Have we kept our promise on girls’ education?

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More than 25 years ago, the world made a promise in Beijing, to advance the rights of girls and women around the world. Access to quality education for girls was the driving force behind this commitment, enabling girls and women to fulfil their potential and finally achieve equality. Building on the 2020 Gender Report, which identified key recommendations for the next 25 years on gender equality in education, a new paper released today entitled: An unfulfilled promise: 12 years of education for every girl, highlights new ways of looking at the progress made in girls’ completion rates over this period.

Credit: UNICEF/UN0389070/Panjwani

Fast forward from Beijing and two decades later, the world has kept its promise – to an extent. Girls are more likely to attend school and graduate. Globally, 87% of girls are now completing primary school; an increase of almost 20 percentage points over the past 25 years. The most impressive progress has been in Central and Southern Asia, where just over half of all girls completed primary school in 1995, compared to 90% of the current generation.

Even sub-Saharan Africa – the region with the highest out of school rates – has made strides with girls’ primary  completion rates increasing from 41% to 66%. Ethiopia stands out over this period: in 1995, for every 100 boys completing school in the country, only 60 girls would do so; twenty-five years later, girls’ completion rates have overtaken those of boys. The gains are not limited to primary school; in Northern Africa and Western Asia, female completion rates in lower secondary education rose from 39% in 1995 to 74% in two decades.

Nepal has made particularly impressive progress, with the primary completion rate for girls estimated to have jumped from 22% in 1995 to 81% in 2018, ultimately achieving gender parity. This achievement is related to significant improvements in services for sexual and reproductive health and rights, economic empowerment, and protection of women in the country.

In many countries, progress has been such that girls’ completion rates have overtaken boys’, meaning priorities of policy makers will need to change as they consider the last stretch to 2030. In Bangladesh for example, girls were at a disadvantage in 1995 but had overtaken boys primary level by the mid-2000s. In India, Kenya and South Africa, too, more girls than boys are now completing secondary education than boys. In Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia, the rates also advanced to such an extent that boys in the secondary level are now left at a disadvantage.

For the poorest girls, however, the promise made in Beijing remains unfulfilled. Poverty, conflict and displacement in many Western and Central African countries, for instance, has meant that this sub-region has seen very little progress. The numbers are disconcerting: In most countries in the sub-region, significantly less than 50% of girls are completing primary school and less than 12% are finishing lower secondary school.  While in Guinea-Bissau for example there is now gender parity, the estimated completion rate for boys and girls is still very low at 23% for primary school and 12% in lower secondary (up from 8% and 4 % respectively). Similar rates are repeated in in Central African Republic (30%), Burkina Faso (35%), Liberia (30%) and Niger (30%). Far too many girls are missing out on their education.

This is also the case in the highest level of education. The World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE), jointly managed by the GEM Report and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, shows that in 20 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Haiti, Papua New Guinea and Pakistan, hardly any poor, rural young women have completed upper secondary school.

Barriers to education for adolescent girls include poverty, domestic chores, gender-based violence, child marriage, early pregnancy and inadequate menstrual hygiene management. Many of these barriers have grown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This new paper is launched today to coincide with the Paris Generation Equality Forum. It represents an opportunity to make concrete, ambitious and sustainable commitments towards achieving gender equality, including in education. This is an opportunity for world leaders and policy makers to renew their commitment to girls’ education. The objective is to ensure that all girls complete 12 years of education by 2030 but also to look more broadly at other conditions that will bring gender equality in education.

This Generation Equality Forum follows the ambitious G7 Girls Education Declaration, which contained the twin targets of getting 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reaching minimum proficiency in reading by the end of primary school by 2026. Together, we hope this can provide the impetus to finally fulfil the world’s promise to girls. Just like Beijing in 1995, it is an opportunity that can’t be missed. 

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