Girls in education systems

From Ed•sy•clopedia

With the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for universal primary schooling over the last two decades, now over 91% of children are enrolled in primary school around the world.[1] However, in 2018, the World Bank estimated that approximately "132 million girls around the world between the ages of 6 and 17" were not enrolled in school, with 75 percent of these girls being adolescents.[2] Although 131 million boys around the world are also not enrolled in school, many governments, donors, and international organizations work to emphasize the specific challenges faced by girls in low- and middle-income countries.

Gender inequality in schooling disadvantages both girls and boys

Globally, there are about 263 million children out of school, about 132 million girls and 131 million boys.[3] At first glance, one might think this means there is gender parity in enrollment across the world. While more than two thirds of all countries have reached universal primary education with gender parity in primary school enrollment, many girls and boys face inequality in schooling that varies based on age and region.

About one-third of countries have not reached gender parity in primary school enrollment.[4] Often times, this lack of gender parity is more likely to disadvantage girls in their younger years and boys in their older years.

  • There are currently more girls out-of-school at the primary level than boys (32 million compared to 29 million).[3]
  • There are more boys out-of-school at the lower and upper secondary level (31 million compared to 29 million for lower secondary; 73 million compared to 69 million for upper secondary).[3]

This data still does not reveal the whole picture, as the gender disparities in education are variable at the regional level. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, girls are disadvantaged and underrepresented in school enrollment at all levels.[5] In Chad, there are 78 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in primary school.[4] Girls are also at a disadvantage in primary school enrollment in the Middle East and South Asia.[4] In Pakistan, there are 84 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in primary school.[4] On the other hand, boys are underrepresented in secondary education in many regions of the world.[6]

Barriers to accessing schooling

  • Poverty. Families living in poverty lack the ability to pay for schooling. These households often choose to use their limited financial resources to invest in boys' education.[7]
  • Cultural expectations for girls. Even in countries where primary school is free, girls often dropout due to family reliance on girls to help with household upkeep and childcare.[7] For example, "a study in Ghana found that girls were more likely to drop out of primary school because they had to do chores and housework and because they were unable to pay school fees."[8] These cultural expectations for girls are even more salient in adolescence, when "girls are often required to take on an ever-growing burden of domestic responsibility which can impact on their attendance and learning at school."[9] In many communities, the social value of education for girls is not perceived to be as high as the value for boys education. For example, in Tanzania, social norms reduce the marriage prospects for educated girls; therefore, increasing the cost of dowries and leading to girls being forced to drop out of school.[9] Several communities in South Asia face a similar problem, in which the more education a girl has, the more money her family must pay for marriage, "due to social norms that require husbands to have more education than wives."[10] In rural Pakistan, religious beliefs restrict girls ability to attend mixed-gender schools or schools without female teachers.[11]
  • Gender-based violence. Violence against girls; whether sexual, physical, or emotional; is a barrier to access to schooling for many girls. Often, gender-based violence is correlated with distance that girls must travel to and from school. In Uganda, as the distance to school increased, girls' primary school attendance decreased at a higher rate than boys.[12] In Malawi, as distance to a secondary school increases, girls are significantly less likely to attend school than boys.[12] Countries dealing with instability and high-levels of conflict also leads to an increase in gender-based violence. In Central African Republic, Séléka and anti-balaka fighters "have been found to commit sexual violence against women and girls who were conducting their daily tasks, such as going to market, farming, or going to school or work."[13]
  • Child marriage. Marriage in adolescence is often a barrier for girls' education, especially for girls from the poorest families. Child marriage is closely tied to social norms, and 12 million girls are estimated to be married before the age of 18 every year.[14] Furthermore, in Chad, 67% of girls are married by 18, and 30% are already married by 15.[15] Early marriage is closely linked to dropping out of school, as marrying at age 16 reduced the likelihood of girls completing secondary education by 7.8% in Sub-Saharan Africa, and child marriage in Nigeria and Uganda accounts for 15% to 20% of drop outs.[16],[17] Factors that are associated with child marriage include poverty, living in rural areas, and particular religious and cultural group membership.[9]
  • Challenges that arise with puberty. The start of menstruation can be challenging for girls in low- and middle-income countries, as they may lack the necessary sanitation materials to adequately cope with menstruation. Thus, many schools see a rise in absenteeism from girls during menstruation.[9] Problems for older adolescent girls include early marriage and teenage pregnancy, which tend to affect the poorest girls.[9]
  • Lack of culturally responsive curriculum. In many countries, standardized "curriculum and school materials can reinforce negative gender stereotypes that lead to girls' exclusion and low levels of learning."[9] These materials can portray women as passive and can discriminate against them. An analysis of female representation in curriculum in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh found strong male biases, "with female occupations shown as being traditional and less prestigious, and females shown as having more passive personality traits."[9]
  • Lack of schools and infrastructure. This barrier is likely to impact both girls and boys, especially in rural areas. Often, there are an inadequate number of schools to meet demand in rural areas, and many of the schools that do exist "lack water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities including separate toilets for boys and girls and a water source."[7] Many of these schools also lack infrastructure that promotes a safe learning environment, such as perimeter fences and well-lit pathways. With the fear of gender-based violence, this may lead to a reduction in girls' attendance.

