Dr. Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp, Enhance Worldwide
Not all children have access to education—and girls are the most excluded. When we look at the demographics of out-of-school girls, we see some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our global community. Married girls and child mothers, refugee and displaced girls, girls living in the poorest households in the poorest communities, orphaned and abandoned girls, girls with physical and cognitive disabilities, and girls trafficked for labor and sex are those least likely to stay in school, or even step foot into a classroom in the first place. Already in harrowing situations, these girls face increased risks and challenges because they are cut off from the educational and social resources that school provides. With governments, UN agencies, and organizations already working toward increased access for girls, reaching more girls with education requires more people from within and outside of the education sector to advocate on their behalf.
More than 130 million girls are out of school. Poverty is one of the biggest barriers for girls, with half of primary-age, out-of-school girls living in poor communities in sub-Saharan Africa. However, ensuring that all girls have access to education requires more than targeted interventions such as building schools in poor communities and waiving school fees. Access to education entails recognizing that the intersections with gender—such as poverty, conflict, and other factors of marginalization—are complex barriers that eliminate opportunity and agency to attend school. Often, it’s not just one challenge that keeps girls out of school, but rather many challenges that combine to create a formidable barrier between a girl and her education. Studies demonstrate that girls who face multiple disadvantages or risks—such as low family income, being displaced, living a long distance from the nearest school—are less likely to attend school and complete their education than those facing only one risk.
Enhance Worldwide works for gender equality in some of the poorest communities in Ethiopia to ensure every girl and young woman has agency, autonomy, and aspirations. Education Diplomacy is central to Enhance Worldwide’s approach to promoting education as intrinsic to realizing the potential of all girls and women worldwide and engaging in effective collaborative efforts to give girls a voice and achieve gender equality. Its programs engage local community and partners to ensure outcomes such as accessing education, gaining essential life skills, and finding solutions to the complex socio-economic challenges of poverty, discrimination, and cultural norms that inhibit the mobility and advancement of girls. Enhance Worldwide currently supports twelve K – 12 girls and three female university students. Their most recent impact has opened opportunities for girls and young women, resulting in five university graduations, one technical school graduation, and one graduation from culinary school. They also support summer and winter break programs for the community that reach 250 children, both girls and boys.
Thus, we are facing multifaceted gender-based challenges that keep girls out of the classroom. Education Diplomacy for girls’ education is an approach that leads to systemic solutions that will get girls to and from school safely; ensure their safety in the classroom; address social norms that influence parents’ decisions on their daughters’ education; and find ways to support in-school girls during disruptions like marriage, conflict or displacement.
To some extent, a variety of stakeholders are already grappling with these challenges and beginning to implement solutions in collaborative ways. Many governments are creating more inclusive education policies and are working to reduce violence against girls. Grassroots organizations are partnering with families and communities to address cultural norms that view girls as solely future wives and mothers and help everyone see girls as individuals in their own right. Local governments and organizations are empowering educators and school administrators to resolve issues that threaten the safety and dignity of girls, such as lack gender-designated latrines. International organizations such as the Malala Foundation are drawing global attention to this issue for an increase of funding for girls.
Despite this progress, there are currently 15 million primary-age girls who will never have the opportunity to engage with their peers to solve a math problem or experience the pride of writing their names. These girls will likely grow up and live in poverty, and pass the cycle of poverty onto the next generation. We need to reach more girls faster for sustainable change. To do so, we need to use Education Diplomacy to build global consensus that girls—and their basic right to education—matter. While governments, UN agencies, and organizations are undertaking this work on a higher level, individuals working in any sector that involves girls—especially the education sector—need to act as Education Diplomats for girls so that bottom-up work can meet with top-down strategy.
Creating global consensus starts with dismantling the bias against girls that we have inherited from a world that favors male leaders and decision-makers. While we have made strides, the ratio of male to female leaders in all sectors shows how far we have to go before we truly view individuals equally. For example, societal norms assign dolls to girls and Legos for boys and perpetuate other culturally based gender roles and expectations; a gender bias is built into our psyche—as is a socio-economic bias that intersects with race and ethnicity. Until we see all children as equal in rights and dignity, universal access to education will not happen for girls—or any other disadvantaged group. However, universal access will happen when we all see as much value, potential, and dignity in a homeless girl in New York, a married girl in Ethiopia, and a refugee girl in Jordan as we do in the highest achieving boys and girls from the most affluent suburbs.
Those working within the education sector have a special role to play as Education Diplomats for girls. The world expects girl-focused practitioners to advocate for girls, but doesn’t place the same responsibility on those working more generally within education. Policymakers, teachers, and administrators who truly understand the complex issues facing girls can open dialogue and shape consensus on a grassroots level. When educators and their colleagues start to care about girls, they can collaborate through coalitions that lead to tangible change. Although this sounds simple, when there is no existing dialogue on girls even the shortest conversation can start to create a pathway to transformation.
Today, 130 million girls are encountering hardships caused or increased by their lack of access to school. This means that the journey from a safe, dignified childhood to a meaningful, productive adulthood is an elite privilege. Until we are outraged at this injustice, our progress in girls’ education will be slow—too slow for the girls currently being excluded from education. If we speak out for girls, work together, and find solutions to complex barriers, ensuring girls have equal access to education can become an achievable target.