Educating Girls Who Live in Poverty
While an education is something most of us take for granted, for many girls around the world, school feels out of reach. It's estimated globally that over 130 million girls do not attend school.1 And 15 million young women will never even see the inside of a primary school or secondary school classroom. But compounding benefits come from educating girls. Girls’ education strengthens economies, reduces inequality and contributes to more stable and resilient communities for everyone.
What Keeps Girls from Going to School?
Poverty and education go hand-in-hand, each one feeding the other to create a cycle of generational poverty. But the underlying issues of education for girls run deeper still.
While we often think of poverty in basic terms of money (earning less than $1.90/day), the truth is extreme poverty affects every aspect and quality of life. Basic needs such as shelter, food, water, sanitation and healthcare can be compromised. Work, if available, is usually hard and difficult. And education often takes a backseat to survival.
But why do so many girls miss out on an education?
The answer: it’s complicated. Geographical location, cultural norms, access to water, basic sanitation and more all play a role. But at the root, poverty in its many forms is the common thread preventing girls from learning what they need to succeed in life.
Lack of access to clean water hinders the education of girls
For most of us, it’s almost unimaginable to think about having to walk miles each day just to get a bucket of clean water. But sadly, that’s the reality for millions of people, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where 71% of households don’t have access to safe drinking water.2
Unfortunately for girls, the job of fetching water usually falls to them, and the trip can be tough. On average, girls in Africa and Asia walk six kilometers (almost four miles) one way, seven days a week to get clean water, leaving little to no time for school.
Women and girls spend 200 million hours collecting water each day — equivalent to 8.3 million days or 22,800 years.3
“It would be as if a woman started with her empty bucket in the Stone Age and didn’t arrive home with water until 2016,” stated UNICEF’s Sanjay Wijesekera. “Think how much the world has advanced in that time. Think how much women could have achieved in that time.”
Safety concerns and fear of abuse conspire to keep girls uneducated
While it’s normal for parents anywhere in the world to worry about their children’s safety at school, parents in poverty-stricken areas have deeper concerns.
For many living in remote or unsafe communities, just getting to school poses many risks. Schools are often far from home and walking can be the only way to get there. The rainy season often makes dirt roads treacherous or even impassable. And in extreme cases, girls are in danger of being abducted by human traffickers or terrorist cells on the way to school.
But the safety concerns don’t stop once girls are in the classroom. Imagine putting on your shoes, grabbing your bag and walking out the door to go to school, when you suddenly feel a wave of panic. Your best friend confided to you about a teacher who touched her inappropriately last week. Will that happen to you, too? Should you stay home? This is the question many girls face with the real threat of sexual abuse from teachers, staff and even peers.
More than 1 in 20 girls are sexually abused in Uganda according to The Center for Global Development, and in a survey of 10 other countries, 400,000 schoolgirls reported sexual abuse in school within the past year.4
Another recent survey shares that almost 20 million women in India, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria were sexually abused by a teacher.
Child marriage keeps tens of millions of girls out of school
In families struggling with extreme poverty, pursuing marriage for teenage daughters often feels like the only way to survive.
Hefty dowries for young brides to marry older men can be hard to resist for a struggling family. And many parents truly believe giving their daughter away in marriage is her best chance at a brighter future.
Without an extra person to feed and clothe, parents may feel some financial relief. But child marriage has dire consequences for young women and their children.
Every year, 12 million girls under the age 18 become married.5 In low- and middle-income countries*, the World Bank reports more than 1 in 3 women marry before adulthood, and more than 1 in 5 have a baby before age 16.6
More often than not, child brides become overwhelmed and are too busy taking care of new husbands and babies to go to school.
Without an education, these girls remain unable to get sustainable-wage jobs. Instead, their lives revolve around taking care of the home and children. And their children are less likely to complete school themselves, perpetuating the poverty cycle for future generations.
Menstrual health often means the end of school for girls
It’s hard to believe a natural female biological process can be a barrier to getting an education. But for millions living in poverty, menstruation means the end of school. Why?
Many poor communities and schools don’t have hygiene materials, toilets or basic sanitation, and for a menstruating female, that’s a big problem. The World Bank estimates a young woman misses 20% of school due to her period.
Also, the changes that happen with puberty are sometimes considered taboo in certain cultures.
Menstruation is not explained to girls or boys which leaves many young women afraid, embarrassed and ashamed for having their period. This lack of education can lead to boys and even teachers teasing or shaming menstruating girls. For many, it’s easier to just drop out of school than face the bullying.