Where is girls’ education headed? What are the most important trends to watch, the areas to worry about, and the strategies to consider?
Last year, the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings collaborated with the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) to survey 125 organizations working on girls’ education to answer those kinds of questions. We did this in part to review the influence of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000 for 2015, which explicitly included goals focused on universal primary education and promoting gender equality. But we also did it in light of the more recent UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that look towards 2030. There are 17 SDGs, focused, broadly, on eradicating poverty, combatting global warming, and ensuring equality and justice, and including specifics such as: ending child marriage, harmful traditional initiation rites, and increasing female political participation.
It’s true that there has been tremendous progress and important advancements in girls’ education; after all, women and adolescent girls are completing more years of school than ever and the number of girls out of primary school has been cut in half since the early 2000s. But the current state of affairs has left many actors in the field wondering how to update their agendas to match the current environment. In undertaking our study, our hope was that by capturing the landscape of efforts to improve girls’ educations, we might advance the conversation about how to better align efforts to achieve the SDGs.
In that spirit, we share our findings here. Our research revealed 10 strategic trends that demonstrate how the field is grappling with a new era in girls’ education, and suggest potential gaps in the effort, and the opportunities for action that those gaps present.
1. Focusing efforts on adolescent girls
As progress has been made in girls’ access to primary education, many organizations have begun to turn their attention toward the stubborn gender gaps that persist at the secondary level due to the unique barriers that adolescent girls face. Our study showed that some key players, such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) through its first phase of the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) Fund, continue to prioritize the primary level as a building block for advancing transitions into higher levels. But nearly twice as many organizations now focus on post-primary issues for adolescent girls (e.g. girls’ transitions to secondary education or to the workforce) as compared to those focused on primary-level issues.
However, we also found that the organizations that focus on adolescent girls often hone in on a limited set of issues specific to adolescent girls, such as menstrual hygiene management and sexual and reproductive health education. That means that many are missing a key opportunity to take on larger structural issues, such as addressing the constraining gender norms and expectations that typically arise when a girl reaches puberty, or facilitating school-reintegration for school-aged mothers or child brides.
2. Investing in efforts to improve the quality of education overall, and girls’ education in particular
In our review, we found a notable trend in organizations’ prioritization of quality learning. Specifically, 44 percent of the organizations that we studied are engaged in teacher training and gender-sensitization efforts, while 27 percent focus on addressing gender-responsive curriculum (e.g., tackling the “hidden curriculum” of gender stereotypes in textbooks and other teaching materials).
This focus on teachers and the curriculum as components to improving the quality of girls’ education is critical not only for setting the structures necessary for the creation of “the learning generation”—as envisioned by the Education Commission—but also for making progress toward achieving gender equality in education.
3. Addressing school-related gender-based violence
Our scan indicates that a quarter of girls’ education organizations focus on school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV)—a sharp contrast to five years ago when GBV work was not yet seen as part of the auspices of the education sector. And our findings indicate that the relatively high prioritization of SRGBV today reflects the intensified advocacy efforts of 35 organizations that came together in 2014 to form the Global Working Group to End SRGBV. Led by the UNGEI and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), this group was formed to build evidence and knowledge on SRGBV and to develop toolkits for monitoring violence in schools from a gender lens.
4. “No girl left behind”—focusing on hard-to-reach populations
Significant progress has been made on the education front for large groups of girls in the Global South in the late 2000s. However, general research findings clearly indicate that poor, rural, disabled, and displaced girls, girls in the ethnic or linguistic minority where they live, and/or girls who live in contexts of crises (such as war or other conflicts, or in areas affected by natural disasters) are not being benefiting equally.
The “last 10 percent” of girls continues to be the hardest to reach, and few organizations address the educational needs of the most marginalized girls. In our scan of girls’ education actors, fewer than 10 organizations had a focus on girls with disabilities and/or on girls in refugee contexts. However, global political will to tackle the challenges and barriers to education for the most marginalized girls is likely to take a turn. DFID’s second funding window for the GEC has promised to lead this shift with its theme of “Leave no girl behind.” Such initiatives provide much-needed opportunities to start collecting data not only on the impact of crisis and conflict on girls’ education, but also the intersections of multiple dimensions of marginalization.
