Climate change: How is it affecting girls’ education?

this girl is writing on a chalkboard in a classroom in a developing country

'The climate crisis intersects with another crisis: interrupted education and widening inequalities during the COVID-19 pandemic.' Image: UNSPLASH/Nikhita S

Dr Catherine Porter
Director, Young Lives
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  • Research by Young Lives shows that without urgent action, climate change will make it increasingly difficult to achieve a quality education.
  • This is especially true for disadvantaged girls and young women.
  • Below, Young Lives director Dr Catherine Porter explores the nature of this problem and the areas of knowledge we need to build on in order to combat it.
  • It's critical that we act now, or the gender gap will widen even more.

Young Lives’ unique longitudinal research reveals in stark terms how childhood exposure to climate shocks such as droughts and floods has an unequal impact on children’s development, affecting their nutrition and access to education. This impedes their learning progress, with poorest children most affected.

The climate crisis intersects with another crisis: interrupted education and widening inequalities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Urgent action and new research is required to help build resilience, enable 12 years of quality education for girls and boys, and help to prepare them to face vulnerabilities that previous generations have never had to deal with.

an infographic showing a malala quote on girls education and climate change
Girls education can help in the fight against climate change. Image: United Nations

Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent with the poorest households hardest hit.

Extreme weather events are expected to rise in frequency and intensity, even if COP26 is successful in charting a path for limiting global warming to 1.5C. And we know low-income countries and younger generations will be hardest hit.

Since 2001, the Young Lives study, has followed the lives of 12,000 children in poor communities across Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Peru and Vietnam. We have built a unique body of data with huge potential for understanding the long-term impact of climate change on vulnerable children and young people. Our research shows that extreme weather events experienced during childhood are having a significantly unequal impact on the poorest and most vulnerable groups.

By the age of 15, many children in our study had already experienced at least one extreme weather event, such as drought or flooding. In Ethiopia, it was more than half of our sample (54%), 44% in India, and around a third in Vietnam (34%) and Peru (30%).

And children living in the very poorest households have been significantly more affected; in Ethiopia, a startling 81% of children in our poorest households had experienced at least one extreme weather event, compared to only 22% in the least poor households. Similar trends can be seen in India (65% v 18%), Peru (63% v 12%) and Vietnam (50% v 17%).

Climate related shocks affecting children in their early life have negative impacts on their growing bodies and minds

When extreme weather events destroy crops or lead to higher food prices, vulnerable families struggle to maintain nutritious diets. Young Lives’ evidence shows that poor diets and child malnutrition can have severe long-term consequences, affecting physical growth, cognitive skills, and progress in school. Across all four countries, the children most likely to be under-nourished are in the poorest households, in rural areas, and often among minority groups.

The first 1000 days of life – from conception to age 2 - are critical for children’s health, development and life chances. In Ethiopia, our results show that early childhood stunting due to malnutrition has a significantly negative impact on important cognitive skills, such as vocabulary and basic mathematics, especially for children whose parents received little or no education.

These early stage shocks have significant long-term consequences. In India, Young Lives data matched with historical rainfall data shows that droughts, flooding or cyclones experienced by a mother while she is pregnant can affect the future development of her child’s vocabulary by age five. Longer term effects on basic maths and socio-emotional skills such as self-esteem, self-efficacy and agency, manifest even into adolescence.

In fact, analysis across all four study countries found that rainfall shocks and malnutrition experienced by adolescent girls even before they became pregnant can have a negative impact on future children’s height, again from infancy through to adolescence. Thus, climate-crisis induced malnutrition can also be transmitted from one generation to the next.

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Poorer households are less resilient to financial hardships when climate shocks hit, which can increase the risk of interrupted education

Climate related shocks impact children and young people’s learning and education in different ways throughout their lives. In Vietnam, Young Lives evidence has shown reduced household income due to crop failures directly impact the amount of time children spend in school, particularly those from poorer households.

Families without access to affordable credit spend less on their children’s education during periods of crisis (for example, on school fees, learning materials or transportation) and are more likely to temporarily withdraw children from school, with less learning time available at home, leading to significant interruptions in education.

Girls and young women shoulder additional burdens of household work in times of crisis, amplifying their risk of dropping out of school

Food shortages and stresses on clean water supplies in times of drought and flooding also impact young people’s daily activities. Additional household work, such as walking further to collect drinking water and firewood, or extra childcare responsibilities when children are unable to go to school, often fall on girls and young women, further reducing their own time to study and increasing their risk of dropping out of school altogether.

Hunger can affect a child’s ability to concentrate in the classroom and also increases the likelihood of missing school.

The unequal impact of COVID-19 on education highlights a critical need to adapt for the climate crisis

Despite improvements in access to both primary and secondary education over the last two decades, significant inequalities in learning outcomes remain between and across all four of our study countries, with children from poor households and in rural areas consistently disadvantaged.

Without targeted action, the climate crisis is likely to further exacerbate inequalities, just as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our recent COVID-19 phone survey shows that interrupted education and a growing digital divide have increased the risk of children and young people from poor and rural backgrounds falling further behind, or never returning to education.

While our results show significant impacts on both girls and boys, the combined pressures of interrupted education, and the trend for households to resort to more traditional gender roles in times of stress, has meant vulnerable girls and young women, have been particularly affected.

And those who have been most impacted by the pandemic are likely to be most vulnerable to the increasing effects of the climate crisis.

A call to action for more robust research and a broad approach to supporting vulnerable children achieve a quality education

Ensuring countries around the world honour commitments made during COP26 is critical if we are to prevent extreme global temperature rises, and enable the most disadvantaged communities to adapt to climate change in ways that safeguard children’s development and education – especially for girls and young women.

Enabling 12 years of quality education for all children (especially girls) in a changing climate requires a broad approach. Investing in teachers, schools and universities to improve the quality of education is pivotal. But really to make a difference, we also need to address the persistent inequalities that hold children back and make them more vulnerable to external shocks. Ensuring all children get the right start in life, including a sufficient and healthy diet is the foundation for future learning. Providing an enabling environment for all girls and boys to stay in school, with sufficient resources to study is also essential.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

With increasing extreme weather events continuing to impact the poorest families most, we need much better understanding of how vulnerable communities actually experience and respond to climate related shocks throughout their lives.

We need to build evidence on:

  • how climate related shocks, nutrition and learning interconnect enabling more holistic programmes of support, including ‘shock-responsive’ social protection programmes to reach disadvantaged households in disaster prone regions, particularly for vulnerable infants and adolescent girls, aligned with early learning and school feeding programmes.
  • how and why persistent inequalities continue to underpin the learning crisis in education further longitudinal research is critical to understand both trends over time and the impacts of specific shocks, including climate related shocks; targeted investment in early years education and addressing the growing digital divide is critical to support poor and marginalised households, particularly in rural areas.
  • the additional barriers to girls’ education in a changing climate strengthening age and gender disaggregated data and evidence on the impact of climate change, and enabling specific action to help keep girls in school in times of stress, including practical measures to relieve burdens of household work and childcare responsibilities.
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Related topics:
EducationGender InequalityCOVID-19
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