Achieving Universal Primary Education: Success Hinges on Investing in Girls

Seventeen-year-old Meeson is a 10th grade student in Laos. She dreams of becoming a doctor and helping her community. But her sister's story is bleak: she was forced to drop out of school at age 14 to help support the family with money she earns as a laborer in a sewing factory. Around the world, girls in developing countries like Meeson's sister watch as the door is shut on a life of potential opportunities, condemned to poverty because they are denied an education.

Education is a basic human right. And it is good development policy. But for many girls in developing countries, it is simply out of reach, leaving them and their families to languish in an intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Educated girls marry later and have smaller and healthier families. Educated women educate their children, ensuring a better future for generations to come. They recognize the importance of investing in better health care. They have the tools to pursue financial independence. Educated girls and women know their rights and have the confidence to claim them. And an extra year of secondary education for girls produces on average a 15-25 percent increase in future income.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) galvanized development efforts to meet the needs of the world's poorest. Of the eight MDGs, the second goal, Achieve Universal Primary Education, was designed to "ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling." While there has been great progress, we are not on course to achieve this target by 2015.

The pressures of poverty and discrimination mean girls are less likely to attend school and even when they attend school, they are more likely to leave early. Girls are more likely to be the victims of violence in schools. Plan's global examination of school violence, Learn Without Fear, found that in many schools, girls face a twin threat of sexual violence from both male teachers and older male students.

Unsurprisingly, parents keep girls from going to school in order to "protect" them. And for their own "protection," many of these girls are forced into early marriage, effectively ending any hope of a life of opportunity and choice. According to the United Nations Population Fund, between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls under the age of 18 will become child brides. Of these 140 million, 50 million will be under the age of 15.

Global figures highlight the uneven progress and growing inequalities between and within regions and countries:

  • Globally, 64 percent of children in the poorest fifth of households enroll in school, compared to 90 percent of children from the richest fifth.

  • Children in rural areas are less likely to be enrolled in school. Girls living in rural areas are particularly disadvantaged.
  • 150 million children currently enrolled in school will drop out before completing primary school -- at least two-thirds are girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than one-half of girls do not complete even a primary school education. In South Asia, more than 40 percent of girls aged 15-19 from poor households never completed first grade.
  • But completing school can make a world of difference:

    • A girl in Ethiopia has a 63 percent chance of being married as a child. But with a primary school education, her situation improves dramatically: she has a 38 percent chance of early marriage. The situation gets even better when she has a secondary education: she has a 10 percent chance of early marriage.
  • Similarly, in Burkina Faso, a girl has a 60 percent chance of child marriage without an education. With a primary school education, there is a 42 percent chance of child marriage, and a 3 percent chance with a secondary education.
  • Until we figure out how to address the barriers that keep girls out of school, we will not see sustainable progress toward achieving Millennium Development Goals in education. And we will never achieve other development milestones when girls lack the educational opportunities to contribute to the development of society.

    Governments all over the world have a chance to correct our course by addressing in budgeting and education sector plans the specific needs of girls, and the particular challenges they face in the areas of gender equality and social justice. But, they must act now, by ensuring that education is: 1.) Available to all girls, and fully financed, in order to put it in reach of even the most vulnerable and marginalized; and 2.) Accessible to all girls, without discrimination, in a safe learning environment.

    Education is the key to a brighter future. Investing in girls' education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty and help girls reach their fullest potential. Plan International supports a post-2015 framework that calls for universal completion of nine years of primary and lower secondary education as a minimum - for girls and boys - with intentional emphasis on equity, equality, and participation.

    Investing in girls is not a luxury of developed countries. It is a necessity for every country. Until girls thrive everywhere, sustainable gains across every MDG will not be achievable anywhere.

    This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the United Nations General Assembly's 68th session and its general debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage" (September 24-October 2, 2013). The session will feature world leaders discussing progress made on the MDGs and what should replace them when they expire in 2015. To read all the posts in the series, click here; to follow the conversation on Twitter, find the hashtag #No1Behind. For more information about InterAction, click here.