Education and Skills

How to build education systems that empower girls in the classroom and beyond

A school girl with plaits in Bengaluru, India, writes with chalk on a blackboard: Only 27% of women in South Asia are in some form of post-secondary education.

Only 27% of women in South Asia are in some form of post-secondary education. Image: Unsplash/Nikhita S

Mabel Woo
Deputy Secretary-General, Yidan Prize Foundation
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Society and Equity

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  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 92% of girls never complete secondary education, while only 27% of women in South Asia currently have some form of post-secondary education.
  • Research shows that access to quality higher education improves developmental outcomes for individuals and economies.
  • Programmes that focus on access and enabling environments for girls through scholarships, peer-delivered life skills lessons or by fostering a growth mindset can help move the needle on participation in education.

“Education is justice. Giving everybody an opportunity to go to school is justice. It tells every child that they belong, that they own their destiny, that they can shape it,” says Angeline Murimirwa, 2020 Yidan Prize for Education Development Laureate and chief executive officer (CEO) of CAMFED.

CAMFED is an organization that gets girls in sub-Saharan Africa into school, helps them learn and supports them to succeed, unlocking their power to lead. Murimirwa completed secondary school in Zimbabwe thanks to support from CAMFED. She understands better than anyone the barriers that can hold girls and young women back from receiving an education. One of the first young women to receive support from CAMFED, Murimirwa is now its CEO, leading the organization’s important work.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to shine a light on the transformative work of women like Murimirwa, who are taking the lead in building more inclusive, more equitable education systems and empowering the next generation of girls.

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Breaking barriers to education

To close the gender gap in education, we must go beyond simply keeping more girls in school. They must have the freedom and the means to complete all levels of education to learn the skills needed to tackle the big challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s world. We need to create safe learning spaces that empower girls to make decisions about their own lives, removing any social and economic barriers standing in the way of their education.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where 92% of girls never complete secondary school, CAMFED has established the Learner Guide programme that is doing precisely that. The programme trains young women who have completed school with CAMFED’s support to deliver a life skills and well-being curriculum in their local secondary schools.

Learner guides identify girls at risk of dropping out of school due to socio-economic reasons and work with local authorities to ensure they stay in education; they also mentor the girls themselves, helping them overcome the challenges they may face outside of school.

CAMFED Association member Learner Guide, Hendrina, with a primary school student, Sala, who is supported through school by CAMFED.
Trained CAMFED Learner Guides like Hendrina, who herself received support from CAMFED to complete school, mentor students like Sala at their local schools, and deliver a life skills and wellbeing curriculum to improve learning outcomes. Image: CAMFED/Chris Loades

Investing in our future

Research shows that access to quality higher education improves developmental outcomes for individuals and economies. A report by the Yidan Prize Foundation and the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital found that prioritizing policies supporting female education improves individual women’s lives while shaping a country’s socio-economic and demographic development.

While we’re starting to see an increase in women enrolling in tertiary education, there is still much more to be done. According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, just 9% of women in sub-Saharan Africa and 27% in South Asia are currently in some form of post-secondary school education.

For many young women, going on to college or further education is a luxury they cannot afford. Young women from lower-income families do not have the means to pay tuition fees. As a result, they can feel under immense pressure to earn money to support their families as soon as they finish secondary school. Though some scholarships are available, competition to receive them is fierce.

In Bangladesh, the Asian University for Women (AUW) is tackling this issue by contacting women from the most marginalized communities. The AUW operates admissions tests in remote areas, such as refugee camps and offers successful applicants a full scholarship. This scheme is funded through a financial model that cross-subsidizes the tuition of those in need, with the tuition paid by students with more resources.

Students with more of a growth mindset often go on to achieve more – and have bolder ambitions – than peers with a fixed mindset.

Mabel Woo, Deputy Secretary-General, Yidan Prize Foundation

Fostering a growth mindset in girls

Even when we see greater gender parity in education, we must ensure girls are treated equally in school. In classrooms, it’s common for teachers to give boys more feedback about their efforts. Girls, often seen as well-motivated already, should also receive this type of feedback and be encouraged to try new strategies after making mistakes.

When educators foster a “growth mindset,” all students learn to see setbacks and challenges as something possible to overcome. A student with a growth mindset sees their talents and abilities as qualities to develop, helping students flourish in the classroom and beyond.

Professor Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the 2017 Yidan Prize for Education Research Laureate, who coined the term “growth mindset,” has transformed how educators and parents worldwide approach praising children. Her research has consistently shown that students with more of a growth mindset often go on to achieve more – and have bolder ambitions – than peers with a fixed mindset.

Teachers have an important role to play in encouraging girls to become creative problem solvers who find enjoyment in the process of learning and have the confidence to make mistakes. As Dweck says, “Children are in a world where they have to take on challenges and keep learning, not one where they can succeed with one strategy or skillset forever.”

Empowering future female leaders

Today’s generation of students will profoundly shape issues of climate change, jobs and technology, health and well-being and governance. Unlocking their potential is essential for a better future. We must ensure our young girls and women have every educational opportunity and are empowered to contribute to these critical issues.

In the work of Murimirwa and CAMFED, Dweck and the AUW, we highlight some of the education change makers who are paving a brighter future for girls and young women and shaping the female leaders of today and tomorrow.

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