Empowering a woman starts with educating a girl”: Julia Gillard on the education gender gap

18 Mar 2018 |

The momentum behind female empowerment on the global stage is undeniable. With movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up continuing to gather pace, the world is talking more about women’s empowerment than ever, and no more so than at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2018.

However, Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and Chair of the Board of Directors at the Global Partnership for Education, cautions that to drive real and lasting change, the momentum needs to start at the grass roots.

“Empowering a woman starts with educating a girl,” Ms Gillard told an audience at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2018. “If we aren’t educating every girl on this planet, then there is no way we can fulfil this vision for women’s empowerment.”

Not enough girls in school

According to a 2016 UNESCO report, more girls than boys will never go to school, and there are currently 130 million girls out of school (PDF document). Girls are 1.5 times more likely than boys to be excluded from primary school, which means that around 15 million girls of primary school age will never have the opportunity to learn to read and write in primary school, compared to about 10 million boys.

This has direct consequences, not only on the future of the girls themselves, but on the wider economic landscape.

For instance, for every additional year of secondary education, the  likelihood of marrying as a child before the age of 18 reduces by five percentage points or more (PDF document).

We know that child marriage can have devastating consequences on the future of young girls and women. They are at a greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, contracting HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.

Actress and film producer Charlize Theron told the Global Education & Skills Forum that young girls especially were at risk if they didn’t go to school. 

“They start living on the outskirts of society, they are way more likely to have children when they are young that they can’t then financially support. It becomes a vicious circle, but one that can be stopped through education.

The economic impact

But there is a significant economic impact as well.

Without an education, girls may struggle to find meaningful, well-paid jobs. It also means that they end up being underrepresented in the workplace.

The World Bank also says that one additional school year can increase a woman’s earnings by 10% to 20%. (PDF document) In fact, Some countries lose more than US$1 billion a year(PDF document) by failing to educate girls to the same level as boys.

“The face of disadvantage is more likely to be a female face,” said Ms Gillard.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, while more women than men are enrolling at university in 97 countries, women make up the majority of skilled workers in only 68 countries and the majority of leaders in only four.

This doesn’t make sense in a world where businesses are finding it hard to find the right skills. 

The International Commission for Financing Global Education Opportunity has reported that nearly 40% of employers globally are finding it difficult to recruit people with the skills they need.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favour, girls are still much more likely to be left out of school.

Ms Theron added that she couldn’t fathom how governments don’t grasp the simple fact that, “if you are not giving children an education, you are basically making your country incredibly vulnerable.”

Why aren’t girls going to school?

Ms Gillard told the Forum that there are various obstacles to overcome to get more girls into school.

In some areas, poor parents had to choose between going to work while their daughters look after the family home and their sons are at school, or having no family income.  

Then there are places where it simply isn’t safe for a girl to get to and from school, which could be many miles from their village. 

And in some cultures, it is not seen as important for a girl to get an education.

“There are cultures that believe that the girls will marry and become homeworkers, so what’s the point? Let’s not forget that, even as late as the 60s and 70s in Western culture, a woman’s place was very much assumed to be in the home,” said Ms Gillard.  

School fees also posed a challenge.

The solution

But there were ways around some of these issues, explained Ms Gillard.

“School feeding programmes, small cash transfer programmes, and making schools safe can make a real difference, as well as explaining the vision of economic empowerment when you send a girl to school,” she said.

Ultimately, we need to get every child into school, but we need the resources to do so. 

“We know how to solve the problems in global education,” said Ms Gillard.

“But wealthier countries will need to commit far more resources to educating girls in developing economies than they have in the past.

“It’s the most disadvantaged kids that will get left behind, and it takes more resources for them.

“We have to come to the task in the spirit of generosity. It’s not easy for governments to balance budgets, but we live in an interconnected world and we will all see the benefits of investing in global development.”

Now in its sixth year, the Global Education & Skills Forum welcomes global leaders and education practitioners to solve education, employment and equity for all. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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