Why are girls disproportionately affected?

There are numerous factors, many interlinked, that prevent girls from receiving an education or benefiting from one.

Cultural traditions and social norms that support gender inequalities are an important underlying cause. In societies where boys are valued over girls, a boy’s education may be prioritized especially when a family has limited resources. Girls may be taken out of school early to take on household responsibilities, be put to work to support the family, or be married off at a young age. Teachers may also require less from girls than they do from boys – according to one study, one in three girls who completes primary school in Africa and South Asia cannot read, write or do simple math (Herz and Sperling, 2004, What Works in Girls’ Education).

Young girl selling goods, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Young girl selling goods, Siem Reap, Cambodia (Photo: Yeweng Wong)

Gender discrimination at a policy and societal level can also mean less educational facilities for girls as compared to boys (fewer schools, classrooms, dormitories, extra-curricular facilities, etc); insufficient numbers of female teachers; and even gender-motivated attacks on and campaigns against schooling for girls, such as has happened in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and most recently Nigeria.

Violence or the threat of violence, linked to gender inequality, is another important factor leading to girls being kept out of school, dropping out, or struggling academically. In many countries, where schools are far away and there are no means of transport, they are often at risk of assault, especially sexual assault, as they walk to and from school. Within school, abuse and harassment from their peers, teachers and other school staff can lead to low self-esteem, depression, sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancies.

The connection between adequate sanitation and toilet facilities in schools, and girls’ vulnerability to violence has been mentioned in many studies. The availability of water and soap, the location of toilets, whether they have secure doors, whether they are separated for boys and girls, all have a bearing on the risk of violence, especially sexual violence, to girls.

Sexual and reproductive health concerns, particularly for adolescents, can also impact girls’ education. Many girls do not attend school during menstruation, or drop out at puberty because they cannot afford sanitary supplies or their school does not have private and clean toilets. Missing school can mean that they then fall so far behind academically that they can never catch up. Poor knowledge about their sexual and reproductive health can increase girls’ risk of unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV/AIDS.

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