Educating girls and young women is not only one of the biggest moral challenges of our generation, it is also a necessary investment for a peaceful and poverty-free world. Until we give girls equal access to a good quality education, the world will continue to suffer from child and maternal mortality, disease and other byproducts of poverty.
This week, when world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly debate why many of the Millennium Development Goals remain out of reach, they should look no further than education disparities across the developing world. UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report team has released new evidence that shows how education gives girls and young women the freedom to make decisions to improve their lives.
Education is linked to the age at which women marry and have children. In sub-Saharan Africa and in South and West Asia, child marriage affects one in eight girls; one in seven gives birth by the age of 17. Education can empower these girls to have a say over their life choices — by giving them the confidence to speak up for their rights, and to demand the opportunity to continue their studies. Our analysis shows that if all girls in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia had primary education, there would be 14 percent fewer child marriages. If all girls received a secondary education, 64 percent fewer girls would be locked into marriage at an age when they should still be in school.
Education also helps girls and young women defy social limits on what they can or cannot do. It empowers them to decide how many children they will have, and how frequently they will get pregnant. By learning about the health risks associated with years of consecutive childbirth, women can choose to delay getting pregnant. In Pakistan, for example, only 30 percent of women who have no education believe that they have a say over how many children they will have. This proportion rises to 63 percent among women who have secondary education. Giving uneducated girls a secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa would reduce the number of births per mother from almost seven to four. In practical terms, too, improving literacy among girls and young women offers enormous economic benefits. Until there are equal numbers of girls and boys in school, there will still be more illiterate women than men, and many fewer women than men in secure, well-paying jobs. When a young woman is seen as a potential wage-earner for her family, she has a better likelihood of making her own choices and resisting cultural and family pressure to have children.
Education is also closely linked to health. Our analysis provides evidence that educated girls are far more likely to be able to protect their children from preventable diseases, and to stave off malnutrition in their children’s early years. At least 12 million children — a quarter of the world’s population of malnourished children — could be saved from malnutrition if all mothers in poor countries were given a secondary education. Malnutrition is not only about food: it starts with poverty, which can be avoided if women receive the education they need to read and earn a living.
Providing girls with a quality education also equips them with the confidence to confront people in power and challenge the inequalities that still exist for girls and women worldwide. Consider Mariam Khalique, a teacher in Pakistan who has used education to build her female students’ confidence and to encourage them to stand up for their rights. One of her pupils was the young education activist Malala Yousafzai, whose global advocacy work is proof of the transformative power of quality schooling.
Gender imbalances in education seldom make the news. But the evidence gathered by the EFA Global Monitoring Report team shows that when such inequalities are eliminated, educated girls and young women go on to improve their own prospects and those of their families and communities.
As we near the deadline for Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All goals — many of which are far from being achieved — world leaders must remember this simple truth: education transforms lives.
Pauline Rose is the director of UNESCO's Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.