By Catriona Laing and Peter Hawkins
Renowned author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows the power of ambition. In We Should All Be Feminists, she writes “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man”. She goes on to ask why we have such disparate goals for our girls and boys – “why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?”
Inspired by International Day of the Girl on 11th October, we ask the same question. We know, like Adichie, that there is more to the future of these young girls than marriage. We know that educating girls is one of the most important ways we can empower them, by helping develop their ambition and learn new skills to achieve the futures they choose.
Education is a human right, and also fundamental to lasting poverty reduction, building prosperous, resilient economies and peaceful, stable societies. Research has shown the pivotal role of girls’ education, with significant health, social and economic outcomes, not just for herself, but the community and nation. Supporting education for girls and women gives them a greater voice to advocate for changes in their own lives and the lives of other girls and women.
There is a clear positive effect of education on intergenerational health outcomes: a child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to live past the age of five, 50% more likely to be immunised, and twice as likely to attend school. Enabling women and girls to choose for themselves when they have children allows them to complete their education and to take up better economic opportunities.
Girls’ education leads to an increase in individual earnings – global figures suggest that one additional school year can increase a women’s earnings by 20%. Former World Bank Chief Economist, Lawrence Summers, concluded that girls’ education “may well be the highest-return of investment available in the developing world due to the benefits women, their families and societies reap. And because women make up a large share of the world’s farmers, improvements in girls’ education will also lead to increased agricultural output and productivity”.
In 2019 – globally – gender parity in education had been achieved, yet around 258 million children worldwide remain out of school and gender inequality still persists within and between countries. In Nigeria, girls constitute a tremendous under-tapped potential. Various factors, including economic barriers and socio-cultural norms and practices that discourage attendance in formal education, like early marriage, limit girls’ opportunities and impact their completion of school.
One in five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria, of which more than half are girls. The average national literacy rate for Nigeria is 61%, and nearly half of women and nearly one-quarter of men cannot read or write. While the highest proportion of children out of school in Nigeria are in the northern states, only 4% of poor young women in the North West zone can read, compared with 99% of rich young women in the South East. At the start of 2020, 935 schools in the North East were closed as a result of attacks and conflict, for example.
As a fundamental priority for the United Kingdom and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), we believe that every girl, irrespective of where she is born, should get at least 12 years of quality education. That is why in March this year, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appointed Baroness Liz Sugg, as Special Envoy specifically for Girls’ Education, to help accelerate progress towards this goal.
Speaking during the virtual 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) just last month, Baroness Sugg reiterated the UK’s commitment to Education. She highlighted the pressures COVID-19 is having on economies but argued that the pandemic is no reason for inaction on education, imploring that investing “in education for communities ravaged by conflict and crisis is even more important if we are to build back better.”
Children across the world have had their access to schooling severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, creating the largest disruption of education systems in history. This has affected nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. With schools closed, girls face a higher risk of violence and harmful practices like sexual and gender-based violence, early pregnancies, unsafe abortions and child marriages. Girls facing these experiences are less likely to return to schools once they reopen.
Building back better from COVID-19, now really is our opportunity to reset education: to make it more inclusive and to support children, particularly girls. Supporting girls’ education is a key lever to enable Nigeria to harness its demographic dividend and meet the Sustainable Development Goals. That is why, the UK and UNICEF have been working together in Nigeria to develop new ways of remote learning to make sure children’s education continues.
We have flexed our funding to support the continuation of home-based schooling and remote learning during COVID-19, for example by supporting children to engage in learning through low-tech channels like radio. However, remote learning is a supplement, not a replacement, for schools. So, we are also supporting efforts to get children back to school when it is safe to do so.
Since 2005, The UK and the UNICEF have also been working together to implement the Girls’ Education Project which is now in its third phase. Over one million girls have been supported to access schooling in six states through this phase. During the last year of the programme, the Girls for Girls (G4G) intervention worked to ensure better retention of girls in education by empowering them with the skills to resist pressure to withdraw from school.
Enhanced social and life skills for over 18,000 girls and over 17,000 boys participating in the G4G and HeForShe activities help them be empowered to use their platforms to increase solidarity and create demand for education in their communities. Through the HeForShe programme, work on positive masculinity and male champions working as advocates generated peer support for girls education. The G4G intervention also established reading hubs in 100 schools, which has enabled and motivated girls to lead reading lessons in their classes and speak with confidence, as well as take leadership positions in their schools as school prefects.
Girls can be leaders, accelerating social change. If we educate girls today, we will transform the world of tomorrow and ensure all future generations thrive. This International Day of the Girl let’s seize the opportunity to be inspired by what girls see as the change they want. We look forward to a world where every girl, whether born in Abuja or Aberdeen, Lagos or London, Maiduguri or Manchester, receives a decent, quality education and can achieve their highest ambitions.
- Catriona is the British High Commissioner in Nigeria while Peter is the UNICEF Representative in Nigeria