Placing Girls’ Education in the Spotlight for a Brighter Future

This post is the fifth in a six-part series featuring Dalberg’s contributions towards achieving the goals discussed at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), held September 18 to 26, 2023. 

In developing nations, investing in girls’ education is considered the world’s most lucrative investment, with far-reaching benefits. It not only contributes to economic growth and higher incomes but also has a positive impact on reducing infant and maternal mortality rates, child marriage, HIV/AIDS, and malaria incidences. Additionally, it enhances agricultural productivity, resilience to natural disasters, and women’s empowerment, amplifying girls’ economic choices and societal influence. 

Over the past 25 years, significant progress has been made, with 180 million girls enrolling in primary and secondary education, largely influenced by the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. However, these achievements are now threatened due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s repercussions. 

A rapid assessment by Dalberg for UNICEF revealed that learning and overall progress have significantly slowed down, with 10% of families unable to afford to send their children back to school, and 6% needing their children to contribute to the family income. UNESCO estimates that 11 million girls may not return to school post-pandemic, particularly in low-income countries, jeopardizing their education. 

Achieving educational equity remains a formidable challenge, but the world possesses both the funds and knowledge to overcome it. In conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Dalberg, Educate Girls, and Malaika hosted a forum to emphasize the urgent need for global attention to girls’ education.  

The session was briefly introduced by Rising Academy Network, who presented the audience to the Elimu-Soko initiative. The pilot for Elimu-Soko in Rwanda, implemented by Rising Academy Network, was supported by Dalberg, the Hempel Foundation and the Government of Rwanda and aimed at tackling challenges that persist in nurturing foundational skills among young learners. Central to Elimu-Soko’s theory of change is the dissemination of knowledge and insights from the pilot, which helped set the scene for the discussion with Malaika and Educate Girls. The discussion focused on insights into post-COVID experiences on the ground and the necessary support for practitioners.

Malaika, a non-profit organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was represented by its founder and CEO, Nöella Coursaris Musunka. The grassroots organization operates in the village of Kalebuka, located in the southeastern region of the DRC. Here, they have established the Malaika School, which educates more than 430 girls. The Malaika School offers free primary and secondary education, with instruction in both French and English. It features comprehensive curricula encompassing mathematics, science, information technology, and the arts. Malaika instills in these girls the belief in a brighter future and provides them with the necessary resources to achieve it. 

Educate Girls, led by founder and CEO Safeena Husain, focuses on ensuring every girl’s right to quality education in India. The organization advocates for, and safeguards, every girl’s right to receive a quality education. Their mission involves identifying out-of-school girls, enrolling them in school, and ensuring their continued learning. Educate Girls employs smart data and technology in tandem with extensive community engagement and partnerships with state ministries to work towards establishing a sustainable and systemic solution, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that every girl receives an education. 

In the audience, we were joined by organizations with interest in the subject of girl’s education and experts who have been involved in this work, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Brookings Institution and ID Insight.   

Context: When Poverty Intersects with Patriarchy

These organizations operate in distinct contexts but face similar challenges. In the DRC, issues arise from the costs associated with education, while in India, cultural norms, safety concerns, and domestic responsibilities hinder girls’ education. 

Despite notable advancements in school enrollment, achieving free education in the DRC remains a formidable challenge, as data indicates that 7.6 million children aged 5-17 are still not attending school. Primary obstacles include the direct costs associated with registration fees and indirect costs encompassing school materials and uniforms. These financial burdens prove to be substantial barriers to the enrollment of children from impoverished households. 

In contrast, India’s system of free education has achieved nationwide coverage. However, in 2018, a significant 13.5% of girls between the ages of 15 and 16 were not in school. Key challenges include deeply ingrained cultural norms related to patriarchy, safety concerns associated with traveling to schools, and the heavy burden of domestic responsibilities placed on Indian girls. These factors continue to pose significant hurdles, preventing girls from maintaining their enrollment in school.

Reflections from the Field: Key Challenges Faced by Implementers

In rural communities of the DRC, the absence of digital access proved to be a significant obstacle for both boys and girls attempting to continue their education at home during the quarantine. Recognizing this challenge, Nöella Coursaris Musunka, founder and CEO of Malaika, shared that her organization took proactive measures to address this issue. They bridged the digital gap by distributing books and homework materials within the village, ensuring that students could continue their learning during the pandemic. 

In this context, one of the most significant barriers to girls returning to school was the alarming rate of young girls being married off prematurely during the pandemic. Malaika emphasized the critical importance of engaging parents and collaborating with them to secure their commitment to re-enroll their children in school, reiterating the value of girls’ education. This community-focused approach yielded impressive results, with a remarkable 98% of students returning to school after the pandemic. 

Safeena Husain, founder and CEO of Educate Girls, highlighted similar vulnerabilities faced by girls in India during crises. They often find themselves compelled to engage in both paid and unpaid labor and are at risk of forced child marriages. Many adolescent girls who discontinued their education during the pandemic may never return to school. In India, Educate Girls estimates that 10% of girls did not return to school after the pandemic, effectively erasing much of the progress achieved over the past few decades. In numerous cases, this situation was exacerbated by premature marriages. Due to restrictions on the size of wedding gatherings, many parents chose to marry off their children during the pandemic, primarily to save on ceremony costs. 

The Way Forward: Grassroots Initiatives Centered on Girls

The following recommendations, informed by the experience of Malaika and Educate Girls, aim to help organizations tailor educational programs to address local challenges, cultural nuances, and socioeconomic disparities, thereby rendering education more relevant and effective.

1. Encourage Founders to Return to the Field and Embrace Grassroots Approach:

Founders and leaders in the field of education should reconnect with communities, fostering a deep understanding of their unique needs. It is imperative to maintain a grassroots approach, engaging directly with the people affected by educational challenges. This hands-on approach ensures that educational programs are tailored to address local complexities, cultural nuances, and economic disparities, making education more effective and relevant for girls.

2. Prioritize the Most Impactful Initiatives:

To drive substantial change, one must prioritize initiatives that address the most significant gaps and have the highest potential for positive impact. A shining example of this approach is Educate Girls’ visionary plan, as revealed by Safeena Husain. Their 10-year vision aims to empower 10 million girls to obtain their 10th-grade certificates within the next decade. This kind of goal setting helps ensure that efforts are focused on achieving tangible, transformative outcomes.

3. Encourage Funders to Support Grassroots Organizations with Flexibility:

Funders and philanthropic organizations are urged to provide greater flexibility and embrace long-term strategies when supporting grassroots organizations like Malaika and Educate Girls. This support allows these organizations to dedicate themselves to their core mission: getting girls in the DRC and India back into the classroom. Long-term commitments provide stability and continuity, enabling these organizations to make a sustained, meaningful impact on girls’ education.

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