G7 leaders must put girls’ education at the heart of COVID-19 recovery
Around the world, millions of girls continue to be denied their right to safe, quality education.
This week, the UK will host Foreign and Development Ministers from leading G7 democracies to discuss a shared approach to tackling some of the greatest global challenges.
High on the agenda will be girls’ education. The UK Prime Minister has stated his personal commitment to the issue, saying that girls’ education is the “simplest and most transformative thing we can do” to tackle poverty and end gender-based violence.
But COVID-19 threatens to reverse gains made in girls’ education, putting 11 million girls at risk of never returning to school, with devastating consequences for their learning, protection, and wellbeing.
In response, the UK is expected to launch a new girls’ education declaration that sets out global targets to get more girls in school and reading by 2026, and commitments to ensure no child misses out on education in the wake of the pandemic.
G7 leaders must now endorse these targets at the Foreign and Development Ministers meeting and agree an ambitious agenda, backed up by financing, to get all girls safely back to school and learning.
Girls continue to be left behind
The pandemic has caused the greatest education emergency in history. School closures caused 90% of the total school-aged population to miss out on education, including 743 million girls. This year alone, the impact of COVID-19 could contribute 1.4 million of the 70 million children who will fail to acquire basic literacy skills by their 10th birthday.
Existing gender inequalities mean that girls are less likely to access remote learning during school closures, and are at increased risk of gender-based violence, such as child, early and forced marriage, as well as early pregnancy and child labour.
Arsema*, 14, from Ethiopia narrowly escaped child marriage. She is one of 26 million children whose schools have closed in Ethiopia due to the pandemic.
“As the schools were closed and I was staying at home my parents told me I was going to get married soon. I became very scared. I did nothing but cry day and night.”
Fortunately, Arsema’s case was reported to Save the Children’s child safeguarding team by her school who helped prevent the marriage. Yet millions of girls will not be so lucky. An additional 2.5 million girls are at risk of child marriage, and adolescent pregnancies are expected to rise by up to 1 million due to the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Even before schools were forced to close in response to COVID-19, the number of out-of-school girls was on the rise. 132 million girls were out of school, and in only a quarter of countries were girls as likely to be in upper-secondary school than boys. Girls who face multiple disadvantages – such as low family income, living in a rural or underserved location, disability, being a refugee or internally displaced – are furthest behind.
Save the Children’s new paper Let Girls Learn highlights the barriers girls face to learning and completing quality education. It draws on our experience of delivering programmes with positive and transformative outcomes for girls and sets out what governments can do to realise girls’ right to learn, and ensure all children, regardless of their gender, access quality education.
Girls education, the key to building back better
If the world is to build back better in the wake of the pandemic, educating girls must be at the heart of global recovery efforts. Not only is quality education every girls’ right; it is one of the most important investments in human development.
Educating girls contributes to poverty reduction. Adult illiteracy costs the global economy more than £800 billion each year. Two-thirds of the 750 million illiterate adults are women. At the same time, just one year of secondary education can increase women’s wages later in life by up to 20%.
It also one of the most powerful tools we have for tackling the climate crisis. Enhancing girls’ life skills through education helps to ensure countries are better equipped to prepare for future climate shocks and prepares girls for jobs in the green sector. Every additional year of school for girls increases her country’s resilience to climate disasters.
Finally, quality education can transform unequal power relations and ensure girls’ independence. More than 20% of illiterate girls are married by aged 15, compared to 4% of literate girls.
Putting girls’ education at the top of the G7 agenda will accelerate global recovery efforts and help equip the next generation of feminist leaders to build more equitable, prosperous, and green futures for all.
Nada* age 15, from Lebanon, has physical and mental disabilities. She was turned away from three different schools before finally getting accepted. She then had to work hard to catch up on years of lost education. But she’s managed to more than make up the ground and now excels in school. Asked how she would react if anyone tried to stop her from going to school, Nada says, “I would never accept it, because I want to keep learning.’’
A more prosperous, greener, fairer future for all
At this year’s G7 meeting:
G7 leaders should adopt the targets set out by the UK to ensure 40 million more girls are in school and 20 million more girls are reading by aged 10 by 2026.
Leaders must agree an ambitious agenda to put girls’ education at the heart of COVID-19 recovery and Agenda 2030, backed up by financial pledges that reflect the severity of the crisis. This should include ensuring that the Global Partnership for Education meets its replenishment target of $5 billion for the next five years at the Global Education Summit, co-hosted by the UK and Kenya in July.
As President of the G7 and co-host of the Global Education Summit, the UK must step up its own efforts to deliver on the Prime Minister’s manifesto commitment to girls’ education and mobilise strong political commitment and financial support from others.
For a more prosperous, greener, and fairer future, girls’ education must be front and centre.
Let Girls Learn! sets out Save the Children’s global policy position on girls’ education and realising gender equality in and through education. It provides governments, international and national civil society organisations, with suggestions, recommendations and data that can assist in the design of education policy and programmes to enable all children, regardless of their gender, to receive a good-quality education and to be empowered equally in and through education.
Elina*, age 11, from Mozambique. Her home was destroyed by Cyclone Kenneth in 2019. In the aftermath of the cylone, Elina attended a child‑friendly space set up by the Ibo Foundation and Save the Children. (photo: Oskar Kollberg/Save the Children)
*names changed to protect identities