What’s Sex Got to Do with It?

An inconvenient truth is hiding behind the current excitement about educating girls.


(Illustration by Scott Roberts) 

Girls are hot. Reproductive rights are not. This is the strange and yet unspoken contradiction endemic in the current development discourse about gender equality. From the boardrooms of Exxon Mobil, to the World Bank, to the offices of the Nike Foundation and the overflowing halls at Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative, you can hear people talking about the importance of investing in girls. Women are often added as an afterthought—their inclusion is often phrased as “girls and women” rather than as “women and girls.” Most often you hear that “educating girls” is the magic bullet of the 21st century.

The last time I heard something being prescribed as often as the solution to everything from low GDP rates and malnutrition in infants to endemic poverty, it was the early 1990s and the buzz was about something started by a Bangladeshi man named Muhammad Yunus. Girls’ education is the new microfinance. Yet educating girls about their sexuality and providing funding for access to contraception, safe and legal abortion, and broad education about their reproductive health and rights—which was a significant emphasis of global philanthropy in the 1980s and 1990s—has now dwindled in popularity. Although a few dedicated foundations and the European bilateral aid donors continue their commitment to organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund, the new global actors are focused on girls’ access to schools and learning.

Proponents of girls’ education (of whom I am one) are right about many things. Girls who are educated are, in the long run, likely to marry later, bear fewer children, educate their own children, and be less vulnerable to sexual abuse and coerced sex (and therefore less likely to be infected by sexually transmitted diseases). These outcomes have important positive implications for the poorest developing countries that are still struggling to expand their economies and provide basic services to their citizens. Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University, who was widely criticized for his 2008 comment about women’s lack of natural aptitude for science and math, was once considered the guru of girls’ education. During his tenure as chief economist at the World Bank, he argued that investing in girls was among the most effective development choices that poor countries could make in their march toward economic and political development. Yet while these outcomes are encouraging, we need to remember that girls deserve the right to be educated, even in the absence of such results, simply because they are human beings and because women’s rights are human rights.

Second, it is important to remember that although education brings with it many benefits for girls and the women they grow to be, it is not a magic bullet. It is not the solution to the pressing and interlinked problems of climate change and population growth. High levels of education for girls and women at high-income levels can coexist with stubborn structural gender inequality, as is the case in Saudi Arabia and Japan.

Third, as the disturbing Stieg Larsson novels remind us, it is far from clear that educating women is the answer to decreasing violence against them. Societies with highly educated women and girls still continue to struggle with endemic and ongoing violence against women. A November 2011 report from the US Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, estimates that one in four women in the United States has been sexually abused, and one in five has experienced physical violence and abuse.

So what is going on? Why is the discourse in the United States so determinedly focused on the issue of educating girls, and what are we refusing to talk about?

Women’s Sexuality Is Messy

The answer is the messy stuff: women’s sexuality. It is striking that the most influential media messages about the importance of investing in girls tend to depict them as “little girls.” They are 12 and pigtailed in Nike Foundation’s short and catchy animated film. There is nothing threatening or unsettling about a cute little girl. We don’t see a young woman in all her sexual complexity—her power, her attractiveness, her vulnerability, her mystery, her desire to attract and influence others, her need to be loved, recognized, valued. As a colleague from the Nike Foundation once said to me, “It is much easier to sell girls’ education programs to male CEOs than the politically charged agenda of women’s reproductive rights!”

Campaigns about girls’ education rarely focus on girls in the United States or other parts of the developed world. Implicit in the message is that this is about “those girls”—the ones who are brown and black and poor and live in different countries and aren’t like us. There is little, if any, talk about the similar challenges that face our own girls—the ones who live at or below the poverty line in Oakland, Calif., the South Bronx, and rural Mississippi.

We want to educate girls, but we don’t want to talk
about sex. We want girls to read, but we don’t want to
provide them information about their bodies.

