Globally, nine in ten girls complete their primary education, but only three in four complete their lower secondary education. In low income countries, less than two thirds of girls complete their primary education, and only one in three completes lower secondary school. The consequences for girls of dropping out of school prematurely are severe. A World Bank report estimates the losses in lifetime productivity and earnings for girls of not completing 12 years of education at $15 trillion to $30 trillion dollars globally. This is because on average, women with secondary education earn twice as much as those with no education, while the gains from primary education are much smaller.
Universal secondary education for girls would have many other benefits. It could virtually eliminate child marriage (marrying before age 18) and reduce substantially early childbearing (having a first child before the age of 18). It could also reduce fertility rates in countries with high population growth, and increase women’s decision-making ability and psychological well-being. Finally, it would have large benefits for young children, including by reducing under-five mortality and malnutrition.
Why Do Girls Drop Out?
Why do adolescent girls drop out of school? We need to understand the constraints faced by adolescent girls when thinking about what can be done to improve educational opportunities for girls. When parents are asked in surveys why their daughters dropped out of school, issues related to the cost of schooling (out-of-pocket and opportunity costs), early marriages and pregnancies, a lack of learning while in school, and a lack of interest in remaining in school often come up. In some countries, some factors play a larger role, while in other countries, other factors may be more prominent. But in many countries, even if this may not appear explicitly in survey responses by parents on reasons for girls dropping out, social norms and gender roles also affect the ability of girls to remain in school.
Consider the case of Niger, one of the countries with the lowest levels of educational attainment for girls in the world. Analysis of household surveys as well as ethnographic field work suggest that six main obstacles lead most girls to not pursue their education beyond the primary level.
1. Poor learning outcomes and cost. Rural government schools are so poor in quality and resources that many children graduate from primary school without learning to read. The schools do not charge tuition, but parents complain that the cost of uniforms, guard fees, transport, lunches and the opportunity costs of losing their daughters’ labor are hardly worth the poor learning outcomes they see.
2. Failure at examinations. Students can only take the primary school completion exam twice. If they fail, they are ineligible to continue in public education. When girls fail examinations, parents say that they have little choice but to begin looking for a suitable suitor which their daughter could marry.
3. Lack of nearby secondary schools. Few rural communities have their own secondary school and there are few boarding schools serving communities. Parents must send their children to nearby towns and cover the costs of transportation and room and board. Students stay with relatives or contacts and parents are reluctant to leave their daughters without what they consider proper oversight.
4. Forced withdrawal of married adolescents. Once a girl is married, she is likely to be expelled from school. Husbands show little interest in supporting their adolescent wife’s education especially if they must enroll in a private school. This is an expense that they cannot afford. Conversely, the fear of not being allowed to withdraw their daughters from school for marriage is a complaint of some parents.
5. Never enrolling in school or enrolling too late. Some families never enroll girls in school, perhaps in part because parents had no educational opportunities themselves. In some cases, teachers may refuse to enroll children that are considered too old to start primary school.
6. Influence of relatives and demands on first daughters. Extended family members may influence parents on the value of educating girls, not always with positive outcomes. Schooling decisions may also depend on household composition and the activities of other children. Being the first daughter lessens a girl’s chances of going to school as they are expected to help their mother at home during the day.
What Can Be Done?
Policies to improve educational opportunities for girls must take into account country context, but promising interventions are emerging from the literature not only for educating girls, but also for delaying marriage and childbearing. For educating girls, interventions specific to girls may help increase access and thereby educational attainment. By contrast, to improve learning and make it worthwhile for girls and their families to invest in education, successful interventions may not need to target girls specifically. For delaying marriage and childbearing, education interventions tend to be the most successful, and more so than safe space programs without incentives for girls to remain in school.
Beyond interventions to improve education opportunities and delay marriage and childbearing, programs providing economic opportunities for women help in making investments in education more attractive to girls and their families, as noted in a study on the cost of gender inequality in earnings.
To conclude, the negative impacts of not educating girls are both substantial and wide-ranging, with economic costs running in the trillions of dollars. Ensuring universal primary education is not enough, as the benefits from education are much larger at the secondary and tertiary levels. Investing in proven programs and policies will be key to ensure a better future for girls and enable countries to fulfill their development potential. This makes economic sense. It is also the right thing to do.
Read more about the World Bank’s work on girls’ education here.
Read more World Bank blogs.