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To get all girls in school and learning, we must harness innovation

Solutions must be more creative, effective, efficient and sustainable

It has often been said that when you educate a girl, you educate a nation. There is an overwhelming body of evidence that educating girls and women is consistently associated with positive outcomes such as reducing child mortality, fighting poverty and improving health.

The good news is that today more girls are in primary school than ever before. But that doesn’t mean the work of educating girls is finished.

Globally, 57 million children of primary school age don’t go to school - 31 million are girls.

This is not only wrong and a violation of every child’s right, it is also bad economics. Educating girls is the single most powerful investment for the development of nations.

Educated young women have smaller families and healthier children. They are less likely to marry young or die in childbirth, more likely to send their children to school, and better able to protect themselves and their children from malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, trafficking, and sexual exploitation.

An educated girl has better opportunities, as she is more likely to get a job and earn a higher wage, and her nation’s economy is likely to benefit as a result. An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 per cent and an extra year of secondary school by 15 to 25 per cent. One percentage point increase in female education raises the average level of GDP by 0.3 percentage points.

It is, therefore, critical – and to everyone’s benefit – to ensure that girls are able to attend school and receive a quality basic education.

But simply getting girls to school is just a first step. We must also make sure they stay in school, learn and complete their education.

Often, even when girls are in school they face challenges that make it difficult for them to continue to attend and learn.

Innovation for girls’ education has the power to change that. Making even incremental changes in how education is accessed, designed, and delivered can strengthen girls’ participation, learning, and empowerment.

This can mean solutions as simple as finding creative transportation options for girls to get to school – whether it’s by bus, moped, bicycle or even canoe. Or making sure that female teachers are paid and that girls receive scholarship payments in a secure and convenient manner by developing collaboration between school systems and the banking industry.

UNICEF puts innovation to work in programmes as well. The ‘Child Friendly School’ approach is UNICEF’s main vehicle for advocating and promoting quality and safe learning environments – environments with qualified teachers, without violence, with access to clean water and hygiene facilities, etc. This approach has now spread to over 100 countries.

In Bangladesh, innovation has come in the form of solar powered floating schools serving communities affected by floods and rising sea water, so that girls and boys don’t have to miss school because of climate-related natural disaster.

The smart and creative use of technology is another way to harness innovation. This is happening in places like Uganda, where a programme called EduTrack uses SMS technology to allow schools and communities to report on key challenges, such as teacher absences or violence in schools, challenges that often keep girls away from classrooms.

To address a shortage of skills in science, technology and engineering in South Africa, and to encourage girls to perform better in those fields, the Techno Girl programme identifies young females in underprivileged schools and places them in corporate mentorship and skills development initiatives. This career mentorship helps them gain confidence and links their school lessons to the skills they’ll need to succeed in the ‘real’ working world.

Perhaps the most important innovation of all is engaging young people themselves as an important catalyzing force. 

Education is everybody’s business, but business as usual is not enough to overcome the barriers to girls’ education. Efforts must be scaled up on all fronts to increase access to education and to enhance the transition from primary to secondary education. Well-functioning and equitable labour markets for girls and youth are needed for households to have an incentive to invest in their children’s and girls’ education.

Last, conditions must be created where girls and young women are safe, healthy, educated and fully empowered to realize their potential to transform their families, their communities, their economies and their societies.

In short, the world must be willing to do things differently. To try new things, invest in what works and harness innovations that energize fresh, creative, effective and efficient solutions, especially those involving young people.

Only by doing so can we give girls an education that prepares them for the challenges of the 21st century.