More girls are enrolling in school, but there are still enormous gaps. The World Bank reports that, while secondary school enrollment has soared in low-income countries, in Africa and South Asia boys are still 1.55 times more likely to finish secondary school than girls.
It’s also an issue that disproportionately affects the poor. The Africa Progress Panel reports that in Nigeria, for example, the richest 20 percent are in school for an average of 10 years, while the poorest 20 percent get an average of less than four years.
The disparity is partly due to the immense impact of rural students (by comparison, the urban poor are in school for over six years). Rural girls, however, get only three years of education, on average.
While there are a slew of possible reasons for girls’ lack of access to opportunity, one worth considering is the opportunity cost. If education brings little else but personal development, it’s easy to see why few families make it a priority.
But what if it offered a direct connection to economic opportunity — to jobs or entrepreneurship?
Is economics the answer?
As an example, one study found that access to factory jobs in Bangladesh impacted women’s educational attainment and postponement of marriage and childbirth more than a government program that tries to address these issues.
The program uses direct cash transfers for girls who remain unmarried and in school, but somehow the factories have had more of an impact.
How can this be?
“When [girls] see that education can lead to power and independence, they are more likely to pursue education,” says Angelica Towne, global director of programs for Educate!, a non-profit focused on teaching business and entrepreneurship skills to secondary school students in Uganda.
In the absence of viable alternatives to early marriage and childbirth, it intuitively makes sense that these choices would become the norm.
It’s also a hint as to why cash transfer programs, while perhaps effective for some, don’t bring about the kinds of sweeping changes governments might hope for: even with the benefit of getting money today, if there is no long-term payoff to remaining in school one can imagine that families might be hard-pressed to see the logic of it.
That means that education is an investment, and thus it might be useful to think about ways in which education can have a direct and measurable impact on women’s lives.
The data from Educate! programs offer support for the idea. Educate! trains secondary school students in business development, financial management, and the soft skills associated with entrepreneurship. The program’s leaders found that the benefits which accrue to girls in particular far surpass those of the average participant.
For example, while Educate! graduates earn more than their peers who didn’t participate in the program, incomes rise even faster for girls. They also enjoy a higher overall increase in business ownership and community project participation.
It’s worth pointing out that Uganda is quite open to female education relative to some other parts of Africa, so the program may be particularly effective there. Also, female incomes were lower prior to participation, so the rate of change, while staggering, may also reflect a degree of “catching up.”
However, the trend still stands, especially considering that similar results were found with a World Bank training and intervention program in Liberia, which targeted girls specifically.
The program led to a 47 percent increase in employment among participants relative to controls, and the greatest benefits were seen among girls who were taught general business skills (as opposed to an employment-oriented training, which focused primarily on scarce skills needed by employers).
Overall, participants saw their average weekly incomes rise 80 percent, and savings rates and saved wealth were also significantly improved — girls in the program had an average of $35 more savings than those who didn’t participate.
The results weren’t just financial: the program also improved household food security and dietary composition for participants, not to mention greater confidence in business and personal relationships with spouses and partners.
The program is currently in its third round.
While others may find a different interpretation, it’s hard to argue against the effectiveness of an educational intervention that directly links new skills to economic opportunity. With that opportunity, girls are able to develop businesses, take financial control of their lives, and provide a source of growth for their families and communities.
“The links between girls education and all sorts of good things – less early marriage, fewer unwanted pregnancies, better health, and faster, fairer economic growth — is pretty well documented by now,” says Edward Harris, head of communications for the Africa Progress Panel.
“The more one learns about it, the more that one gets cross about the pointless waste of not educating our girls. Education for all brings so many benefits.”
And so, with those benefits in mind, numerous non-profits, non-governmental organizations, and governments are pursuing better education and more access to it. Given the data, these leaders may be wise to place a premium on targeted business education — giving a generation of African women the opportunity to showcase their entrepreneurial spirit.