Poverty Continues to Force Girls out of School

Education is crucial to ensure human dignity of individuals. The right to education, as stipulated by UNESCO, entails primary education that is free, compulsory, and universal, and secondary education that is generally available, accessible to all, and progressively free. Yet, according to UNESCO estimates, 130 million girls ages 6 to 17 are out of school, and 15 million girls of primary-school age will never gain access to a classroom in their lives. Despite education being one of the most powerful tools in elevating the quality of life for marginalized individuals, it is often those very individuals that are subjected to conditions that restrain them from receiving this education. One of the most prominent global barriers to education for children is poverty. While poverty suppresses both male and female education, young girls experience distinct barriers that necessitate specific analysis, as exemplified in my case study of Nigeria.

The Impacts of Poverty on Educational Outcomes for Girls

Today, while childhood access to education is actually higher than ever, girls are still four times more likely to be out of school than boys of similar backgrounds. While this is due to a number of factors — including cultural norms, health and sanitation, famine, and drought — poverty is perhaps the most pressing barrier to female education today. 

Poverty, and the discrepancy in education it creates, has clear and evident impacts for females on the ground. Statistical evidence points to the correlation between higher rates of female education with lower rates of child marriage, greater access to healthcare (which contributes to a reduction in the rate of infant mortality), and the potential to break intergenerational cycles of marginalization and disadvantage. While poverty creates a barrier to education for all children, it manifests itself in ways that are unique to females.

It is no surprise that many families lack the financial capacity to send their children to school. However, in addition to cost barriers, oftentimes families require their daughters to drop out of school in order to work, either in the home or wage labouring to add another source of income to the family. Since females are thought to have less future earning potential, they are more often the ones elected to be pulled out of school at young ages. 

While the issue of girls’ education is certainly not restricted to a singular geographic region, one area in which debates surrounding poverty and education are exemplified is sub-Saharan Africa. Only two of thirty-five countries in sub-Saharan Africa have equal numbers of girls and boys in school — the lowest proportion of countries with gender parity — according to the Education Commission’s Learning Generation report in 2016.

Case Study: Nigeria

Nigeria, the nation with the second-highest number of children out of school worldwide, illustrates one country where poverty is the greatest barrier to educational attainment for young girls. Nigeria presents an interesting example, as there are discrepancies in education rates between the north and south. Northern Nigeria, with its greater relative impoverishment than the south, has weaker infrastructure and less access to sanitation. These barriers impact the rate of children attending schools, with less than half of females attending primary school in Nigeria’s north-east and north-west states.

As previously described, girls are often prevented from attending school in order to supplement their family by providing extra incomes. In Nigeria, girls often work at marketplaces or in the domestic sphere. Girls are more often selected to be taken out of school to work, because their “bride price” (the cash and gifts given to a bride’s family before marriage) does not change depending on if they are educated or not. This is exacerbated by the extra income families can make by marrying off their daughters at young ages, without completing their education. With an estimated 22 million child brides, Nigeria accounts for the highest number of underage brides in West and Central Africa. 

Recognizing the significant impacts of poverty upon female education, a variety of Nigerian government agencies and NGOs have attempted to address this. One such path is through legislation. Organizations, including the Malala Fund, are working in Nigeria to advocate for progressive amendments to education legislation — specifically for 12 years of safe, free, quality education under the Universal Basic Education Act 2004. These efforts aim to limit young girls being removed from school for forced labour or underage marriages. After successfully passing amendments in the 8th National Assembly Senate of Nigeria in 2017, organizations are currently promoting the amendments in the Nigerian House and Senate, and assuring that it is properly financed. Other groups in the region are attempting to mend the gender gap in Nigerian education legislation by making special provisions for females. The NGO ActionAid developed a scheme to support civil society to advocate for, and seek policy reform and accountability from the education authorities at the local, state and national levels to prevent girls from being removed from school at young ages. Outside of legislative change, a variety of organizations address the discourse surrounding current cultural norms. The Hallmark Leadership Initiative works to break down barriers by creating a dialogue between community leaders, parents, and students about the benefits of girls’ education, aiming to prevent girls from being taken out of school for marriage or income-generation. This multi-pronged approach, combining both legislative and social change, aims to culminate in closing the gender gap in education, and ensuring that female education becomes prioritized in societies where it currently is not.

Despite these challenges, it is important to remember that educating girls contributes to a long-term reduction in poverty, especially in developing nations such as Nigeria. Research suggests that girls who receive an education raise their earning potential by almost 12% for every additional year of schooling. Additionally, the impact of addressing the gender gap in education could yield over $112 billion a year to developing countries. Thus, not only does investing in girls’ education statistically improve their quality of life, but it can also pay large dividends for the countries that make an effort to combat these barriers. While Nigeria is only one of many global societies worldwide in which poverty acts as a barrier to education, the nation also proves how a comprehensive approach can combat this gender disparity, and ensure that children everywhere, no matter their gender, gain access to the education they deserve.

Edited by Amelia Coleman and Arimbi Wahono.

Featured image by United Nations Photo. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Sophie Sklar

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