So we want to educate girls, but we don’t want to talk about sex. We want girls to read, but we don’t want to provide them with information about their bodies. We want to save girls from female genital mutilation and rescue them from brothels, but we don’t want to know why they choose to sleep with their boyfriends or trade sex for commodities or affection or grades. We want girls to get married later, but we don’t want to talk openly about contraception or abortion. Even the Obama administration, the best friend American women’s reproductive rights advocates have had in a decade, refused to abide by the US Food and Drug Administration ruling to allow over-the-counter access to birth control pills that would allow early prevention of possible pregnancy. Last November, it was only thanks to the feverish efforts of women’s rights advocates that Mississippi did not pass a law outlawing the use of IUDs.

This is the inconvenient truth that is hiding behind the current excitement about educating girls. We are happy to educate them and hope that reading, writing, and ’rithmetic will somehow magically translate into positive outcomes. Yet everything I learned from funding women’s rights organizations for 14 years at the Global Fund for Women suggests that women and girls cannot rely on formal school education alone to prepare them for a world that continues to treat them as “less than.” Girls and young women need basic information about their bodies and programs to build confidence and self-esteem. The value of sex education in schools has been studied and recommended for decades, and sex ed has been incorporated into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet this remains one of two important documents—the other is the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—that the United States has refused to ratify because of internal political resistance from conservative forces, which believe the best way to deal with sexuality is to suppress it and encourage abstinence.

In February, I was in meetings at the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA. In the 1990s, UNFPA was a pioneering organization in global reproductive health and rights. Working with civil society and governments, it helped create the groundbreaking consensus of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, where more than 150 governments committed to making access to contraception and family planning part of a comprehensive approach to gender equality. Yet, despite this global consensus, the Bush administration cut funds for this UN agency, pushing millions of women into positions where they had little or no access to birth control. As Julia Whitty wrote in a May 2010 Mother Jones article, “Although it’s unclear how many babies were added to the human family as a result of the global gag rule, the UN estimates that at its height in 2005, the unmet demand for contraceptives and family planning drove up fertility rates between 15 and 35 percent in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Arab states, Asia, and Africa—a whole generation of unplanned Bush babies.”

The real irony about the unwillingness to talk about sex and contraception is that this conversational lacuna is happening against the backdrop of climate change and natural resource depletion. Last October, the seven billionth person was born on our globe. You would think that everyone would be touting the results of studies by the Futures Group and the National Academy of Sciences. These show a strong correlation between addressing the unmet need for voluntary contraceptive use and family planning and the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 8 to 15 percent. Yet these are topics that most environmental and women’s rights activists are wary of broaching. The environmentalists shy away from talking about family planning for fear of being labeled racists; the women’s rights activists resist openly discussing contraception or abortions for fear of losing support among US conservatives.

Yet if we want our daughters to grow up with confidence, courage, and competence, we must make sure that they grow up with knowledge about and access to contraception. We should build schools, fund libraries, encourage teacher training, and support free tuition, but we also need to push for comprehensive access to sex education for both girls and boys, not just abroad, but right here in the United States. The words of Margaret Sanger are as prescient now as they were when she first uttered them: “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” If the future of the world depends on the freedom of women, it must include their sexual and reproductive freedom. If not, their “freedom,” to paraphrase Janis Joplin, will be just another word for “nothing left to lose.”

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  • BY Susan Chavez

    ON June 28, 2012 11:28 AM

    Thank you for the wonderful article and pointing how we’re missing the mark when we talk about empowering girls. I hope more people would be willing to look at the larger picture and realize what needs to get done if we truly want to help women and girls around the world and locally.

  • Lani Shaw's avatar

    BY Lani Shaw

    ON June 28, 2012 01:31 PM

    Fabulous, as always Kavita!  Thank you.

  • One of the primary results of reproductive rights around the world is a greater number of female fetuses being aborted, because many parents don’t want to have baby girls. So the connection between supporting abortion rights and supporting the rights of girls isn’t quite as clear as you portray it, and indeed those two causes are often diametrically opposed.

  • BY Diana Kutlow

    ON June 28, 2012 03:07 PM

    Thank you for an insightful look at the complexity of the connections between human rights, including the right to education, development, violence conflict at all levels, and gender. The links between them are like the strands of a hammock—it will still hold you up if one if broken, or maybe even two, but the more strands that aren’t strong and connected, the less weight it can hold. Part of the issue is giving women better access to security, human rights mechanisms, justice, and media.

