Global Resources

Raising the Global Ambition for Girls’ Education

Author: Rebecca Winthrop, Eileen McGivney
Publisher: Brookings Institution
Publication Date: May 2014

It was as far back as 1948 that the world’s nations came together to declare education an intrinsic right of boys and girls, rich and poor alike. This vision, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been reinforced over the decades since. Hence, today girls who still fight to be educated are not cases for charity, but rather actively pursuing what is rightfully theirs. Beyond this right, it is also being increasingly recognised that girls’ education is a “passport to human development”, improving health, economic growth, and agricultural productivity to name but a few of the benefits. To help reinforce the case for raising global ambitions for providing girls’ education, the Brookings Institute have published this policy paper to concisely yet comprehensively lay out the need for and benefits of girl education, to outline the current progress and limitations experienced around the world, and to identify priorities that, if focused on, can greatly help make the vision first laid out in 1948 a reality for all girls.

The paper begins by outlining the progress made thus far, noting that girls’ education has become a staple focus of international treaties, agreements, and the development community more generally. The Millennium Development Goals, in focusing on attaining universal primary education and gender parity in primary and secondary schooling, has been particularly important, and there is indeed much to celebrate. Since 1990, the number of girls enrolled in primary school in low-income countries has risen from 23.6m to 63m by 2012, and globally, almost two-thirds of countries now have gender parity in educational enrollment. However, this success is not evenly spread; some girls have disproportionately been missed in such endeavours, namely poor, rural-dwelling girls among others. Tackling this requires a refocusing of efforts and strategies in a “second generation” of girls’ education priorities, four key areas of which are discussed in some depth in this paper:

  • Access: it is vital that girls are retained in the transition between primary and secondary education. In sub-Saharan Africa, 75% of girls start primary education, yet only 8% progress through to finishing lower secondary education. This drop-out rate is also a problem for boys, highlighting that gender ratio measurements are not a sufficient measure in-and-of-themselves. Additionally, there are hot-spots hidden by average figures where girls are still vastly disproportionately not in school, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia

  • Safety: it is also vital that schools are safe, and that facilities are girl-friendly. In places such as Pakistan and Nigeria, girls face incredible danger simply for accepting their right to an education. Furthermore, The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) reports that since 2009, schools in 30 countries have come under direct attack or been used for military purposes in armed conflict. Sexual harassment and assault in schools, which is often unrelated to larger outbreaks of violence, are also tragically common, including with teachers coercing students.

  • Quality learning: while enrollment figures are important, qualitative measures concerning the quality of the education on offer cannot simply be ignored. In Mauritania for instance, only 10% of students achieve basic reading skills. The EFA Global Monitoring Report points out that marginalised groups suffer the most, with income levels correlating directly with learning outcomes.

  • Transitions: there is a pressing need to support girls’ transition from secondary school to postsecondary school and the workforce. Tertiary education and employment correlates strongly with empowerment, increased economic and public participation, and lower levels of domestic violence. Thus, ensuring that young women have as much opportunity to attain a higher degree as young men do can enhance society and development as well as improve women’s lives individually.

Finally, the policy paper discusses the importance of local leadership, and the need to support local leaders and activists in developing countries to help catalyse change in girls education. While there is a significant amount of money from high-income countries directed toward education in the developing world, there remains an inadequate amount of support for key allies on the ground. These include hundreds, if not thousands, of social entrepreneurs and girl education advocates across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia - three areas where girls struggle the most to get educated - that are tackling these issues in creative ways, and whose work must be better supported financially and technically, and their work amplified. Such an approach could be an essential piece of lifting global ambitions for girls’ education for three main reasons: social leaders tend to continue in their commitment regardless of changes in government, as important and influential figures in society, they have a greater ability to hold government to account, and they have extensive and much needed knowledge and grounding in the local context, thus maximising their impact and effectiveness.


Unfortunately, barriers exist to providing the necessary support, not least the underfunding and limited capacity of middle- and low-income country NGOs, and the tendency for engagement with large, intergovernmental organisations to be monopolised by well resourced and well versed NGOs, thus sidelining many of the most innovative and important leaders in girls education. New mechanisms are necessary to specifically target these local leaders and entrepreneurs, perhaps through a Girls’ Leadership Fund to provide funding, technical assistance, and networking opportunities. In conclusion, while much has been achieved over the last two decades, success has stopped short of helping a significant number of girls. Ambitions must be raised, not only because girls’ education yields some of the highest returns of all development investments across a number of metrics, but because they deserve education, it is owed to them, and it is their right.