Alter: The Importance of Educating Girls

Who wants more poor children around the world to go to school? Raise your hand. Yep, everyone's hand is up. Education is the ultimate mom-and-apple-pie (or rice-and-beans) issue. Everyone's for it. But our best efforts to get more impoverished kids into schools aren't always effective. Despite some recent progress in China and India, 73 million children worldwide don't go to primary school. Three times as many never go to secondary school. Though they can sometimes be trained later in life, their shortened time in school is often a major impediment to advancement. These kids are mostly doomed to a life of poverty, and so are their families.

The way out is not just to champion education generally but to focus intently on one subset of the problem: girls, who make up nearly 60 percent of the kids out of school. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, only one in five girls gets any education at all. Here's where to zero in on the challenge: most of the benefits that accompany increased education are attributable to girls, who use their schooling more productively than boys. Women in the developing world who have had some education share their earnings; men keep a third to a half for themselves.

"The reason so many experts believe educating girls is the most important investment in the world is how much they give back to their families," says Gene Sperling, a former top economic adviser to President Bill Clinton (and currently advising Barack Obama). Sperling's book, "What Works in Girls' Education" (with Barbara Herz), is simultaneously disturbing and encouraging. It's disheartening to think of how far we have to go to get all kids into school—one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals launched in 2000 to accelerate progress on fighting poverty, disease and other social ills. But it's also hopeful: at least we can focus on a specific solution.

When girls go to school, they marry later and have fewer, healthier children. For instance, if an African mother has five years of education, her child has a 40 percent better chance of living to age 5. A World Health Organization study in Burkina Faso showed that mothers with some education were 40 percent less likely to subject their children to the practice of genital mutilation. When girls get educated, they are three times less likely to contract HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately, many African parents still don't know that their own lives can be greatly improved if their daughters go to school. They're often uncomfortable when their girls have to travel long distances to school (making them more subject to sexual predators). Girls themselves grow uncomfortable in school when they have no separate latrines. They fear being spied on by boys; their parents agree and withdraw them. This is the kind of everyday impediment to progress that aid organizers notice on the ground but rarely becomes part of the debate.

The biggest barrier to primary and secondary education in the developing world remains the fees that too many countries continue to charge parents for each child in school. Sometimes it's a flat fee; sometimes it's barely disguised as a fee for books or school uniforms. The practical effect is that poor families (disproportionately in rural areas, where school attendance is lightest) send their two oldest, healthiest boys to school with the hope that they will support their parents in their old age. This often deprives girls—the ones actually much more likely to help their families—of the chance to go to school.

The waste of human capital is incalculable. Consider that only 5 percent of children with disabilities get any education at all in the developing world. Countries like Kenya and Uganda, which have abolished fees, have seen a flood of new students, with enrollments surging by 30 percent or more. So why haven't other developing nations followed their example? It's not the loss of fee revenue but the absence of a large-enough education infrastructure to sustain the influx of new students. Five years after abolishing fees, Kenya still needs 40,000 new teachers. Officials there say they can't meet the need without more consistent funding.

Donor nations and NGOs are increasingly reaching a consensus that global education, especially for girls, is the keystone to the arch of development. The Millennium Development Goals of universal primary education with gender equity are among the hottest topics at international conferences. But Sperling calls these "the world's most ambitious and pathetic goals—ambitious because so many countries are not on track to reach them; pathetic because of the idea that five or six years of primary education will suffice when there's no real demonstrable advantage without eight."

The challenge extends beyond funding to changing the culture of the developing world. Fathers must be convinced that if their daughters go to school, they will learn enough math to help them in the market. Mothers must learn that while sending their daughters to school might mean one fewer pair of hands to help around the house, their families will be better off in the long run. "This is not a disease without a known cure," says Sperling. "These things work everywhere." If these become the mom-and-apple-pie values of the developing world, we'll all win.