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Why girls education matter

By The Rainbow
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AS today marks the second United Nations International Day of Girl Child, a day to promote girls' human rights, let's reflect on why it matters to invest in girls. Study after study has shown that education for girls and women has ripple effects within the family and across societies. Girls who have been educated are more likely to marry later in life, have smaller and healthier families, and have greater job prospects. Child marriage denies a girl of her childhood, limits her opportunities and disrupts her education. 125 million children around the globe are denied the rights to proper education, 70 per cent among them are girls. There are primarily African countries among 30 countries with the highest percentage of marriages before the age of 15.  For instance, when a girl in a developing country like Nigeria receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has fewer children. Later marriage gives young women more control over their lives - one in seven girls in developing countries marry before the age of 15 and 38 per cent marry before age 18. Those who marry younger are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. Research shows that education and marriage are often mutually incompatible life stages for girls in many parts of the world. Their transition from schooling to marriage is one of the most critical in their lives, and often determines future life prospects. A family's decision to continue schooling for a girl often means a delayed marriage. Similarly, a decision to marry a girl early usually means an end to her formal education.

Statistics from DFID Gender Report 2012 indicates that Nigerian girls who enroll in school leave school earlier than their male counterparts. More than two-thirds of 15-19 years old girls in Northern Nigeria are unable to read a sentence compared to less than 10 per cent in the South; and the report also shows that only four per cent of females complete secondary school in the Northern zones. Over half of all women in the North are married by the age of 16 and are expected to bear a child within the first year of marriage. Girls from poorer families are more likely to marry young and have worse health outcomes. Nigerian girls are also victims of child labour and human trafficking.

Girls' aspirations coalesce around common themes. The most prevalent being the desire to be healthy and educated - with viable livelihoods and career opportunities, financial security and independence - and to marry and have children at the appropriate time. Underlying all the themes is one universal: a shared inability to make decisions about their own lives even though they know what they need. We want to delay marriage and childbirth so we can continue our education. Education is fundamental to improving a girl's life and broadening her view of what she can achieve. Education increases a girl's income-generating opportunities and improves her health and her future family's health. Several studies have shown that an extra year of schooling for a girl leads to better nutrition and more education for her children. Girls themselves recognize that education is fundamental to productive participation in society and their future prospects.

In sub-Saharan Africa, education is cited as 'most dear' to girls and seen as key to independence. In many developing countries, families face many barriers to getting their girls in school and keeping them there. Parents do not send their daughters to school for a number of reasons: they cannot afford the school fees and uniforms, they think that the distance to school is too long and unsafe for girls, or they choose to send to school a son who can support them instead of a daughter who will be married off to live with her in-laws. Many poor families may marry off their daughters because the girls are seen as economic burdens to their households. In some cases, the family might receive a dowry or bride wealth from her marriage. Decisions about a girl's education and marriage are usually linked and often made without a girl's input and sometimes without her knowledge. Data from Nigeria show that more than half of girls have little or no say in life-changing events, including when to marry, when to have children, or whether to pursue schooling. A girl's ability to 'have a say' in life events can increase with age, but some life choices, such as marriage and schooling, are decided for them early on.

Education also boosts girls' economic prospects: an extra year in primary school increases future wages by 10 to 20 per cent, and every additional year a girl spends in secondary school lifts her income by 15 to 25 per cent. Women who earn their own money are also more likely to spend their family's income on essential goods such as food, as opposed to leisure goods like tobacco. All these statistics and facts point to one conclusion: investing in education for girls is an essential step to socioeconomic advancement in developing countries.

While the tragic story of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old girl from the Swat Valley in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban because of her courageous campaign for girls' education, reminds us of the challenges that come with advancing girls and women's rights, it also reinforces its importance. In order for any country to reach peace and prosperity, it must empower girls to become healthy and successful mothers, earners, and leaders.

Nigeria's progress and national development will be constrained if women and girls continue to be disadvantaged and gender equity is ignored. Non-discrimination is enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution but in practice the majority of Nigerian girls and women are unable to claim their constitutional entitlement. If Nigeria is to maximise its 'demographic dividend' as the population of working age increases and fertility declines, it must prioritise investment in women and girls to ensure that the next generation of all young adults are healthier, better educated and more able to contribute to economic growth and development. Investing in adolescent girls and women is not simply a question of human rights; it also makes economic sense.

• Idoko a gender and inclusion specialist lives in Abuja and wrote in celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child.