When you send a girl to school, the good deed never dies. It goes on for generations advancing every public good, from health to economic gain to gender equity and national prosperity,” Melinda Gates said.
Almost 132 million girls are out of school around the world In India, and nearly 40 per cent of adolescent girls do not attend school. To put this in perspective, if the total number of out-of-school girls made up a whole country, it would be the 10th largest in the world. The Covid-19 crisis has further skewed this graph. The Malala Fund projects that an additional 20 million girls of secondary school age may be out of school by the end of the pandemic.
For decades, policymakers and civil society have discussed the urgency to educate every girl child. However, millions of girls continue to be excluded, despite findings that quality education for girls has always correlated to lower rates of poverty and improved standards of health. Girls’ education is a positive spiral with a long-term impact on society and human development. Educated girls who become mothers are more likely to send their children to school and raise better-nourished children. Girls who complete schooling are more averse to risks like child marriage and maternal mortality. They tend to have fewer children, and have better knowledge of health and prenatal services. Education has further positive influence in protecting children from a range of vulnerabilities, including exploitative labour and trafficking.
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The development gap
Despite the international community committing itself to the urgency of education for girls, it is still not a priority for large-scale investments for the development sector. The reasons are complex and are grounded in reliance on faulty development 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. This model was gender blind and failed to consider the status of women in relation to men, and their role in the ‘unpaid care’ economy. 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. This resulted in drastic spending cuts in education, health, and food subsidies, disproportionately hurting the poor and failing to produce significant economic growth.
A decade later, we have understood that human development can foster economic growth. Education secured a spot at the heart of development and we have recognised the importance of closing the gender gap. However, it is mistakenly assumed that the general drive towards education for all would automatically reduce the gender gap.
Misplaced policies and roadmaps aren’t the only reasons that our girls remain uneducated. Local attitudes about gender roles, including decisions based on concerns of safety or economics hold girls back. However, the general consensus indicates that the problem is not so much on the demand side. In many instances, when schools are made locally accessible, or tuition fees eliminated, parents eagerly send their daughters to school.
The problem, it seems, is on the supply side – the availability of safe, accessible, gender-sensitive schools; sufficient educational information for families; and employment possibilities for women.
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Poverty’s double edge for girls
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 solution is a human rights-based, multi-sectoral model for development that will maximise the multiplier effects of investing in girls’ education.
No country can achieve sustainable economic development without substantial investment in human capital and women empowerment. The human-capital theory explains that education is not a form of consumption that represents a costly expenditure for the government, but instead it serves as an investment that improves the economic worth of individuals, thereby raising a country’s overall productivity and economic competitiveness. And, thus, education in every sense is one of the fundamental factors of development. Success towards Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5) — Quality Education for all — has linked progress to improved health, reduced poverty, and gender equality; and holds promise for the lives of all children and the fate of all nations.
And there is hope. Hope that we have taken the learnings from the devastation that Covid-19 caused humanity as a whole, to create a more equitable world — one that will prioritise equity.
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Take the example of Ab Meri Baari, a nation-wide initiative by the 10to19 Community of Practice that saw adolescent girls lead campaigns to create normative change and drive social accountability. The education they had access to motivated them to create task forces to facilitate a diverse range of activities and discussions to drive awareness on adolescent-related issues. More than 300 adolescents in Rajasthan and Jharkhand conducted surveys to assess the service delivery of government schemes and policies across education, safety, sexual and reproductive health. They also wrote letters to their government representatives explaining how their schools and communities could be improved to provide better adolescent-focused services. This is an example of educated young women taking ownership of not only their own well-being, but also that of their peers and communities.
The need of the hour is to ensure that our children — all boys and all girls — have easy, affordable, and quality access to education and an equal opportunity to complete school that can prepare them for 21st-century jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities that can foster the development of India.
Aditi Premji is a philanthropist and works as a fellow with Dasra, a strategic Philanthropy organization. She also serves as a member of Advisory Board at Sesame Workshop and on the Regional Board of Teach for India. Views are personal.