A quiet revolution to educate more girls

by Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and Board Chair of the Global Partnership for Education
Sunday, 15 May 2016 09:00 GMT

Children of Mamakoffikro in Ouragahio's IEP (Primary School Inspectorate), Gagnoa District. One building with 4 new classrooms for 4th and 5th grades opened in September 2015 in this IEP as a result of the GPE-funded program. December 2015, Côte d'Ivoire. Credit: GPE/Carine Durand

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We will only succeed in educating every girl if we can eliminate stubborn cultural and social factors that keep girls out of school

Juliana, an 11-year-old, fifth grade student in Mamakoffikro, a small village in south-central Côte d’Ivoire, is the first girl in her family to go to school. Neither of her parents, both cocoa farmers, got a formal education themselves but they are part of a growing number of Ivoirians who understand that education is essential to their children’s and their country’s future.

In fact, starting last September, Côte d’Ivoire for the first time made education compulsory for all children from ages 6 to 16 and is now investing heavily (boosting its education budget, for example, by 25% between 2015 and 2016) to strengthen its national education system. Notably, those children will include all of Côte d’Ivoire’s girls – including Juliana – whose enrollment in primary schools lags behind that of boys. Côte d’Ivoire is breaking down some of the long-standing barriers that for too long kept girls like Juliana from getting a formal education. 

It’s no overstatement to call this a quiet revolution for Côte d’Ivoire, a revolution that will steadily pay off as the next generation of students acquires the skills and knowledge to transform their lives and the lives of everyone around them.

Côte d’Ivoire’s example raises a question for many other countries, where large numbers of girls still have no access to even a primary education: when will the global community be ready for such a revolution? Put another way, knowing that some countries lose more than US$1 billion a year by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys, how long can we afford not to choose the path of equity and inclusion?

Eliminating Barriers

We will only succeed in educating every girl if we engage in the difficult, patient work of eliminating stubborn cultural and social factors that keep girls out of school – such as putting them to work at home or on family farms at an early age to support their families, arranging for them to be married off in their early teens or limiting them to roles as mothers or wives.

It means ensuring schools are equipped with drinking water, separate sanitary facilities for girls and even provide sanitary napkins so girls can continue to go to school during their menstruation. Currently, about one in ten African girls miss about 20% of their school days due to menstruation.

There is also a need for more women teachers who the girls trust and with whom they can discuss difficult issues such as sexual harassment and violence that happens in too many schools or on the way to and from school in too many countries. And it means removing the numerous costs linked to sending daughters to school -- such as payments for uniforms, books, materials – that keep poor girls out of school.  Evidence shows if costs are prohibitive then families will keep the girls at home and only send the boys to school.

Between 2011 and 2015, Côte d’Ivoire began executing an ambitious plan to build a school system that would put the country and its people on a path to prosperity. With the help of a US$41.4 million grant from the Global Partnership for Education, Côte d’Ivoire built 15,000 primary school classrooms and 170 junior high schools, particularly in relatively remote areas like Mamakoffikro that had no such facilities nearby. The Ivorian government also recruited and trained 38,000 new teachers and purchased and distributed more than a million up-to-date textbooks.

Because the three-room school building in Mamakoffikro is close to Juliana’s home, she and her classmates can now continue their schooling. Before the construction she and her girlfriends may not have continued their education, because the school was simply too far away. Now, they are spared from making long treks to and from classes. That will make her and other girls there safer. It will also give them the time and energy to study and continue to help their parents at home and during the harvest seasons when most families earn much needed cash income. Moreover, well-trained, qualified teachers – particularly women – will help Mamakoffikro’s girls grapple with the unique challenges they face at home and in the community.

Realising the Revolution

I won’t pretend that this kind of quiet revolution is easy for any country, particularly those that struggle with small budgets to build new schools, train teachers, buy quality curricular materials and gather and analyse data that will guide their decision making. Nor am I suggesting that the responsibility to make such groundbreaking changes should lie solely on the shoulders of low- or even middle-income countries. GPE and other education partners support these countries in their education planning based on evidence of what works – particularly for girls. But ultimately, the larger international community has a stake in helping them by filling an annual external financing gap of US$39 billion to support investments that will lead to quality pre-primary, primary and secondary education to all children by 2030.

Together developing countries and their external partners can bring about the kind of change that allows more children – especially girls – to get the education they and their societies need and deserve. If we do, we enable girls like Juliana, who says she wants to be a teacher someday, to play their own part in a continuing revolution for years to come.

Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister of Australia, is Board Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, which supports 61 developing countries to ensure that every child receives a quality basic education, prioritising the poorest and most vulnerable and those living in fragile and conflict-affected countries. To learn more about Juliana and education in Côte d’Ivoire, please view this video.