  • BY Dr. Raye Mitchell

    ON June 28, 2012 03:44 PM

    Thank you for the voice of reason in supporting our girls.  I have invested in our girls as future global leaders with the establishment of The G.U.R.L.S. Rock Leadership Program.  In the program we are celebrating girls and girls of color as future global leaders.  This article is empowering and important news that I will share with our girls in our upcoming summit in Oakland, CA on August 25, 2012.  Girls are hot, and we need to ensure that our support stays on the radar.

  • BY Michele Ozumba

    ON June 28, 2012 03:55 PM

    You do a brilliant job of inviting all of us engaged in the progressive women’s movement to think beyond the “empowering girls” headlines and really confront the structural and public policy impediments to true gender equality and human rights.  As you say, academic accomplishment is essential, but not sufficient for what we need to do to really create the kind of world we imagine for future generations - male and female.  In addition to the intersectionality of the environmental and reproductive rights movement; we also need to confront gender stereotyping that is an antecedent of so many complex social issues challenging the adolescent experience in today’s world. Thank you for framing a broader context.

  • BY Pam Kahl

    ON June 28, 2012 04:09 PM

    Thank you for the wonderful article.  Although it echos Melinda Gates’ TED talk from earlier this year, placing the contraception issue squarely in the context of girls education reflects unique wisdom.  Two points, in particular, resonate with me personally. 1)  This as not just a “development issue”, but is equally relevant in the global north, including the U.S. and 2) The importance of factoring in boys, because the future of women and girls greatly depends on enlightening men on the cultural benefits of gender equality.

  • Susan Lloyd's avatar

    BY Susan Lloyd

    ON June 28, 2012 06:26 PM

    Very thoughtful, provocative article, Kavita.  Nice to know you’re out there.

  • AMEN. I am not a free woman until I have America’s blessing to MURDER my unborn baby. Which I had the CHOICE to create when I engaged in a sexual relationship.
    And if I am a woman who has been raped and becomes pregnant, I should kill the innocent child because of a sin that somebody else committed. Because we grew up being taught that two wrongs make a right. Right? Right.

  • Rupal Kulkarni's avatar

    BY Rupal Kulkarni

    ON June 29, 2012 02:27 AM

    Wonderful article Kavita! I could relate to everything you wrote about. Even today, the supposedly educated and liberal parents still shy away from talking about sexuality. Schools choose to skip teaching chapters on sexual health and with a few exceptions, NGOs stick to more convenient educational topics. No one wants controversy, because if you do talk about sexuality you are viewed as someone that promotes promiscuity. It is not just the under-privileged girls that need such interventions, every girl deserves the opportunity to learn about her body, feel comfortable and confident with her sexuality. How else are we to empower girls?

  • Charlie Ashford's avatar

    BY Charlie Ashford

    ON June 29, 2012 09:02 AM

    Really interesting article, thank you! We must help companies to move beyond thinking that their CSR strategies should be “squeaky clean”.

  • Hugh Burroughs 's avatar

    BY Hugh Burroughs

    ON June 29, 2012 09:06 AM

    As expected, a great article with penetrating insight and a compelling perspective. Right on!
    Yet, I would have like to see her lift up the importance of educating boys to treat girls with respect and see them as equal human beings Let’ s work hard to demolish all laws, beliefs, myths and legends which get in the way of equal, respectful treatment of girls and women

    Hugh. C Burroughs

  • Kathy Catino's avatar

    BY Kathy Catino

    ON June 29, 2012 10:51 AM

    Well done, well thought out, well argued.  Thank you for your illumination

  • Yvonne Carrasco's avatar

    BY Yvonne Carrasco

    ON June 29, 2012 11:11 AM

    Eye opening, thoughtful and provocative, opening our eyes to a reality so often ignored.  As expected, you are always insightful inspiring us to expand our thinking.  Thank you.

