Rethinking Why to Prioritize Girls' Education

Focus on plants.
Focus on plants.

The Obama Administration recently announced the Let Girls Learn program. It is based on the idea that educating girls in the Global South creates a "ripple effect" from the scale of the girl to the world -- reducing poverty, increasing economic productivity, improving child and maternal health, limiting population growth, controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS and conserving environmental resources. This theory of social and economic change has been popularized by The Girl Effect campaign led by the Nike Foundation, and it has influenced educational programs for millions of girls from Afghanistan to Brazil. While the individuals and institutions promoting this idea genuinely care about girls, it has unintended consequences on girls' lives, educations and futures. Girls' education should be promoted because girls matter in and of themselves, rather than because of their potential value as instruments of development change.

Programs and policies designed with this logic target girls for purposes beyond serving them. They position girls as means rather than ends in and of themselves. Sylvia Chant, a professor at the London School of Economics, calls this "the feminization of responsibility and obligation." While addressing the problems of poverty and development is indeed important and legitimate, this rationale for girls' education shifts this burden onto poor girls of color in the Global South. In doing so, it transfers the responsibility for change away from the governments, corporations and global governance institutions whose actions have led to the unequal distribution of resources, food insecurity, abusive labor conditions, unfair trade policies and environmental degradation, which disproportionately affect girls, women and the poor around the world. This individualized, girl-centered approach to development thus risks reproducing, rather than transforming, these broader structural inequities.

Moreover, this rationale for girls' education is driven by the logic of investment. Consequently, many talk about girls as they talk about drilling untapped oil reserves or unleashing new technologies -- in the language of maximizing returns. When the focus is on rates of return, efficiency and calculating gains to GDP, programs that promote girls' education as a fundamental human right are marginalized.

What emerge instead are forms of education with a disproportionate emphasis on girls as reproductive and economic actors, rather than as learners with multiple needs, diverse desires, and undetermined futures. This leads, on the one hand, to a narrow focus on pushing back the age of pregnancy and marriage as opposed to focusing on sexual and reproductive rights and the responsibilities; and, on the other, to a disproportionate emphasis on financial literacy and the acquisition of economic assets, such as credit and savings, rather than more holistic or transformative forms of education.

As individuals, communities and institutions come together to celebrate this year's International Women's Day, I ask the global development community to rethink why we should prioritize girls' education. When designing programs and policies for "other people's children," to borrow the phase from author and educator Lisa Delpit, we should ask ourselves what we might desire for own children's education. Our rationale for prioritizing girls' education in the Global South should mirror our response to that question. Ensuring equal access to a quality education for all young people -- regardless of gender, sexuality, race, caste, class, religion, language, able-bodiedness and nation -- should be the core mission of all those concerned about equity, justice and human rights.