Last month, a Nobel Prize laureate started her studies at Oxford. Her name, of course, is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot for advocating for the right of girls like herself to go to school. Malala may have been only 15 when she became a global household name, but her cause has been decades in the making. Girls’ education has widespread support from influential leaders such as Former First Ladies Michelle Obama and Graça Machel, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. These champions believe that girls deserve to learn as much as boys do. They also know that educated girls grow up to have healthier and more-educated children, and help generate wealthier communities.
There’s no doubt that girls worldwide have benefited from 25 years of attention from high places: In most countries, they now complete as much schooling as boys (if not more). At the same time, the full promise of girls’ education remains elusive. Hundreds of millions of girls facing disadvantages like poverty, remoteness, and conflict still do not go to school. And their peers who are in school are not learning: Sixty percent of children and adolescents across the globe are not fully literate.
Why are we falling short on delivering on the girls’ education promise? Because while we know why we should focus on girls, we need to get much smarter about how we focus on girls. To do that, we need to abandon three beloved ideas about girls’ education that are holding us back:
Half-truth #1: If we want to educate girls, we just need to ensure that they attend school. Highlighting that 130 million girls are out of school worldwide hides the even larger number of girls who are in school but not learning. In India, more illiterate girls are in school than out of school. An exclusive focus on getting girls into school risks sending them to schools that do not help them learn. And when girls do not learn, they do not reap the returns we expect them to get from education.
Half-truth #2: Girls don’t go to school because they don’t have the products they need. Although financial barriers do prevent girls from going to school, giving girls access to more things—like school materials, uniforms, books, and sanitary supplies—doesn’t always help. For example, rigorous evidence suggests that giving girls menstrual supplies does not increase their attendance. Ultimately, things cannot replace quality learning experiences, and providing more products may not be the best use of scarce resources.
Half-truth #3: Once they’ve gone to school, girls can overcome gender inequality. Although schooling can help to reduce gender inequalities, it can also reinforce them. Girls are at risk of gender-based violence in multiple domains, and schools are no exception. Gender inequality prompts teachers to nudge girls into traditionally female occupations that pay less than alternative jobs.
But there’s good news too: If we are clearer about the true nature of the problem, we can use what we have learned over the last 25 years to make faster progress in the next 25 years. Here are a few whole truths waiting for us to discover them:
#1: Just because a strategy is popular or visible doesn’t mean it is working. Providing menstrual supplies isn’t the only approach in this bucket. For example, scholarships help girls attend school, but poor quality schools do not improve girls’ education. Most troublingly, scholarships can backfire if boys feel slighted and lash out at the recipients. A better solution than one-off scholarship support is for governments to reduce the cost of school for marginalized students systematically, just as it’s better to cultivate girls’ self-confidence and other skills they need to manage their periods, relationships, and other aspects of their lives. Ghana, for example, has recently eliminated fees in secondary school and anticipates positive results for female students.
#2: Just because a strategy is working doesn’t mean it is popular or visible. We see three promising, evidence-based approaches girls’ education advocates are not pursuing enough. One is to help both girls and boys. Programs that get more children into school or improve their outcomes often benefit girls the most. For example, graduates of Educate!—a program that trains and mentors youth in Uganda on leadership, entrepreneurship, and workforce readiness—increase their income by 105 percent more than peers who are not in the program. Female graduates increase their income by 120 percent. Everyone benefits, but because girls’ start off the most disadvantaged and because Educate! is attentive to gender in its programming, they benefit the most. Even if girls do not benefit more from a program than boys do, the best way to improve their educational outcomes still may be through programs that improve education for everyone.
Since we cannot assume that schooling alone will wash away gender inequity, another approach is to directly address gender norms and power dynamics. A 2015 study shows that sex education programs that explicitly talk about gender and power in intimate relationships are five times as likely to succeed at reducing rates of STIs or unintended pregnancy as programs that do not. In India, the Study Hall Educational Foundation facilitates conversations about gender so that girls and their teachers understand the oppression girls face, and are equipped to identify and resist discrimination.
Finally, more programs should focus on developing the set of skills and mindsets girls need to succeed in both academics and life, including social and emotional skills, confidence, and resilience. These skills are especially important for marginalized groups, including girls, and may also engender more equitable attitudes from boys as they learn to take the perspective of and empathize with others.
#3: Just because we have some effective strategies for girls’ education doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expand our toolbox. We need to marshal evidence we already have to ditch weak strategies and double-down on good ones. But we also need to continue the search for new, effective solutions. Addressing gaps in access for the few girls who are not yet in school might look different than expanding access for a larger proportion of girls who are still out of school. Strategies to fix education quality will be different from strategies to expand education access. Preventing learning gaps in adolescence may mean providing more gender-equitable learning experiences long before those gaps emerge. And current trends of destabilized populations, technological advancement, and climate change continue to introduce both new challenges and new opportunities to girls’ education.
The best way for girls’ education advocates to embrace these full truths is to start with the end in mind. Fulfilling the promise of girls’ education is not merely about eliminating gender gaps in school attendance. It is about equipping girls with the skills, attitudes, and mindsets they need to learn, earn, and thrive. The only way we can make real progress is by knowing where we are headed and what it will take to get there.