  • Phoebe McKinney's avatar

    BY Phoebe McKinney

    ON June 29, 2012 10:54 PM

    Thanks for the article. One thing I would have liked to see you discuss is the intersection of education and heightened risk of sexual violence IN SCHOOLS.  So there is also a need to involve teachers,  Head Teachers, PTA members and the wider community in ensuring that schools are safe spaces for girls.  I also wish you had tackled the gender-biased nature of curricula and classroom practices that reproduce and replicate gender inequity.  Access to education for girls is of course critical, as is knowledge of reproductive health and rights.  But also crucial is the need to make schools themselves safer for girls.  Thanks, and keep up your good work.

  • BY Jacki Zehner

    ON June 30, 2012 06:23 AM

    Thank you for a brilliantly written article Kavita. There continues to be the search for that magic bullet and it just does not exist.  We need to own the complexity and acknowledge the interconnectedness of so many issues in order to help drive the allocation of resources so desperately needed to for women and girls.  Thank you for speaking out so powerfully.

  • BY Marsha A Freeman

    ON July 1, 2012 02:28 PM

    Your article is of course a terrific recap of the issue, reflecting not only your own experience but that of all of us who have been fighting this fight for years. The intransigence of patriarchy still sometimes leaves me speechless. The persistence of archaic family codes, glass (or silicon) ceilings, and overt, even proudly declared discriminatory attitudes and policies everywhere is more than discouraging.  We must figure out how to move on from preaching to the choir—and perhaps the newly educated next generation can help that happen.

  • Jacki McCartney's avatar

    BY Jacki McCartney

    ON July 2, 2012 03:14 AM

    And the implications for women in business?

  • BY Hannah Laufer-Rottman

    ON July 2, 2012 10:33 AM

    An interesting and thought provoking article. I would like to add a comment about my own experience with our project in Swaziland where we bring water and sanitation to schools and promote school gardens. The very idea of educating girls has enormous implications; we have learned for instance that many girls have no idea that they will menstruate one day. That boys make fun of girls when they discover that they have their period. That, known to many, girls skip school when they have their period. That they have no access to sanitary napkins and even when they do, the subject is so taboo, that nobody addresses the environmental issue with the disposal of these napkins. Added to this, the very deep rooted belief that “nothing good will ever happen to us” or that “I do not count” and of course, the many other problems of single motherhood, absence of father image particularly for the boys and then the need for the male teachers in school to take over this responsibility to educate the boys… What I want to highlight is that the work is enormous and that we can not skip any step. And that we all need to understand the magnitude of what we attempt to address and make it public that we can not skip any steps. The work ahead of us has to be done right.

  • BY Cari Class

    ON July 2, 2012 11:11 AM

    Thank you Kavita for this article. In response to the post above by Hannah, there is an organization working in Nairobi Kenya’s Mukuru slum and intends to replicate the program elsewhere in sub Saharan Africa and will launch a pilot program n Tanzania.

    Huru distributes kits of reusable sanitary pads, life-saving HIV prevention information and other resources so girls no longer have to miss school because they have no access to sanitary pads. The pads are also produced locally, creating a sustainable employment opportunities for whole communities. <>

  • adaka terfa's avatar

    BY adaka terfa

    ON July 3, 2012 02:32 AM

    This article has illuminated alot of issues concerning gender/girl child education. More greese to your elbow Kavita

  • Brilliant and powerful article. Thank you. I love this.
    “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

  • Steve's avatar

    BY Steve

    ON July 7, 2012 05:16 AM

    It’s an interesting paradox in fighting for complete control of the body. On the one hand you are giving liberty to the woman and on the other hand you are taking away the liberty of the unborn.

  • Interesting article! Kavita is pulling out an insight that I think is broadly applicable to education (in the US). We see education as THE lever out of poverty and into success. As funding shifts toward organizations with educational indicators, youth development organizations incorporate educational components into their programming (Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring, YMCA early ed initiatives, etc.).

    This is good progress, but I worry that education isn’t similarly looking toward youth development for inspiration. As Kavita points out, youth need more than “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic” to flourish - they need evidence-based programs that increase self-esteem, perseverance, etc. They also need content that isn’t strictly within the bounds of educational curriculum (sex ed, etc.) I hope to see increased collaboration between the youth development and education fields - with both drawing inspiration from each other, not simply YD orgs rushing to incorporate tutoring into their program portfolio.

