We know from decades of research that when girls and women are educated, we see faster poverty reduction, better maternal health, lower child mortality, greater HIV prevention and reduced violence. Each additional year a girl spends in school can also boost her earnings as an adult by up to 20 per cent.
As the world comes together for the Transforming Education Summit this September, we must remember that all children deserve to learn and despite great strides made in girls’ education over the last few decades, girls from the poorest households and in rural areas are still being left behind. According to UN Women and UNDESA’s new report, Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot, even without the COVID-19 fallout, it will take at least another 54 years to reach universal primary school completion for girls.
The report also cites recent data from 29 countries showing that gaps in upper secondary school completion among the poorest rural girls and the richest urban girls can range from 11.5 to 72.2 percentage points.
Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, migratory status and disabilities can also disrupt education. Children with disabilities have less access to early childhood education, according to data from 42 countries, and the disparity is greater for girls (only 18 per cent of girls with one or more functioning difficulties attended an early childhood education programme, compared to 28 per cent of girls without). And pandemic-related disruptions to education have further deepened inequalities in learning for girls and young women.
COVID-19 compounds existing inequalities
Now more than two years into the pandemic, despite most schools being reopened, the disruptions in education will leave lasting impacts, particularly among marginalised and vulnerable girls. For instance, the Gender Snapshot reveals that in rural Pakistan, learning losses are higher among girls than boys across all subjects. In the Mexican states of Campeche and Yucatan, the share of 10-year-old students who can comprehend simple texts declined by 25 percentage points among those with low socioeconomic status, compared to 15 percentage points for those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Worldwide, nearly 130 million girls are not enrolled in formal education, and more than half of them are in crisis-affected countries. In Afghanistan, girls are no longer even allowed to attend secondary school.
To address these problems, time and resources are required, yet fewer than 3 per cent of COVID-19 stimulus funds have gone to education.
COVID-19 also brought increased adolescent pregnancies, which further threaten girls’ education. The Gender Snapshot reveals that in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, 56 per cent of adolescent girls from hard-to-reach populations who dropped out of school early in the pandemic were currently or recently pregnant. The pandemic has also placed girls at greater risk of gender-based violence, mental health disorders and food and economic insecurity.
COVID-19 illnesses and deaths among adult caregivers have also yielded lower educational outcomes. As of October 2021, over 5 million children had lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19. For adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa, such losses increased their risk of sexual violence, exploitation, HIV infection and lower educational attainment.
Missing opportunities in tech and innovation
The report also notes that long-held biased gender norms and stereotypes remain embedded in curricula, textbooks and teaching, derailing girls’ choices of what to study and what careers to pursue. Globally, young women outnumber men in tertiary education, but in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), women make up only 35 per cent of students, and in ICT, women make up just 3 per cent.
Across countries, girls are steered away from STEM. Teachers and parents, both intentionally and inadvertently, perpetuate biases around what work is “suitable” for women and men. In the Philippines, girls as young as 10 lose interest in STEM subjects, perceiving such careers as male-dominated and believing that girls are naturally less skilled in STEM. Without women role models in STEM, these perceptions are continually reinforced. Women make up just 19.9 per cent of science and engineering professionals.
Gaps in STEM education and careers are even larger for women and girls disadvantaged by the intersection of gender and other vulnerabilities. In the United States of America, the report reveals that Black and Hispanic women in STEM earn about $20,000 a year less than the average for STEM jobs and about $33,000 less than their white male counterparts.
With the Transforming Education Summit bringing together so many leaders and experts, its critical that we take this convening as an opportunity to make bold and transformative commitments that advance girls’ education, including by promoting more girls in STEM fields and prioritises learning and education outcomes of girls from marginalised communities who are most at risk, and then carry that momentum on to next year when the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women comes together under the theme “Innovation and technological change and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”.