World Bank Summit: Gender Equal Education requires everyone’s help

This year, in Washington D.C., The World Bank Group Youth Summit 2016 connected experts from the international development community, the private sector, government and academia with one intention: to address the lack of diverse viewpoints in international education.

Of particular interest was the plenary “Barriers to Girls Education: Unpacking Assumptions and Addressing Biases” which brought insightful panelists together from a variety of public and private sectors. Participants included Krishanti Vignarajah, policy director at The White House- Office of the First Lady; Giovanna Lauro, Deputy Director of International Programs at Promundo; Xanthe Ackerman, Journalist and executive director at Fuller Project for International Reporting and founder of Advancing Girls’ Education in Africa; and Katie Meyler, CEO and Founder of ‘More than Me’- a non-profit organization devoted to advancing girls’ education in Liberia. Each sector represented demonstrated its own ideas and initiatives for combating gender inequality in education.   

The United States’ government under the Obama administration started Let Girls Learn, a USAID-implemented project that promotes girls’ education around the world. By incentivizing girls to stay in school, the hope is to increase girls’ income, empower girls to attend school, and increase awareness about HIV/AIDS. In an interview with USAID, First Lady Michelle Obama stressed the positive impacts of promoting girls education.

“Studies from the World Bank show that one extra year of secondary school can increase a girls’ future income by 15 to 25 percent. And we know that when girls are educated, they are less likely to contract HIV, more likely to delay childbearing and vaccinate their children, and have lower maternal and infant mortality rates. Research even shows that sending more girls to school can boost an entire country’s GDP.”

When girls are not encouraged to continue their education and are encouraged to only pursue home economics from a young age, they fall far behind. A good example of this is Mali, where the legal age of marriage is 16, and female literacy rates are 34%, compared to 56% of men. In economic terms for low and middle income countries, the failure to educate girls to the same standard as boys can mean a loss of $92 billion a year. By incorporating girls education on to national agendas, governments could gain financial benefits.

Giovanna Lauro, Deputy Director of International Programs at Promundo, emphasized that equal education is not merely an economic change, but also a cultural one. Another common barrier to girl’s education is poor quality curricula in schools, which reinforces stereotypes about the “women’s sphere” as mutually exclusive from that of men.

“In our case, Promundo has worked for two decades in Brazil and our focus is Latin America. In these countries ‘machismo’ is an important topic that we face, especially when educating men and boys about gender equality, and how they can change their minds, step by step. That will not happen overnight-only one session is not enough- but we build a strong and excellent team [to make the changes], that involves teachers, coworkers, families and relevant religious people.”  

By incorporating men into the conversation about gender equality in education, they can be encouraged to see women as their equals. This can create inclusive, safe environments for girls to attend school. It also allows for the creation of gender sensitive curricula, better sex education, and reduce violence in schools. Efforts like this can produce cultural changes that have real results.

Additionally, incorporation of diverse viewpoints means also incorporating women themselves into the global empowerment process. Xanthe Ackerman of the Fuller Project, which makes investigative documentaries and has focused on women’s empowerment in the past, emphasized how successful female role models can help inspire young girls to participate more.

“For me is important to think about how we can protect them and their bodies. We want them to be successful women and grow up in a good environment with excellent conditions. So our idea is to bring them a successful woman and she can talk about her experience, and after that they get really excited.”

The United Nations reports that attitudes and practices are one of five key ways a community can discourage girls from attending school. In 2012, Forbes reported that girls who were raised in Bengali communities that had female leaders had gender parity in teen education goals, and that parents 25% more likely to support ambition in their daughters compared to communities that had only male leadership. By placing women in political leadership, girls and their families aspired to ambitious educational targets- matching and surpassing those of the women they saw leading their communities.

While these are just some of the ways that organizations seek to achieve gender-equal education, the panel at the World Bank Youth Summit showed that for gender-equal education there is no singular solution, but rather a multitude of options and power players. Put simply, the argument that gender-equal education is impossible no longer applies.