Fifth grade class in Chuchoquesera, Peru
When I visited the classroom pictured above in the Peruvian highlands back in 2004, I noticed that slightly more than half of the students were girls. I remarked on this fact to the human rights activist who was giving us the tour of this Quechua-speaking indigenous community. He smiled sadly and said, “Yes, but this is fifth grade. In sixth grade, children go to a lower secondary school that is farther away. Most of the girls won’t go. It takes too long to walk there and they are needed to help at home, so the parents won’t let them go. Besides, most of them will be married soon.” Unfortunately, this is a situation that is repeated throughout the world.
In the United States, where education is both compulsory and free, we often forget that the right to education is not meaningfully available in many parts of the world – especially for girls. The UN estimates that there were more than 67 million primary school-age and 73 million lower secondary school-age children out of school worldwide in 2009. In addition, an estimated 793 million adults lack basic literacy skills. The majority of them are women.
Since then, I have visited classrooms and asked questions about girls’ access to education in countries on several continents. This is a photo I took at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.
Kindergarten class at Buduburam Refugee Settlement, Ghana
Boys far outnumbered girls in this classroom, illustrating one of the problems for girls in accessing education. When resources are scarce, parents will often choose to spend the money on school fees for their sons rather than their daughters.
There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality. It is also one the best ways to promote economic growth and development.
“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”
This year, the school has successfully met goals for gender parity among students in both the primary and lower secondary grades. For the 2011-2012 school year, 147 of the 283 students in pre-school through eighth grade are girls. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, 15 of the 31 students in ninth and tenth grade are young women.