No Girl Left Behind – Education in Africa

By Claudia Costin, Senior Director for Education at the World Bank, Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Karen Mundy, Chief Technical Officer at the Global Partnership for Education.

On International Women’s Day, let’s remember the challenges girls face in education

A girl in school in Kenya. Credit: James Otieno/UNESCO EFA Report

What would your life be like with only five years of schooling? For many girls around the world, this is the most education they can expect and they are the lucky ones. Across Africa, 28 million girls between the ages of about 6 and 15 are not in school and many will never even set foot in a classroom.

Sunday is International Women’s Day, an occasion to celebrate the tremendous progress achieved in securing access to a basic education for girls in the poorest countries.  But for us, it is also a stark reminder of the millions of girls who are being left behind.

We live in a world where violent extremists are bent on destroying the lives of school girls, their families and communities. And beyond the horror, we see the daily grind of poverty forcing girls to sacrifice their right to education and hope for a better life.

We know educating girls means a world of more educated women who tend to be healthier, earn more income, have fewer children, and provide better health care and education to their own children, all of which can lift households out of poverty.

Breaking down the barriers is a joint effort

Our respective organizations are committed to getting all children in school and learning and much progress has been made over the past 15 years, especially on attainment. Examples include Uganda’s free universal secondary education policy (the first in sub-Saharan Africa) and Ghana’s capitation grants. However, at a global level, while the share of children out of primary school has fallen from 15% to 9% since 2000, little progress has been achieved since 2007.

No single organization can break down the complex barriers facing girls, especially in Africa. As part of our collective effort, we are supporting the work of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) to produce the data needed to make a difference in the lives of girls across the continent. Together, we are driving a data revolution in education to ensure that countries collect and use more relevant data.

Image taken from new UIS data tool. Click to view.
Image taken from new UIS data tool. Click to view.

The UIS has developed a new data tool, entitled Left Behind – Girls’ Education in Africa, which illustrates the progress to date as well as the enormous challenges ahead as the international community crafts a new set of global education targets. To what extent are girls enrolling in school compared to boys? Which countries and regions have made the greatest progress in reducing the gender gap in primary and lower secondary education? And what kinds of classroom conditions are shaping the learning experiences of African girls across the continent? These issues, and others, are addressed in this interactive tool, which is automatically updated with the latest available data.

For example, we know that poverty is the biggest barrier to a girl’s education. But if she lives in a rural area, belongs to an ethnic minority, or is caught up in a conflict zone, the odds against her accumulate. If a girl has not started primary school by age 10, chances are she never will go to school in countries like Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Senegal.

Learning conditions need to improve

Pupils studying at Putuma JSS school, South Africa, in overcrowded classrooms with a lack of desks and chairs. . Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson
Pupils studying at Putuma JSS school, South Africa, in overcrowded classrooms with a lack of desks and chairs. . Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson/UNESCO EFA Report

For those children who enroll in school, poor classroom conditions can interfere with learning. On average, three pupils share a single mathematics textbook across the region. Only 22% of schools have access to electricity, and slightly less than half have access to drinking water. In half of African countries with data, there are more than 50 pupils per class.

We know that schools without toilets, or with shared toilets, pose a health and safety risk for girls as well as present a significant cultural barrier, which keeps girls away from such schools.

More qualified teachers needed

But perhaps most striking, the data shows that the dire shortage of teachers may get even worse as many African countries struggle to keep up with the rising demand for education from a growing school-age population. Today, the region needs to create 2.3 million new teaching positions and fill 3.9 million vacant posts in order to accommodate a maximum of 40 pupils in each classroom.

But it is not enough to just hire more teachers. Africa needs more qualified teachers who get support and training to improve their teaching. There is also a need for more female teachers who can be positive role models for girls.

Let’s make sure girls get the future they deserve

It is not difficult to predict what the future holds for girls who never go to school. They will join the ranks of the 77 million young women between the ages of 15 and 24 who are unable to read or write a single sentence, let alone decipher a medical prescription or help their children with homework. Young women make up two-thirds of the global illiterate population. About 29 million live in sub-Saharan Africa and they face a life in poverty.  Hence, it is crucial to ensure that girls get a basic education.

