‘Girls’ access to education is not a given’

Today, January 24th is World Education Day, and according to Noelwyn Gontard of Plan International Belgium in Belgium, it’s the perfect time to bring attention to teenage girls’ access to education. “If we are serious about eliminating gender inequality, it is time to do more to advance opportunities and education for adolescent girls.”

FifthToday is World Education Day, a day when we, together with Plan International, draw attention to the role of education in the lives of children and young people around the world. Access to education is the cornerstone of individual liberation and independence. The Belgian Constitution states that everyone has the right to education, with due regard for fundamental rights and freedoms. Our education system is often criticized, but the foundation, universal access to education, is a worthy achievement.

In many countries, this access is not intuitive. While much progress has been made in recent years, and girls are now almost as likely to attend school as boys, the reality is more complex and requires a closer look at who goes to school and how they learn.

The gender gap in primary education is closing

In the past 30 years, the number of out-of-school children worldwide has fallen by almost half. Very significant progress has been made in many countries thanks to the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), respectively. Long-term trends in figures collected by UNESCO on the number of children attending school in sub-Saharan Africa confirm this good news at the primary education level: significant efforts have been made since 1990, especially for girls, to close the gap. In primary education is almost closed.

Thanks to the mobilization of all actors – donors, individual and corporate donations, UN agencies, NGOs, governments and foundations – today, as many girls as boys are enrolled in primary school.

The new challenge of the century: keeping teenage girls in school

However, for secondary education, not to mention higher education, gender equality is still far from reality. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are still more girls out of school than teenage girls. In some countries where Plan International is present, such as Tanzania, Mali, Uganda, Benin and Rwanda, there are still differences of more than ten percentage points. In short, efforts made in primary education must now be transferred to secondary education.

Efforts in primary education must now be replicated in secondary education.

Especially since these numbers do not explain everything. The fact that a child is in school does not necessarily mean that he goes to school every day, that he completes the course, or that he learns enough and well enough. Experience confirms that girls drop out of high school early.

Looking at literacy rates, for example, we see that more than one in four young women in sub-Saharan Africa still cannot read or write, and progress has been very slow over the past five years. How can this gap in secondary education be explained?

1 in 4 weeks out of school, according to ‘the rules’

The girls take risks on their way to school, which can be several kilometers on foot. Even if they take precautions, such as going out with others, they are often the victims of bullying or violence, which can quickly discourage them and lead to them being removed from school to ensure their safety.

Moreover, it is no coincidence that the educational gap between boys and girls widens precisely in secondary education, and in early adolescence. School facilities are rarely adapted to girls’ needs: toilets do not provide them with privacy and the water they need to manage menstrual hygiene. As a result, girls often stay home during their periods.

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In practice, this means that girls miss one week in four, quickly falling behind the boys and eventually dropping out entirely.

Gender norms widen the gap

These issues should not obscure a central aspect of gender inequality: girls are expected to become mothers, shoulder all household burdens, and faithful and obedient wives. Men are expected to “bring bread to the table”: to be the head of the family, to cater to their needs, and to be respected.

Pervasive across the world, these gender norms create a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.

Therefore, educating girls is not a priority and emancipating them is not an option. For example, they spend much more time than their brothers on household chores: fetching firewood and water, for which they have to travel many kilometers, in addition to household chores and caring for their brothers and sisters. This time directly rivaled the time they could spend on homework. These gender norms translate into dropping out of school.

Girls also don’t have time (nor are they encouraged) to get involved in hobbies or sports, which develop basic skills like leadership, communication, and self-confidence—all of which are valued during job interviews.

Pervasive across the world, these gender norms create a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. When girls are not as educated as boys, it becomes difficult for them to say no and make decisions about their lives. It will also be difficult for them to compete with men in the labor market. As a result, well-paying jobs will go to boys and men. Time and time again, generation after generation, women are relegated to their role as housewives.

It’s time to switch the gun and tackle teenage girls’ education

At Plan International, we have made great strides in recent years in providing school materials and material support to the poorest families. For example, we continue to focus on education in emergencies (in the Sahel and in response to the crisis in Ukraine). But needs to change. This is why our approach, and therefore the approach of the entire sector, must evolve with them.

On World Education Day, we call for free education for young girls.

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We must strengthen our work to fight gender norms, value girls’ education and give them the keys to their liberation. We must intensify our efforts to reach the most marginalized and excluded girls. They are often at the center of crises and conflicts, in rural communities, the homeless, refugees, among the poorest families. And when crises arise, they are the first to leave the school. They can become a role model, inspire their community and effect profound change.

This is why we strive for a better future for all children and this starts with equality of opportunity. If we are serious about eliminating gender inequality, it is time to do more to advance opportunities and education for adolescent girls. On World Education Day, we call for free education for young girls. We call on all our partners, governments, international organizations, NGOs and supporters to work together to remove barriers to adolescent girls’ education.

It’s a daily struggle but we keep going: until every girl is free to learn and grow.

Nolwenn Gontard works for the NGO Plan International Belgium.

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