5. Multi-sectoral approaches
The SDGs’ cross-sectoral nature brings light to the fact that no single sector can deliver on any of the goals alone. Collaborations among health sector organizations, agencies, and advocates—such as the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS
(UNAIDS), and education actors like UNICEF and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) under the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria—are a testament to the realization that achieving outcomes in one area is inextricably tied to achieving outcomes in another. At least one-third of organizations in our study were engaged not only in efforts to improve girls’ education, but also in other priority areas such as girls’ health, safety, livelihoods, and employment. The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), for example, supports the work of Save the Children in Malawi, which aims to prevent teenage pregnancy so as to keep girls from dropping out of school. And Vodafone’s CSR program, Connecting for Good, supports programs aimed at applying technology to solve health, education, and disaster relief challenges, and raises funds to support the education of girls who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. It is clear that few organizations today are tackling barriers to girls’ education only by focusing on what goes on inside the classroom or on school grounds.
6. Partnerships and communities of practice
As the girls’ education ecosystem grows, there has been a concomitant increase in the number of partnerships, including the multi-stakeholder partnerships that characterize the GPE and UNGEI, and the public-private partnerships between DFID and corporations such as Discovery Communications, the Coca-Cola Company, Avanti Communication, and Ericsson to support the GEC. The growth of such partners in girls’ education is an important indication that this work has indeed begun to “mainstream” into other sectors and broader society—in large part thanks to the advocacy work of organizations such as Girl Rising and Plan International.
The rise of communities of practice is also a welcome move toward aligning strategic practice and evidence. One good example: Girls CHARGE, which was first convened in 2014 by CUE and the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project. Although there are only a few of these networks to date, they show great potential for fostering collaboration, sharing resources and tools, and disseminating knowledge and evidence.
7. System strengthening
By no means a new phenomenon, gender mainstreaming work has been an important (and heavily critiqued) component of bilateral and multilateral development efforts to build the capacity of governments and civil society. This system-strengthening work in the girls’ education ecosystem has been largely spearheaded by the collaboration between GPE and UNGEI. While this specific partnership has focused on supporting GPE’s efforts to help its partners in different countries prepare gender-responsive education sector plans, the system strengthening approach in general may prove to be especially relevant in the SDG era.
8. Supporting gender equality in education
While the MDGs helped raise global awareness of the barriers to girls’ educational access, this focus has resulted, in some cases, in cultural backlash. This has happened most often in contexts where boys are also doing poorly in school and especially in areas where issues of inequality in access have become more complicated with boys disengaging and dropping out of school. It also happens where issues of educational quality are the primary concern, since the quality of the education being delivered affects both girls and boys, in different but equally impactful ways.
Our research confirms that organizations traditionally focused on girls’ education are now looking at broader facets of gender relations, gender stereotypes in curriculum, and teacher pedagogy. UNGEI’s work has contributed a great deal to this trend, specifically through its support of the Global Education Monitoring Report Gender Review, which has rallied actors to focus on these broader goals.
9. Social norms work
Addressing gender inequalities embedded in the administration of the education system (system strengthening work) is different from but complementary to addressing the deep structure of gender inequality in society (social norms work). According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), “It is critical that broader poverty reduction and development frameworks do not simply ‘add girls and stir’ to existing approaches but rather integrate a more nuanced understanding of gender discriminatory social institutions and related change pathways.”
Indeed, our study suggests that a growing number of organizations, including CARE International and ActionAid, are beginning to move beyond system-strengthening work and engage instead in social norms work in pursuit of transformational systems change. Social norms work does predate the focus on system strengthening. However, the renewed interest in creating enabling structures for gender equality (rather than focusing on gender mainstreaming) has emerged in response to the heavy focus on system-strengthening work during the MDG era.
10. Utilizing social media, ambassadors, and grassroots mobilization
Increasingly, organizations—especially bilateral and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs)—are striving to identify and utilize grassroots youth ambassadors, volunteers, and/or high-level political champions to mobilize communities to support girls’ education. Examples (which abound) include: the Global Education First Initiative’s (GEFI) Youth Ambassadors, Plan International’s Because I am a Girl Ambassadors, Malala Yousafzai herself and the Gulmakai Network of the Malala Fund, and the then collaborative work by Peace Corps volunteers and local grassroots leaders under the US government and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative.
These actors serve as important conduits for increasing the global visibility of girls’ education issues in distinct locales. They are also raising awareness of girls’ education issues in general. Social media has played a crucial role in this work, as organizations increasingly tweet, blog, publish videos, and facilitate access to other information resources to mobilize popular audiences and foster grassroots fundraising campaigns. At this point, few, if any, major organizations in girls’ education lack an active social media component in their portfolio.
Our study was by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, but these tend trends are clear. We believe that the global community and national governments will continue to make progress helping girls access better educational opportunities, and develop the skills they need to achieve their full life potential. We believe that they will continue to strive to build gender responsive education systems. However, we also know that these issues will continue to deepen and grow more complex. As the clock ticks toward 2030, understanding these findings and identifying potential gaps and blind spots are key to effectively catalyzing collective action to realize the SDGs.