  • Steve Hochhauser's avatar

    BY Steve Hochhauser

    ON July 12, 2012 04:53 PM

    A wonderful article with much needed insights into one of th emajor failings of American society.  I have one tiny nit t opick.  The quote at the end should be attributed to Kris Kristofferson, not Janis Joplin.  She made it popular, but he wrote the lyric.

  • BY Elisabeth McCollough

    ON July 30, 2012 12:36 AM

    Bravo! Really insightful article.  Thank you for shedding light on all the dichotomies that exist around the issue of women and girls empowerment and sexual an reproductive rights!  The US, more than ever, needs to take a hard look at this.  Especially when the teen pregnancy rates remain the highest in the developing world.

  • michael killen's avatar

    BY michael killen

    ON August 1, 2012 10:12 AM


    Tomorrow—Thursday evening,  I will state, on TV and for YouTube,  the three most important reasons women in the US do not have all of the reproduction rights that progressive women in this country might like to have.  I’d appreciate it if you would share your list of three most important reasons things are like they are.

    I’m a TV producer and artists, who is producing shows and paintings, respectively   on fifteen zeitgeists—developments of our time.  Women’s Rights is one or the Zs.

    Thank you,


  • Sharad Lele's avatar

    BY Sharad Lele

    ON August 20, 2012 07:12 AM

    I enjoyed reading the article and learnt a lot. I am in basic agreement about the inconvenient complexities hiding behind simplistic notions of ‘educate the girls’. But I don’t see why you keep trying to link the issue to climate change. Sure, one of the challenges women face across the world and especially in developing countries is access to birth control, and thereby the ability to choose how many children they can have and when. One of the fallouts of this is certainly population growth (another is deteriorating health for the women themselves). But to then link population growth (7 bilionth baby born, etc) with climate change is a bit of a stretch. We all know that each baby added in Africa contributes maybe 1/20th of the carbon emissions that one child added in the USA would contribute in its lifetime. So population growth is the weakest driver of climate change: consumption is by far the biggest driver. We could set equal per capita entitlements using 1990 population levels (thereby ignoring historical contributions as well), and still the USA would be about 10 times above its entitlment! So why do the unfair and unsupportable stretch of bringing up the climate change bogey to shore up your arguments?

  • I liked the article. The one area I think was lost by some readers, was that you are not asking women to be empowered so they can go out and have abortions. You are asking for them to be well educated and have the power to make the right choices for themselves and their bodies.
    I personally believe that if we properly educated young boys, girls and women, we would have fewer problems with teen birth rates, death from illegal abortions and births, single parenthood and abuse.
    You need only go back to the days when abortion was illegal. More women died because they were not well informed. These same studies show that women are making smarter choices now because they not only have choices, but more information available for themselves. This helps because some indivduals in the past who would have gotten an abortion, now choose not too.
    I was very sheltered as a child. My parents kept me in the dark about important issues, because that’s what you did with your daughters back then. I ended up being raped and was pregnant at an early age. Missing out on college, which was the original plan. But I’m smarter now, I have raised my daughters the same way. They go to college, make good choices and have been having kids after getting a good education, job, and a happy marriage. They know about birth control. Something even so simple as condom’s. They knew abortion existed and that in the end it should be your own choice what you do with your body, but this is how you can make smart choices. They did just that! Unlike me…
    My son’s are also taught the same. Respect women, do not treat them as if they are below you. Be smart and responsible for not only yourself, but the person you are with. Know that you will be responsible for a woman if you get her pregnant. And just because you couldn’t control yourself, doesn’t mean a child should have to pay the price for it.
    We need to wake up and realize that hiding in the past is not the answer. And requiring others to only have a say so, “because you said so,” is not a good answer to the problems we are having.
    Educate our children in “ALL” area’s and they will grow to be smarter and wiser in the end!