Global learning levels are low for both girls and boys

While there are inequalities in schooling for girls in several regions of the world, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, it is important to note that just because girls are enrolled in school, this does not necessarily mean that they are learning. Low- and middle-income countries across the globe are facing a learning crisis, meaning that children are enrolled in school but they are not gaining the basic literacy and numeracy skills necessary to excel in life. A World Bank study found that "53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school."[18]

Girls often outperform boys when they are enrolled in school

When girls are enrolled in school, how does their learning compare to boys? Perhaps surprisingly, "recent evidence suggests that the gender gap indeed is often small compared to education gaps on geography, wealth, or 'pure' inequality - the difference between the best and worst performers."[19] Within many countries, the gap between learning achievement of boys and girls is actually quite small, and can often favor girls.

It seems that when girls have access to schooling, they will eventually outperform their male peers: "In 2015, teenage girls outperformed boys on a sophisticated reading test in 69 countries."[20]

In Zambia, about 37% of 15-year-old girls were enrolled in secondary school when the PISA-D test was administered. Of these girls, only about 6.5% were considered literate by the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 standard. For boys, just 3.5% were considered literate. Thus, when girls are enrolled in school, they are often performing on par with or above their male counterparts. However, in Zambia, almost two-thirds of girls at age 15 were no longer in school.[21]

In an analysis of 18 low- and middle-income countries, boys and girls were on average learning the same amount as they moved through school, and girls actually performed slightly higher in later grades. The differences between boys and girls is relatively small: "It is almost always less than .15 percentage points, and more often than not it is girls who are learning more than boys (across all countries and grades, girls have 1 percentage point higher numeracy than boys, and 3 percentage points higher literacy). There’s a learning crisis for boys and girls in nearly equal measure."[22]

In an analysis of seven countries that participated in PISA-D, ensuring girls persisted in school until at least age 15 only resulted in a 12.3% increase in female literacy to just 24.9%.[21] Simply ensuring access to schooling will not be enough to solve the learning crisis for girls or boys.

Literacy for boys and girls in Zambia compared to the United Kingdom[23]

These results do not discount the issue with girls school enrollment, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, these results do reveal that the emphasis on achieving learning parity between boys and girls in low- and middle-income countries will not solve the learning crisis, and will instead leave boys and girls in these countries far behind global averages and nowhere near achieving universal literacy and numeracy as outlined by SDG 4.

