The sun sets this year on the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include the elimination of gender disparities in education at all levels. Even though the number of countries that have achieved gender parity in both primary and secondary education between 2000 and 2015 has increased from 36 to 62, girls continue to face the greatest challenges, especially in access to secondary education.
The negative consequences of lack of education are visible throughout a woman’s life. An uneducated girl is less capable of making her own family planning decisions. A child bride is more likely to face health issues and psychological distress, and her children are more exposed to malnutrition and illiteracy. Education, thus, is fundamental to the development of both aspirations and skills: an educated girl is more capable of managing property and her finances, and has higher chances to have access to credit.
Women’s leadership and access to decision-making positions are also strictly dependent on educational attainment. In the long term, the lack of education affects a girl’s future capacity to seek and get employment and to have an income. Economic independence is reflected not only in a woman’s capacity to spend, save, acquire property and invest, but also in the freedom to get out of abusive domestic relationships, particularly economic violence.
Finally, without education a girl has a higher probability to live on the fringes of poverty.
The preference for boys in the family’s education investment, the gendered division of household labor, and long distances to travel to school are only some of the structural barriers and discriminatory social norms that contribute to gender inequality in education. One of the main reasons for girls’ low educational attainment is gender-based violence, and in particular sexual harassment and child marriage.
Protecting girls from sexual harassment is fundamental as they face not only the threat of violence in the streets on their way to and from school, but also inside their educational institutions. The numbers speak very loud: in a number of countries, a large majority of women have experienced sexual harassment on the streets or in public spaces. In the United States 56% of girls in middle and high school reported having been victims of some form of sexual harassment in school; as a consequence of sexual harassment, 37% of girls reported not wanting to go to school and 10% had to take a different route home.
Our team recently published the report Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal that analyzes, amongst other topics, legislation on sexual harassment in education and in public spaces in 173 economies. The report finds that worldwide only a third of the economies have laws protecting girls from sexual harassment in schools. Sexual harassment in public places is even less addressed, with only 20% of the economies covering such issue in their national laws.
Child marriage and early pregnancies are a barrier to a girl’s education, being the reason of approximately 15 to 30% of dropouts for girls in secondary school. Studies have shown that in Sub-Saharan Africa, each year of early marriage reduces the probability of secondary school completion by about four percentage points, and the impact is larger in countries where educational attainment is higher. It is, in fact, not a coincidence that the countries with the highest rates of child marriage are also among the countries with the highest gender disparities in secondary education enrollment.
Low educational attainment is both the cause and the consequence of child marriage: girls with less access to education are more likely to marry early, and conversely, child marriage means the end of a girl’s education. Even in this case the numbers are astonishing: every year 15 million girls are married as children. Child marriage not only has an impact on school dropout rates, but also entails a number of poor health and social outcomes such as maternal mortality, increased risks of HIV and domestic violence.
Women, Business and the Law finds that three economies— Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Sudan—have not established a legal age of marriage. Fourteen economies set the legal age of marriage of girls between 13 and 17: Afghanistan; Armenia; Bahrain; Iran; Kuwait; Malaysia; Mali; Papua New Guinea; Qatar; Syria; Timor-Leste; Uzbekistan; West Bank and Gaza; and Yemen. While the majority of economies set the legal age of marriage for boys and girls at 18 or above, nearly 85% of these allow children to be married at a younger age with parental or some other form of legal consent, or under special circumstances such as pregnancy.
Even worse, child marriage can be a trap with no exit for millions of girls, as is the case in the 33 economies where marrying a minor is not grounds for invalidating the marriage. Additionally, only about half of the economies monitored have provisions criminalizing child marriage. This, together with the existence of customary laws or social norms validating such practices, creates a legislative void that allows child marriages to continue.
Violence against women is a plague that can be fought through education. As the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence Campaign, rightly focuses on girls’ education let’s all work together in the creation of better societies and raise awareness that gender-based violence and education disparities are disproportionately targeting and affecting girls. Guaranteeing a girl's access to education means opening the doors to her countless dreams and opportunities.