Increasing access to education has the power to transform lives and build more prosperous communities and countries. While progress has been made in increasing access to education, girls continue to be left behind.
We know that educating girls is a powerful investment with the benefits rippling across sectors from health and climate change to economic development and beyond. As global leaders meet in Senegal for the Education Financing Replenishment, we must ensure the unique challenges and opportunities of investing in girl’s education are addressed.
As part of Deliver for Good’s focus on ensuring quality and equitable education, Women Deliver President/CEO Katja Iversen spoke with Julia Gillard, Chair of the Global Partnership for Education and former Prime Minster of Australia, to explore the ripple effect of investing in girls education.
Katja: We are about to meet again in Dakar for the GPE Replenishment where people working across sectors will come together to drive investment in equitable and quality education at all levels. We all know education is essential to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Can you tell us about the link between education and gender equality – which we know is also critical to achieving the SDGs.
Julia: We are at a global all-time high in terms of enrollment of children in school – a fact to be celebrated. Yet, we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the education sector. Girls lag far behind boys in terms of access to and completion in schooling – they are 1.5 times more likely than boys to be excluded from primary school, and their exclusion is even greater at the secondary level. Girls with disabilities or living in conflict-affected areas are among the most excluded groups in the world. Globally, 131 million school age girls are not in school and learning. If those girls represented a country, it would be the 10th largest in the world – the size of the United Kingdom and France put together. That is enormous untapped potential.
We know that education can be transformative. That’s why GPE and our partners talk not just about girls’ education, but about gender equality in and through education. Beyond just working towards getting more girls into school – important as this is - our concern is also the quality of their experience when they get there, and crucially, whether they are able to reap the full benefits of education after they leave. GPE partners are working to build strong education systems that can serve to advance gender equality – through learning and learning environments, in teacher education and practice, in curriculum and materials development, and in leadership and administration – which in turn build a platform for more gender equal societies.
We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that while education systems can reinforce or even exacerbate existing gender norms, they also have tremendous potential as a transformational force for opening minds, for challenging the status quo, for lifting aspirations, and inspiring action for change. Gender equal education equips girls and boys with the skills they need to participate fully in social, economic, and political life, have a say in decisions that affect their lives, and fulfill their full potential.
What individual girls are learning, in what conditions, and how is of critical importance to questions of women’s empowerment and gender equality. Our goal though the GPE partnership is to make sure that gender equality is taken into account at every stage of education planning so that we can see system-wide transformations.
Katja: GPE is a partner of the Deliver for Good campaign which works to shed light on the ripple effect of investments in girls and women. We know that investments in education can have a profound impact on health outcomes. What is the evidence telling us?
Julia: It’s true that there is a virtuous cycle between health and education. The newly released third edition of Disease Control Priorities highlights that the long-term goals of the health sector are not possible without success in educating children, and vice-versa. We need to view these as complementary systems and increase policy development and planning between them, rather than continuing to view them as competing priorities.
Put bluntly, keeping girls in school and learning is a key health intervention. UNAIDS reports that every additional year of school a girl in Botswana completes reduces her risk of HIV infection by 11.6 percent. The more education a woman has, the more likely she will be able to delay her first pregnancy, seek prenatal care, and have fewer and healthier children overall. UNESCO estimates that if all mothers completed primary school we could prevent 189,000 maternal deaths.
But it is also true that hungry bellies and sick bodies are an impediment to learning. A lack of access to clean water and sanitation – particularly as it relates to menstrual hygiene management – can also have a negative impact on girls’ education. School health practices such as school feeding programs, malaria prevention, micronutrient interventions and WASH can be highly effective at increasing access and learning outcomes for all children, including girls. These are cost effective, scalable solutions that show how the health and education communities can come together to more holistically support the development of girls and boys. It’s win-win for everyone.
But it’s not just health. Educating girls can have a profound ripple effect on many aspects of the SDGs – including economic development, climate change, the reduction of conflict and violence, democratic participation, and reduction of harmful practices such as early and forced child marriage and female genital mutilation. Educated girls get married and have children later, their babies tend to be better nourished, and are more likely to be in school. An investment in girls’ education truly is a long-term investment in the future of girls, their communities, and their countries.
Katja: As global leaders head to Dakar to drive investment in education, can you share some of the financing challenges in the education sector?
Julia: Financing is undeniably a key concern in the education sector, and one that needs immediate redress if we are to see real progress on SDG4. The Education Commission estimates that total spending on education needs to almost double to $3 trillion per year by 2030. That’s a daunting figure, but it is wholly within our grasp.
Part of the solution is for developing countries themselves to step up and invest in the education of their citizens, and we have been seeing the needle move steadily in this direction. GPE requires our partner countries raise their education spending to 20 percent of their overall budgets. We also need to ensure that education systems are efficient and give ministers of finance the confidence to invest in education – a sector with high recurring costs. So, overall, domestic finance is a big part of the solution.
But we are a long way away from the education sector being independent from donor support. Although the global community has adopted an ambitious agenda in SDG4, the share of donor financing for education has fallen for six consecutive years, while we’ve seen dramatic increases in investments in other sectors.
In a few days, the governments of Senegal and France, will host the Global Partnership for Education Financing Conference in Dakar, Senegal. I know our developing country partners will come armed with commitments to increase their domestic budget lines. We’re also looking for our donor partners to help us become a US$2 billion a year partnership so that we can support up to 870 million children and youth in 89 countries.
Katja: Education has never been a controversial sector. The case for investment seems clear, and yet, as you’ve indicated, significant challenges remain, particularly in investments to achieve gender parity at all levels of education. How do you see the way forward?
Julia: In addition to the improved financing we spoke about, we also need to target investments in education to address equity issues more specifically. Meeting our education goals requires a step-change in how we support the most vulnerable children, particularly girls living in conflict-affected countries and girls with disabilities.
Meeting the education challenges will require strengthened coordination across sectors. Ministries of finance, planning, gender, health, and social protection must all work together to challenge social norms which hold girls back. We have a data challenge that must be addressed so that we can better understand key barriers and bottlenecks. And we need to develop holistic solutions through costed gender-responsive education sector plans for systemic change to happen. Meeting this challenge requires that we all play a role in holding each other accountable for results – governments, donors, civil society, and the private sector. It is only through breaking down these silos and working together that we will achieve quality and equitable education for girls everywhere.
Katja: To end on a more personal note, why is access to quality education for girls an issue you are passionate about and an investment you are committed to driving?
Julia: I can’t help but recognize the powerful impact that education has had in shaping my own life. I was born in South Wales in the UK into a working-class family. My parents were both passionate about education, despite the fact that my father – a very bright student – had to leave school at 14 to work. After we emigrated to Australia we were fortunate enough to have access to a free, quality public education, and both my parents ensured that learning was a priority in our home. That education and that passion for learning is what took me to the highest office in my country as our first female prime minister. And it’s what drives me to continue to advocate for education in all corners of the globe, for all children. Education has the power to shape the future. It shaped mine.
Julia Gillard is the Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, a multi-stakeholder partnership and funding platform that aims to strengthen education systems in developing countries in order to dramatically increase the number of children who are in school and learning. GPE works with partner countries and other stakeholders to ensure improved learning outcomes, increased equity and inclusion, and efficient and effective education systems. Julia Gillard is the former Prime Minister of Australia.