Global learning gaps are large in comparison to gender gaps

While inequality in learning between girls and boys in low- and middle-income countries varies by country, the overall inequality of learning between developing countries and developed countries is startling. For example, in Zambia, about 3.5% of boys enrolled in school at age 15 reach SDG literacy goals and about 6.5% of girls enrolled in school reach SDG literacy goals.[21] When accounting for girls in Zambia that are not enrolled at school at age 15, the percentage falls to about 2.4%. While the gap between boys and girls in Zambia is unacceptable, it is helpful to put this 1.1% gap in perspective: in the United Kingdom, 74.1% of the poorest students at age 15 reach SDG literacy goals.[21]

There is a learning crisis in low- and middle-income countries, and even bringing gender parity in schooling will not solve the systemic problem of low learning. In order to improve girls education most efficiently, larger learning gains can be made by focusing on improving overall education systems.

Impacts of gender inequality in schooling

Negative impacts

A World Bank report estimated that the limited educational opportunities for girls "cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings."[24] Furthermore, when girls drop out of school early, they are much more likely to be involved in child marriage and have their first child before the age of 18. At a nation level, this cycle is associated with "higher rates of fertility and population growth, which in low-income countries are major impediments" for development.[25] Lack of educational attainment is also associated with poorer health and nutrition outcomes for women and their families.[25]

Positive impacts

On the other hand, extensive research reveals the positive impacts that educational attainment can have on women and their life outcomes. For example, research has found that the longer women persist in schooling, the more likely they are to be empowered decision-makers, to have their first pregnancy at an older age, to make better nutrition decisions for their children, and to have healthier children.[21] Women who have persisted in schooling are also more likely to engage in altruistic behaviors, are more likely to be able to access basic services and assess their quality, and assess the quality of their nation's leaders.[25]

The impact of schooling is much larger when it produces learning, and literacy contributes a large portion of the impact.[26]

What about learning?

However, it is important to note that research on outcomes for girls and their persistence through school has not distinguished between women who completed primary schooling, and did not gain foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy, and those that just completed school but did not achieve foundational learning. Thus, it was "impossible to estimate the improvements in life outcomes that resulted from learning."[21] Recent research has attempted to distinguish between schooling and learning and their impacts on girls, and found that "across four different indicators (child mortality, fertility, women's empowerment, and financial practices) the 'impact of basic education' – primary schooling plus gaining literacy – is about three times larger than typical estimates of the 'impact of primary schooling.'"[21] Thus, improving outcomes for girls should not just be about access to schooling, but should also be about improving learning for girls, and improving learning across entire education systems, in order to truly deliver the benefits of education.

Improving girls education

Improving overall education systems has the potential to transform education for girls (and boys)

The overwhelming learning gap between low- and middle-income countries and their more developed peers reveal the need to holistically improve education systems to provide foundational learning for all students. Recent research "suggests that programs targeting both boys and girls can perform just as well and sometimes better for girls' learning as girl-specific programs."[27]

A team of researchers reviewed 267 studies of education programs from over 50 low- and middle-income countries to determine the best ways to support girls in schooling and learning. The review found that some of the most effective programs for improving access to schooling for girls were actually gender-neutral programs that cut the cost of education for all students, regardless of gender. For example, programs in Afghanistan built schools in rural areas, which led to a more than 50% increase in primary school enrollment for girls. The review also found that the most effective learning interventions for both girls and boys focused on improving teaching quality.[28]

While improving access to schooling for girls is important, it is also true that just giving girls access into "poorly performing systems will leave them - at best - with the same poor outcomes as the children already in the system."[21] In order to truly improve learning for girls (and boys), entire education systems must be reoriented around learning rather than just enrollment targets.

