International Women’s Day: Addressing challenges faced by girls and young women in Western and Central Africa

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Western and Central Africa has more than 28 million girls out of school. Photo: Shutterstock
Western and Central Africa has more than 28 million girls out of school. Photo: Shutterstock

"I stopped (going to) school in order to marry," says Nafissa, a young girl from Niger. "It was because of people's mentality and their prejudices. I was married during a school break and, before I could return, I became pregnant. After that, I never returned."

Nafissa's words reflect the reality of many girls and young women in Western and Central Africa. The region has more than 28 million girls out of school. The gross enrollment rate in secondary school for girls is only 42 percent in the region.  The gender parity index for secondary education, a measure of the ratio of girls to boys enrolled, is as low as 0.53 in Chad and is below 1 in 17 of the 22 countries in the region. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic will increase these gender gaps because experience from the Ebola outbreak taught us that when schools reopened after a nearly year-long closure, girls were 17 percentage points less likely than boys to be in school.

Challenges faced by girls and young women in West and Central Africa

The International Women’s Day, celebrated every year on March 8th, is an opportunity to bring attention to the urgent need to address the challenges girls and young women in West and Central Africa face and to promote their empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights.

Gender gaps in secondary education opportunities are due to many contributing factors, but one of the most critical elements that affects girls much more than boys is sociocultural norms.  In Ghana, for example, 50 percent of parents would keep their sons in school rather than their daughters if forced to choose, and only 10 percent would prioritize daughters. Widespread sociocultural norms favor other conditions that, in turn, tend to decrease school attendance and performance, such as child marriages and pregnancies, which are highly prevalent in the region and highly correlated with lack of education.

According to UNICEF, 37% of 20–24 year-old girls in the region were first married or in union before they were 18 years old, and this value is as high as 76% in Niger. VOW for Girls reports that over 60% of women aged 20-24 without education were married before the age of 18. And in Central African Republic, for instance, 15 percent of girls aged 15-24 who left school prematurely stated pregnancy as the main reason for doing so.

There is hope, however, for girls’ education in the region. In 2020, Sierra Leone ended a 10-year long ban that prevented teenage mothers or pregnant girls from attending school. In Ghana, the government is offering incentive packages and other initiatives to encourage girls to return to or remain in school.

World Bank Support

The World Bank’s Western and Central Africa Regional Education Strategy 2022-2025 has a strong focus on girls, including a specific target to increase the female secondary enrollment rate. With that goal in mind, the strategy proposes a series of high-impact interventions to address these gaps.

  1. Shifting sociocultural norms that affect school enrollment for girls can be achieved by involving the community and traditional leaders along with other stakeholders in comprehensive communications and advocacy campaigns focused on school enrollment. These campaigns tend to be more effective when following the lessons of behavioral sciences, which show that the voice of authority and peer effects can help change social norms rapidly and profoundly.
  2. Evidence shows that equipping girls with digital literacy skills can empower them and give them tools to continue their education, access information about their rights and reproductive health, and increase their decision-making within their households. Similarly, digital skills are increasingly demanded in the labor markets and, as such, can provide an opportunity for girls to access good quality jobs.
  3. Incorporating gender-sensitivity across all aspects of education projects can also increase girls’ access to education. For instance, constructing girl-friendly schools, ensuring safety in and around schools -especially in conflict-affected settings-, and  providing safe spaces for girls, have all been found to increase enrollment rates and improve learning when adjusted to local contexts.

Several World Bank projects in the region are already supporting governments with these interventions. For example, the Adolescent Girls Initiative for Learning and Empowerment  includes a comprehensive communications campaign and is working with traditional leaders to change social norms that prevent girls from attending schools. It is also using schools as platforms to deliver comprehensive life skills and digital skills that can empower girls and change their life trajectories. An impact evaluation is under preparation to learn more insights for future projects.

Research shows that each additional year of education reduces fertility rates by 0.26 births, decreases the chances of maternal death by 20%, increases survival to age 5 of their children by 50%, and reduces the probability of child marriage for girls by an average of six percentage points Additionally, it increases future income by at least 10% and contributes to the region's economic growth in an inclusive manner. 

It will not be easy, but coordinated action, evidence-based solutions, and strong multi-sectoral interventions can get us closer to a region where all girls arrive at school ready to learn, truly learn in and out of the classroom , and enter the job market with the right skills to become productive and fulfilled citizens.


Jason Weaver

Senior Economist, Education Global Practice

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