Greater resources and targeted programs will help tackle the specific social and economic factors that deny girls their right to education, but it will take more than promises to get every girl in school and learning. Together, UNESCO, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education focus on improving gender equality and empowering girls and women through quality education.

What do you think it will take to leave no girl behind? Explore the data and join us on Twitter (#leftbehind) to share your views.





  1. Access to education for girls especially in rural areas is mandatory. For that, a new approach of schooling needs to be brainstormed so that the social obligations don’t interfere with the education of girls.

  2. Basically this captures the panoramic view of the educational problematic in Africa. The thing that gets my attention, is the part that says that there needs to be a bigger amount of female teachers, so they can as well act as a positive model. This is a very important view. But my question, sort of out of theme is:
    How can fellow country’s do to help as well?

  3. In my country Bangladesh was like the children of sub Saharan countries. They were back benches and out of proper education but now a days it has been changed and some sectors the women are more than advanced with their abilities.

  4. Read and thoroughly enjoyed your article.

    For the past several months, my friend Jessica and I have been a part of a short film on Women Education in Mozambique, we were hoping you could take a look at it.
    We’ve been getting traffic mostly from friends since we posted it yesterday but as you already have a massive following, it would mean the world to us if you share it and join our cause #TodayICan

    Thank you.

  5. I enjoyedyour article, but was wondering if you are a non-profit organization. Thanks!

  6. I sincerely appreciate this strong move. And I vehemently request to be part of this epoch making mission. I Value the girl child and I have high regards for complete education in every sphere. Please let me know how I can bring my expertise, experience, skills and competencies to ensure the all round and total success of this move. I am looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks

  7. Dear Sir/Madam,
    We are a slum non-profit making self-help group located in kenya -nairobi county dandora dumping site,we are dealing with orphans and vulnerable girls from both the great dandora dumping site and the adjacent slums of Gomongo,Korogocho,kariobangi and Gitari Marigu.The centre is called;REHEMA COMMUNITY EDUCATION AND HEALTH CARE SELF-HELP GROUP,registered in 2005 with the ministry of gender and sports as a community based organisation,offering,rehabilitation,feeding,health care and non-formal education programmes to these destitute girls.
    The area is characterized by high rate of poverty,which has force many parents to scavenge in the dumping site with their young children to put food on the table,girls has been faced with alot of challenges in the dumping site,they are forced to offer sexual services to the criminal gangs who controls the entire dumping site,desperate single mothers offers their young girls for sexual favour to get access to the dumping site rummage. A site where girls are sexually molested for as little as ksh.5.
    Drug peddlers,small firearm dealers use these destitute children to help them ferry these items to their customers,a lot of young children have been exploited and they continue in creasing this number year by year.As the educators says education eradicates poverty,this is the only solution to this menace. Rehema community has tried to fight this vice,but with the poverty around, we lack resources to facilitate this noble idea.We have rehabilitated over 600 destitute girls from these environment.
    The attached are some of our Total Orphan girls who have been given eviction notice upto 14/09/16 which is wednesday this week,unless a miracle happens now.We are appealing for your organization to come to the rescue of these innocent vulnerable girls,16 of them are in their last year’s term and suppose to start their exams end of this month,please in God sake come for our help.The amount translate to 6461 us dollars and all the monies to be paid to the official school bank account and we shall immediately scan the bank slips to you for verification.

    Kind regards Michael Masiaga,
    Project director.

  8. It would be nice to have some equal focus on girls and boys regarding education in poor countries. According to UNESCO, in 2017, more boys are “out of school” than girls for lower secondary and upper secondary. The disparity is not what it used to be and the push should not just be to help girls, but ALL children.

  9. Very insightful article. Every girl deserves an education. The illiterates mothers of today were the girls of yesterday and the girls of today will be the mothers of tomorrow.

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