"Gains to female literacy from gender parity in attainment are often smaller than either attaining universal primary completion (UPC) or than the gains from improving the learning profile for both sexes—and the gains from equalizing learning profiles with males are nearly always small."[29]

For example, the graph above shows projections from various countries. For all of these countries, universal primary school enrollment only slightly improves female literacy (blue bars). Furthermore, bringing girls to gender parity for educational attainment (orange bars), learning profiles (grey bars), and both attainment and learning (yellow bars) also only slightly improve female literacy. However, when learning is actually improved (green bars), the gains for female literacy are huge.[21]

Targeting adolescent girls can work, but larger gains can be made when girls (and boys) learn

Many policies and programs work to specifically target the barriers that adolescent girls face in educational attainment, including scholarships and other forms of funding to reduce the costs of attending school for girls, providing sanitary pads and other sanitary products during menstruation, teaching life skills to reduce early marriage and teenage pregnancy, and providing financial and in-kind support for girls to bolster enrollment and reduce absenteeism.[9]

Community based programs, such as the Kishoree Kontha program in Bangladesh, focuses on addressing "harmful community attitudes on child marriage, teenage childbearing, and education by creating safe spaces . . . for girls to meet to socialize and to receive educational support and social competency training."[9] Some girls also received a financial incentive to delay marriage. Results from almost 5 years after the program found that girls who received incentives were 25% less likely to be married before 18, 16% less likely to have given birth before 20, and 24% more likely to be in school at 22.[9]

Another program in Kenya focuses on providing scholarships for high-performing girls in grade 6 to help them persist through secondary school. Interestingly, these scholarships actually raised test scores for all girls, not just the ones who received the scholarships. There was also evidence that this program led to boys' test scores also increasing.[9]

While it is important to ensure education systems are gender inclusive, if the education system is ineffective, then both girls and boys will not learn. Thus, we should work toward creating inclusive and effective education systems to ensure both girls and boys can learn.

Reverse gender gaps

Boys school enrollment, gender parity index.[30]

A recent report from UNESCO argues that, in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals for both education and gender equality, there are certain aspects of education for boys that also need to be targeted along with education for girls. While girls are much more likely to be disadvantaged at the primary level or never attend school in low-income countries, in many other countries, "boys are often at greater risk of failing to progress and complete their secondary education."[6]

Boys are at a disadvantage in upper secondary completion and participation in post-secondary education in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, and North America. In 2016, many countries had a disparity at the expense of boys in both lower and upper secondary enrollment, 17% and 45% of countries respectively.[6]

This reverse gender gap in certain regions of the world and in secondary education can have a lasting impact. Research has shown that men who are less educated are more likely to express discriminatory gender views and to commit physical and sexual violence against female partners in certain countries.[31] Furthermore, boys who had no education were "nine times as likely to join rebel or counter-rebel groups" during the civil war in Sierra Leone.[32] Paternal involvement in childhood has also shown positive child development outcomes, including increased vaccination uptake and improved gender relations within families.

Ultimately, "the road to gender equality passes through boys' and girls' access to equitable education of good quality."[30] In certain regions of the world, boys are falling behind in education and their educational needs should also be prioritized if we are to achieve SDG targets for gender equality and equitable education.

