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Gender Equality in Education is Progressing, but It’s Not Enough


by Hanna Nussair

For many years, the international community has measured success by how many girls start going to school, and it is evident that major strides have been made towards this on a global scale. For example, there is data to show that two-thirds of all countries have reached an equal number of boys and girls enrolled in primary school. While this is notable progress, girls face major obstacles in continuing and completing their education once they are enrolled. They have historically faced heightened rates of gender-based discrimination, obstacles and even violence. Because of this, nearly 40 percent of girls enrolled in primary school will not finish their secondary school. 

Girls’ educational success goes well beyond getting them in the building; girls deserve an educational environment that understands and tackles the unique inequities they face. Across the world, we are failing to create such environments — girl students continue to be ignored, unsupported or unsafe when they are at school. The issue is even more alarming for marginalized girls; low-income students, BIPOC students, students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ identifying students face compounding discrimination and barriers. 

There are global implications to not supporting girls in their educational journey. According to the World Bank, barriers to girls’ education can cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion USD in lost lifetime productivity and earnings. And equally as important, when girls are educated, they are better able to make their own decisions and control their own lives. This International Day of the Girl, learn more about three major obstacles that girls are facing at school.

Gender-Based Violence

In late September, the United States Department of Education released information that showed a Utah school district failing to investigate over 100 cases of sexual harassment — young girls were the survivor the majority of the time. While the facts of the report are devastating, the detailed cases are far from uncommon. Over 115 million students experience gender-based violence in schools every year. Failure to protect girls from violence is not only keeping them out of schools, it can also be deadly. Earlier this year, a young student in India was sexually assaulted and killed in her student hostel after complaints by numerous girl students went ignored.

Another prevalent form of gender-based violence keeping girls out of school are early and forced marriages. Girls who marry between the ages of 12-18 are 21 percent less likely to go to secondary school. Protecting girls from early or forced marriages now can have a major impact for the next generation of girls. Mothers who finished secondary school are much more likely to have daughters who will also complete their education. 

School-Fees and Technology

For many families across the globe, the cost of continuing their daughter’s education can be seen as an additional financial burden. Direct and indirect school fees, such as tuition, transportation, books and uniforms, are keeping girls out of school around the world. Cash transfers to families and take-home rations of food are data-proven approaches to keep girls in school.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought in a new expense for many families—technology-based learning. Around 90 percent of adolescent girls and young women in low-income countries do not have access to the internet, and many girls were forced to halt or permanently end their education due to the rise in distance education. 

Hygiene Facilities

10 percent of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa and 25 percent of girls in India miss multiple days of school during their menstrual cycle. Even in the United Kingdom, 64 percent of girls missed at least half of a school day because of their period. Menstrual inequity—the unequal access to menstrual products, education and care and heightened exposure to period stigma—often goes unaddressed in school environments. There is no country in the world where menstruators do not face additional obstacles due to their period. 

Often, schools do not have proper toilets or sanitary products for menstruators. A survey in rural Kenya found that 84 percent of the schools had separate latrines for girls, but a majority lacked a working lock and access to water. In the same report, only 10 percent of schools reported always providing sanitary pads. Lack of access to safe hygiene facilities puts girls at risk of health complications and even sexual violence. It has been proven that inadequate access to sanitation facilities escalates women and girls’ risk of physical and sexual assault. 

As we continue to progress towards gender equality in education, we can’t forget the dire need for gender equity. Removing obstacles women and girls face regarding their education is critical for success. One without the other will continue cycles of injustice for years to come and keep millions of girls from receiving their diplomas. 

In addition to Hanna Nussair’s current role at Global Rights for Women as social media consultant, she works for Girl Up, a girl-centered leadership development initiative at the United Nations Foundation.