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 $2.15/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.

"We educate women because it is smart. We educate women because it changes the world."

—Drew Gilpin Faust

How Does Educating Girls Break Generational Poverty?

If we want to combat the cycle of poverty, we need to get girls in school and keep them there. With far reaching consequences that go beyond the classroom, educating girls affects not only their individual standards of living but their communities (and even the broader nations), too. All of these factors add up to an overall better quality of life that impacts their children, their grandchildren and beyond.

  1. Better paying jobs. An educated woman makes almost twice as much as her uneducated counterpart.7
  2. Increased economic stability. On a larger scale, educating girls makes their entire community and nation stronger economically. An educated woman contributes with a unique perspective and masters achievements that would otherwise be out of reach. In fact, the Global Partnership for Education states that for every 1% increase in females going to school, a nation sees a 0.3% average increase in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).8
  3. Delayed marriage and smaller families. Girls who stay in school are less likely to marry young, making school retention all the more critical. The World Bank reports that for every year a girl completes her secondary education, she reduces her chance of marrying before age 18 by 5% or more. Also, these women have fewer children altogether, helping to curb population booms that drain struggling communities.
  4. Improved maternal and fetal health. Simply put, educated girls grow up to be generally healthier moms with healthier babies. UNICEF states, “In India...the infant mortality rate of babies whose mothers have received primary education is half that of children whose mothers are illiterate.” Also, educated women tend to wait longer between babies and have fewer unplanned births, leading to healthier moms and children.
  5. 5. Less HIV/AIDS. Young women are 14 times more likely to be infected by HIV than boys, making up 75% of HIV cases in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean according to UNAIDS.9, 10 But studies show women with 8 or more years of school were 87% more likely to delay sex until adulthood, and in Zimbabwe, girls in school ages 15-18 are 5 times less likely to have HIV than girls who don’t attend school.

How You Can Partner with Compassion to Educate Girls

Sponsoring a girl in need gives her the opportunity to receive a quality education in a safe environment where she can thrive.

Education and personal relationships are at the heart of our holistic child development model. We partner with thousands of local churches around the world to create one-to-one sponsorships of children in desperate situations. Our church partners use our age-graded curriculum to minister to children holistically, addressing their spiritual, physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional needs.

Compassion donors and sponsors also generously help students succeed in school by providing scholarships, textbooks, computers, art classes and music lessons. In addition, they help fund sewing workshops, baking classes, sports camps and more to empower children with money-making life skills that help end generational poverty.

Most importantly, we make sure every child enrolled in our program hears about a God who loves them and has big plans for their lives.

Help End Poverty: Sponsor a Girl Today

Girls all around the world are waiting for a sponsor like you. You can be the answer to giving a young female the chance to learn at school and go on to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

Help us end generational poverty at its core by sponsoring a girl’s education today.

“Education is necessary for success and well-being in society...A good education can boost a woman’s quality of life and open doors to decent work opportunities.” -United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres
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1 “Girls' Education.” UNICEF.

2 “Sanitation.” The World Bank.

3 “Collecting water is often a colossal waste of time for women and girls.” UNICEF, 29 August 2016, Press Release.

4 “There’s a Global School Sexual Violence Crisis and We Don’t Know Enough About It.” Center for Global Development.

5 Girls Not Brides.

6 “International Center for Research on Women Report: Child Marriage Will Cost Developing Countries Trillions of Dollars by 2030.” The World Bank, 27 June 2017, Press Release.

7 “Missed Opportunities: The High Cost of Not Educating Girls.” The World Bank.

8 “Why Educating Girls Makes Economic Sense. Global Partnership for Education.

9 "Back to School: Educating Girls to Fight HIV.” Friends of the Global Fight.

10 “Educate Girls Fight AIDS.” UNAIDS.

* In 2015, the World Bank began phasing out the term "developing world" in its publications and databases. The use of the developed countries and developing countries categories was "becoming less relevant" with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and their focus on targets for the whole world.