See also

Related publications


  1. "Primary school enrolment, World, 1970 to 2016." Our World in Data, UNESCO Data, 2016,
  2. "Not Educating Girls Costs Countries Trillions of Dollars, Says New World Bank Report." The World Bank, The World Bank, 11 July 2018,
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "How many children are not in school?". Our World in Data. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 "Gender and education". UNICEF DATA. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  5. "Number of out-of-school children, Sub-Saharan Africa, 1998 to 2014". Our World in Data. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Achieving gender equality in education: don't forget the boys. UNESCO. Retrieved 2021-07-25.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "Girls' Education". World Bank. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  8. Wolf, S. McCoy, D. C. & Godfrey, E. B. (2016) ‘Barriers to school attendance and gender inequality: Empirical evidence from a sample of Ghanaian schoolchildren,’ Research in Comparative and International Education, 11(2): 178-193
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 Gordon, R. Marston, L., Rose, P. and Zubairi, A. 2019. 12 Years of Quality Education for All Girls: A Commonwealth Perspective. REAL Centre. University of Cambridge.
  10. King, Elizabeth M., and Rebecca Winthrop. Today's Challenges for Girls' Education. Global Economy and Development at Brookings, 2015,
  11. Jamal, A. (2016) ‘Why He Won’t Send His Daughter to School – Barriers to Girls’ Education in Northwest Pakistan: A Qualitative Delphi Study of Pashtun Men,’ SAGE Open, 1-14
  12. 12.0 12.1 UNESCO (2012) Education for All Global Monitoring Report: Policy Paper 3, UNESCO, accessed online at: on 1.12.18
  13. Human Rights Watch (2017) ‘They Said We Are Their Slaves”: Sexual Violence by Armed Groups in the Central African Republic,’ accessed online at : 68 on 2.1.19
  14. "About child marriage". Girls Not Brides. Retrieved 2021-07-23.
  15. Girls Not Brides. "Atlas". Retrieved 2021-07-23.
  16. Wodon, Q. Male, C. Nayihouba, A. Onagoruwa, A. Savadogo, A. Yedan, A. Edmeades, J. Kes, A. John, N. Murithi, L. Steinhaus, M. & Petroni, S. (2017) Economic Impacts of Child Marriage: Global Synthesis Report, Washington DC: The World Bank Group
  17. Nguyen, M. C., & Wodon, Q., (2012) ‘Child Marriage, Pregnancies, and the Gender Gap in Education Attainment: An Analysis Based on the Reasons for Dropping out of School’
  18. "Learning Poverty." World Bank, 15 Oct. 2019,
  19. Kaffenberger, M. and Pritchett, L. 2021. Aiming Higher: Learning Profiles and Gender Equality in 10 Lowand Middle-Income Countries. RISE Working Paper Series. 17/012.
  20. Ripley, Amanda (2017-09-21). "Why Are Middle Eastern Girls Crushing Boys in School?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2021-07-23.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 21.5 21.6 21.7 21.8 Spivack, M. 2020. Quality Education for Every Girl for 12 Years: Insights from RISE Programme Research. RISE Insight Series. 2020/015.
  22. Silberstein, J. 2021. Measuring, Visualising, and Simulating Solutions to the Learning Crisis: New Evidence from Learning Profiles in 18 Countries. 2021/029.
  23. Spivack, M. 2020. Quality Education for Every Girl for 12 Years: Insights from RISE Programme Research. RISE Insight Series. 2020/015. Figure 2. Retrieved 2021-08-09.
  24. Not Educating Girls Costs Countries Trillions of Dollars, Says New World Bank Report. World Bank. (11 July 2018).
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Quentin, Wodon,; Claudio, Montenegro,; Hoa, Nguyen,; Adenike, Onagoruwa, (2018-07-11). "Missed Opportunities".
  26. Kaffenberger, M. and Pritchett, L. 2020. Women’s Education May Be Even Better Than We Thought: Estimating the Gains from Education When Schooling Ain’t Learning. RISE Working Paper Series. 2020/049.
  27. Evans, David; Fei Yuan. 2019. "What We Learn about Girls' Education from Interventions that Do Not Focus on Girls." Center for Global Development Working Paper #513.
  28. "How Do You Help Girls Thrive In School? There's A Surprising Answer". Retrieved 2021-07-23.
  29. Spivack, M. 2020. Quality Education for Every Girl for 12 Years: Insights from RISE Programme Research. RISE Insight Series. 2020/015.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Achieving gender equality in education: don't forget the boys. UNESCO. Retrieved 2021-07-25.
  31. Fulu, Emma; Jewkes, Rachel; Roselli, Tim; Garcia-Moreno, Claudia (2013-10-01). "Prevalence of and factors associated with male perpetration of intimate partner violence: findings from the UN Multi-country Cross-sectional Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific". The Lancet Global Health. 1 (4): e187–e207. doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(13)70074-3.
  32. Humphreys, Macartan; Weinstein, Jeremy M. (2008). "Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil War". American Journal of Political Science. 52 (2): 436–455. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2008.00322.x. ISSN 1540-5907.