such that they then have no “place” in their own society is, in and of itself, cruel and unusual punishment of the easily led by those who delude themselves as to what is really possible at present. When we “seduce the mind of others”, perhaps FIRST we should make sure we do not then lead them (unaware) into harm’s way!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

There are some good comments here. I think the key is to get rank and file men on board. In any given region, the oligarchs always provide their daughters with a good education. There are few men who don’t want their daughters to have a better life than their sisters or mothers have. As for the risk to women who seek a better life for themselves through education, it must be balanced against the benefits as opposed to the risks that go with ignorance.

Posted by yooper | Report as abusive

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