A pupil at Sangere, Adamawa State, Nigeria. Photo by: Immanuel Afolabi / Conflict & Development at Texas A&M / CC BY-NC-ND

BARCELONA — On the International Day of Education, political leaders are being urged to address gender inequality in education, after a report from researchers at the University of Cambridge revealed that girls from rural households living in poverty spend an average of five years or less in school in 15 out of 21 Commonwealth countries data is available.

The analysis showed that in Pakistan and Nigeria, girls living in poverty spend an average of just one year in school; and in India, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone just two years, compared to an average of 9-12 years that wealthy urban boys in those countries spend in school.

“Our key message is really about the vital importance of visible political leadership to actually translate what we know works into action.”

— Pauline Rose, report co-author

The report pushes for increased political leadership to include gender empowerment in education policy — as well as sufficient resources to implement this.

“We've got a lot of evidence on what works to improve girls’ education, but the gap is [how to] actually make that happen,” said Pauline Rose, director at the University of Cambridge Research for Equitable Access and Learning Center and one of the report’s authors. “That's why our key message is really about the vital importance of visible political leadership to actually translate what we know works into action.”

Rose urged development workers to use their in-country positions to lobby for change.

“The most marginalized girls — the ones getting left behind, those from the poorest backgrounds, the remote areas — don't have the same voice and visibility so that's why there is a very vital role for NGOs and others to be pushing this evidence, to be saying ‘this is where the problem is and you need to do something about it’,” she said.

The report analyzed girls’ education across the 53 Commonwealth countries with a particular focus on lower-middle and low-income countries.

Conceição da Glória Sozinho, education specialist in Mozambique, said that one of the issues for girls living in rural areas in her country is the need to travel to cities where the majority of secondary schools are.

“If the government built some schools in the rural areas, if they increased the sensitization of the families in the rural areas to the importance of having girls in schools until they finish their education, and if we could even provide accommodation for girls who live in the rural areas near the secondary school, maybe we could change the situation,” she said.

Other interventions the report identified for improving marginalized girls’ access to education included grassroots leadership, targeted funding, better use of data, prioritization of early childhood education, and tackling discrimination through safer school environments and gender-sensitive teaching practices. However, according to the research, only when political commitment and sustained investment were present could this be achieved at scale.

Currently, only 5 percent of categorized and reported education aid is focussed on achieving gender equality according to the report; 15 percent below the level recommended by the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council in 2018.

Investing in girls’ education can generate improved economic development, according to a spokesperson for the Global Partnership for Education, which works with governments to build stronger education systems. “We know that educating girls is a powerful investment with the benefits rippling across sectors from health and climate change to economic development and beyond,” the spokesperson said.

Limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries $15-30 trillion dollars in lost lifetime productivity and earnings, according to a World Bank estimate.

According to the report, two countries making the investment are Uganda and Gambia. They already have a high-level of political buy-in with national level plans and priorities including the promotion of equality and empowerment through gender-responsive strategies.

“The political buy-in to education is demonstrated both through the countries’ policies and plans they have that go beyond gender parity to address some of the issues holding back gender equality, such as child marriage, child labor, and gender-based violence,” said Rose, adding that many of the challenges go beyond the education sector itself.

“The world needs better leadership when it comes to the education domain,” said Vikas Pota, chairman of the Varkey Foundation. “Education, being a public good, needs to be driven by education ministers far more aggressively to make sure every child gets their right to education,” he added.

Rose also encouraged development practitioners to ensure there was as much buy-in at the grassroots level by working with community leaders to build knowledge, experience, and excitement around access to quality education. “That takes work and takes time but when you’ve got that happening at the grassroots, you’re more likely to have a link with what's happening at the national level,” she said.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.