  • Stephanie Rumrill McBrayer's avatar

    BY Stephanie Rumrill McBrayer

    ON September 18, 2012 07:32 AM

    The notion of educating girls and expecting they will then solve the world’s problems of gender inequality is like expecting women to be able to stop rape simply by understanding the circumstances in which it might occur.  There is a whole ‘nuther slightly-less-than-half of the world’s population that holds the resources and power we need to engage in order to improve our circumstances. It’s somewhat like holding the passenger responsible when the taxi crashes, or the woman responsible if she is raped or abused by a bigger man.  Education helps, but does not make for equality - as a college-educated woman with professional credentials in the USA, I made about the same as my high-school educated husband.  Now it seems we are asking the little girls to fix the world for us, without asking their, or our, male contemporaries to be responsible in the same way.  Typical ...

  • BillyGoat's avatar

    BY BillyGoat

    ON October 19, 2012 04:27 AM

    Ummmmm…that’s Kris Kristofferson’s line, not Janis’...otherwise, well done !!!!

  • Great piece. I think it’s weird that some comments here immediately make a leap from sex education, education about reproduction and reproductive health to abortion. One does not always follow the other - though most of us know that, at some point, every woman is going to have to make a decision about motherhood. I would think that we would want young women making such decision from a position of affirmation rather than constrained, or less than optimal, circumstances.

  • BY Luz Montes

    ON December 6, 2012 06:45 PM

    “Educate a man and you educate one person; educate a woman and you educate a whole nation.”  I think this article is a really important topic, fine line, but needs to be discussed.

  • Erica Peters's avatar

    BY Erica Peters

    ON December 13, 2012 05:08 PM

    Women still aren’t human. We’re still “other,” even in the US (just look at the debates over contraception and rape we had during this year’s elections). All of these problems will continue to exist as long as women remain something other than human, and our rights continue to be separated from human rights.

  • Peter Breeden's avatar

    BY Peter Breeden

    ON December 21, 2012 08:09 PM

    “...because of internal political resistance from conservative forces, which believe the best way to deal with sexuality is to suppress it and encourage abstinence.”

    The heart of the issue, not just for the U.S., but for all those who believe that sexuality is not part of being human and that suppression works.

    Thank you for the wonderfully written and clearly reasoned article.

  • BY Amy Heydlauff

    ON February 22, 2013 10:51 AM

    It is not enough to educate girls or even deal with women’s issues without also educating boys and men.  Let’s not disenfranchise one gender.  Not here in the U.S. or anywhere else.  Disenfranchised men will not be a friend to women or society.  Let all people have access to enlightenment.

  • jagdeep s sindhu's avatar

    BY jagdeep s sindhu

    ON May 28, 2013 12:08 AM

    awakening and compelling truth,  to be accepted n respected regarding woman & girl child education !

  • BY Anais Tuepker

    ON June 19, 2013 02:18 PM

    Thank you for articulating so well the radically diverging attitudes that funders, investors, and politicians seem to have about girls versus women.  I would add that women’s “sexual” health is even less sexy than their “reproductive health.” I am working on the development of a new cervical cancer screening and diagnostic tool ( While the merits of HPV vaccination are considerable, I have been consistently struck by how much easier it is to “sell” efforts to protect young girls with vaccination (which, even if it is maximally effective, will show its impact decades from now) as opposed to funding screening for older women who are at actual risk of disease right now. The older women get, the less likely it seems anyone is willing to fund or put energy into promoting their health protection, especially once they are past child-bearing age.

  • Dr Manu N Kulkarni's avatar

    BY Dr Manu N Kulkarni

    ON June 25, 2013 07:51 AM

    Dr.  Manu. N Kulkarni former UNICEF. Professional.

    Yes this is the great idea Girls education at the primary school level sex education has to be imparted so that by the time a girl matures she knows all about menstruation, who to keep clean and who to use contraceptives and so on. culture is the problem in sex education. Talking on sex by the girls is bad in villages of India. How will you tackle this.

  • BY AnnaBraun

    ON March 30, 2015 12:18 PM

    This makes for a very interesting read and also crosses over with much of the work I have recently been involved in at Nesta in the UK - namely two projects which challenged communities to work in peer communities as ‘sources’ of innovation (both in tackling climate change and in creating social capital capital). The importance of enabling people to be seen as assets and sources of potential rather than passive recipients of care or services is still the default method for many ‘top down’ programmes aimed at grassroots.

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