Africa’s young women represent the continent’s greatest under-utilized asset in its push for generating growth and opportunity. When you educate girls, the effect is disproportionately positive.

Around the world, girls who have one more year of education than the national average earn 10% to 20% more – more than the increase for boys. In particular, girls with a secondary education have an 18% return in future wages, against 14% for boys. According to a World Bank study, investing in girls’ education and opportunities could boost a country’s entire gross domestic product by 1.2% in a single year. In Nigeria, that amounts to over $3 billion. Or to take yet another example, a UN report shows that crop yields in Kenya could rise by over one-fifth if women farmers had the same education and opportunities as men farmers.

Myriad studies around the world show that girls who are educated marry later, have fewer children, enjoy better health and are more likely to take part in politics. How a society educates its girls is a litmus test of its past and future vigour and prosperity.

Perhaps it is this very insight that leads extremists to try to disrupt girls’ education. In my own country, Pakistan, the Taliban attacked a young girl and her classmates for speaking out against their ban on girls’ education. The shocking incident in Nigeria, where over 200 young women taking an exam in school and working towards their bright futures, were kidnapped by a group whose very name declares education sinful, has an eerie similarity. But the outrage in much of society and the rejection of such beliefs, both in Pakistan and Nigeria, gives hope for the future. Education is never sinful.

Given the evidence on the importance of educating girls, how is Africa faring? The Global Gender Gap Report shows that, as a region, sub-Saharan Africa has the worst gender gap in the world when it comes to educating girls. This is echoed in the World Inequality Database on Education, where African countries account for 8 of its list of 10 weakest countries for female education. In these places, 9 out of 10 of the poorest young women have not completed school. This is social injustice and squandered opportunity, as well as a reflection of the complex, interlocking factors that get between a girl who is eager to learn and a seat at the front of the classroom.

The reasons are often short-term economic constraints at the household level, even if the payoffs long term may be substantial for the individual and their communities. Parents with little money to spend on education might prioritize sending their sons to school, in cultures where boys are expected to become breadwinners. Lack of transportation, water access and sanitation can also play a role. The gender gap plays out in its various forms in every country and region in the world, and Africa is far from alone in fighting to unlock the full potential of its people.

Our data shows that the situation has improved slightly in recent years for women and girls in Africa, when you take into account not just education but other factors such as political empowerment. Among the early moves of Africa’s first elected female head of state, the president of Liberia – and Nobel laureate – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was to make elementary education free and compulsory for all children, boys and girls. Bineta Diop, a UN special envoy, was instrumental in ensuring gender parity in the African Union Commission. There are yet more stories of young women and men dedicated to improving education and entrepreneurship opportunities for African girls and women, whether it’s teaching girls to code in Zambia or setting up a thriving, female-run social enterprise selling bamboo bikes in Ghana.

Many other leaders and inspiring individuals will come together at the World Economic Forum meeting in Abuja, to bring their collective insight and experience to address the continent’s greatest challenges and opportunities, including girls’ and women’s empowerment. When you educate girls, the benefits ripple out far beyond the walls of the classroom, from improved lives to stronger communities and more competitive economies. Today’s schoolgirls will build tomorrow’s Africa.

Author: Saadia Zahidi is senior director, head of Gender Parity and Human Capital, at the World Economic Forum.

Image: A girl displays traditional paintings on her hand in in Nigeria’s northern city of Kano. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye