On International Women’s Day, I’m Celebrating the Power of Educating Girls

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In May 2016, I visited a refugeed camp in northern Iraq, where together with colleagues, I toured an NGO-run school that offers children a chance to be in safe space where learning and thinking about their hopes and dreams is possible. A young woman followed us around the school throughout the tour, watching us and listening intently to our conversations. After building up the courage, she approached me to ask about my visit, my family and what it was like to live in the United States. In turn, she told me about her family, her favorite subject in school (English) and how she wants to become a doctor when she grows up.

I think about that day and that young woman’s aspiration, particularly as we celebrate International Women’s Day this year and reflect on the power and potential of adolescent girls to unleash change across the globe. I am fortunate to work at an institution that is investing in girls and women, in their educational futures and their aspirations. Investing in people and human capital is critical to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity—and to ensure that happens, women are and must continue to play a central role. 

World Bank investments reflect this philosophy. Two years ago, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim committed $2.5 billion to education projects that directly benefit girls aged 12-17. This commitment, made very publicly and with plenty of fanfare, was made alongside senior representatives from Ghana, India, and Rwanda, with a call from then-First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama. Fast forward to March 2018 and we’ve not only met but surpassed this commitment, as the World Bank Group has invested some $3.2 billion in programs across the globe that directly benefit adolescent girls—three years ahead of schedule.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #PressforProgress, which is particularly fitting as we continue to support projects, policy dialogue, and research to ensure that adolescent girls have access to quality education, transition to secondary school, complete their education, and enter the labor market. Together with countries, we are working to empower girls in a world in which the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are necessary and overdue.
These new investments, most of which target low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, range from cash transfers and tuition assistance to teacher training, girls’ clubs and infrastructure investments that provide girls with separate latrines. These projects stem from a commitment to create a more inclusive world, as well as the economic imperative that is consistently supported by research: better educated women are healthier, earn higher incomes, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and provide better education and health care for their children, should they choose to become mothers.
The programs we are supporting tackle critical barriers, often through multiple interventions. In Bangladesh, for example, girls and boys have equal access to primary and secondary schools, a feat accomplished ahead of the Millennium Development Goal of 2015. But girls lag behind in completing secondary education, and they enroll in tertiary education at much lower rates. As a result, our projects are addressing these gender inequities by providing secondary school stipends, which are benefitting girls disproportionately, as well as separate toilets for girls, and a girls’ empowerment curriculum to promote general health and hygiene.

In Kenya, meanwhile, Bank Group investments are going to a teacher training program that aims to reduce gender-based violence in schools. The project is also focusing on students, especially girls, who are at risk of dropping out at the end of the primary cycle, while supporting their transition to secondary school in an effort to improve their chances of success.

Another project in Brazil is tackling the ways that gender in education affects women’s earnings potential. In Brazil, boys are more likely to pursue education in natural sciences, technology and mathematics (STEM), while girls focus largely on language and social science—which likely limits their employment opportunities later in life. The project is implementing gender-specific strategies that inspire, engage and empower girls in STEM.

As the recently-released World Development Report 2018, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, highlights, poverty remains the leading determinant of whether children complete their education. However, gender follows closely behind, which means millions of girls and young women cannot and do not reach their full potential.

Across the world, women and girls have made strides in education, but International Women’s Day is a reminder that we must individually and collectively advocate for policies and actions that enable girls and women to learn and complete their educations while having voice and agency as drivers of change. We must continue to #PressforProgress so that girls and women continue to aspire to and realize the lives they imagine, whether it’s becoming doctors in northern Iraq or artists or scientists or Presidents. Onward.

Find out more about World Bank Group Education on our website and on Twitter.


Oni Lusk-Stover

Senior Education Specialist, Education Sector, World Bank

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