International Day of the Girl Child

Innovating for Education

October 11, 2013

Across the globe, millions of girls continue to be deprived of an education – a moral imperative and a basic right – due to cultural, financial, and safety barriers. In addition, for young women in many parts of the world, gender-based violence is not only a threat but a part of daily life. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that girls’ empowerment, and specifically education, is a vital vehicle for individual and societal transformation. Girls’ education is directly tied to lower rates of child marriage, HIV, and maternal morbidity, and increases in earning power. The ripple effects of girls’ education cannot be overstated: in a study of 100 countries, the World Bank found that every 1 percent increase in the proportion of women with secondary education raised a country’s annual per capita income growth rate by approximately 0.3 percentage points.[1]

Today, on International Day of the Girl Child, we pause to reflect on how far we have come and the significant work that remains. The past year has seen dramatic points in the fight for girls’ human rights, like the explosion of popular outrage to gender-based violence in India precipitated by the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, and breakthroughs like the emergence of the 16-year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai as a powerful new voice on the global stage.

At the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, we are engaged in a multi-pronged approach to gender empowerment worldwide. In India, we are focused on secondary education for girls with the Champions Project, which employs a “positive deviance” approach to identify the drivers of success for disadvantaged girls who break from the norm of incomplete educational achievement to reach university. Despite progress in increasing primary school access in recent years, enrollment rates for secondary school – particularly among girls from low-caste, poor backgrounds – remain uneven due to a confluence of factors that include an underfunded education system, acute familial economic insecurity, and restrictive gender norms. According to data from the Indian government, the net female attendance rate at tertiary level in 2009 was only 10 percent, falling to six percent for girls from rural areas.

Data from the first round of research from the Champions Project suggests that government programs have contributed very little to the success of female educational “champions.” Scholarships are hard to access, application forms for stipends are daunting and often unavailable, and transport schemes are generally co-ed and not regarded as safe. What really makes a difference, according to our findings, is parental mentorship –agreeing to delay a daughter’s marriage, taking on her housework, and scraping together resources to support her – as well as individual resilience in the face of persistent harassment and abuse.

The FXB Center, in conjunction with the Harvard South Asia Institute, is also leading the Harvard Gender Violence Project (HGVP), which aims to initiate dialogue with local colleagues to address entrenched negative gender attitudes among youth in South Asia. The project seeks to improve and expand adolescent curricula in the region in order to promote gender equality and cater to the unmet needs of young people of all castes and classes in understanding interpersonal relationships and sexual health. Drawing upon the expertise of professionals in government, law, academia, education, business and non-governmental organizations, the HGVP is addressing the deficit in opportunities for healthy and caring adolescent social interactions through education, research and leadership training.

In Europe, the FXB Center is working with the Roma community, a historically marginalized group of 14 million people among whom educational access remains extraordinarily low, particularly for Romani girls. Educational attainment for Romani girls is constrained by stigmatization and discrimination, inter-generational transmission of poverty, and cultural practices like early marriage. To address these gaps, the FXB Center has launched the “Reclaiming Adolescence: Roma Transitions to Adulthood,” an innovative participatory research project that seeks to increase the rights and opportunities for Romani youth through applied research, advocacy, and capacity building.

Increasing educational opportunities for girls requires dramatic intervention in gender relations and in the balance of power between boys and girls, men and women. Attitudinal shifts, incentives that validate male and female collegiality, and much more radical equality between the sexes need to be scaled. So do alternatives to early marriage, and to female financial dependency. Most importantly, we need to understand better what contributes to norm change, so that entrenched discrimination and domination in gender relationships is eliminated. Ensuring girls’ education worldwide remains an ambitious goal, but one that can be advanced with sustained social, economic, legal and political commitment.

[1] Women Deliver, Knowledge Center, Facts and Figures, Girls’ Education. Accessed October 11, 2013.