Education is the ladder out of poverty for girls

Educating the world’s girls and women is one of the best social development investments to be made. But despite gains in access to education, keeping girls in school remains a struggle in the developing world.

Nearly 113 million children are not able to attend primary school. Another 264 million children who might be attending secondary schools do not, according to United Nations figures.

More than half are girls and young women.

“The exclusion of girls from education is one expression of the lack of power that women and girls have globally,” says Ann Cotton, founder and chief executive of Camfed International, which supports the education of girls and the economic empowerment of young women in Africa.

“When we think about how do we make sure that the next generation of children are better off, girls’ education is really key.”

— Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children


Girls hold new books during Room to Read's 10 millionth book ceremony in Vietnam on location for Half the Sky

Photo by Maro Chermayeff

This denial of a basic right to education has far-reaching consequences. Without school, future opportunities for these girls and young women decrease dramatically.

They are more vulnerable to poverty and its attendant problems like sex trafficking or forced prostitution. They are less healthy. They have fewer means of earning an income and are more likely to marry young, struggling to raise their own children. They will never reach their full potential.

“Girls’ education … is a primary issue in terms of breaking the cycle of poverty,” says Carolyn Miles, the president and CEO of the group Save the Children, which works in more than 120 countries to improve the lives of children and young people.

“So when we think about how do we make sure that the next generation of children are better off, girls’ education is really key.”

According to the World Bank, girls’ education is a top-ranked social investment. Recent studies on education by the Bank have found that:

  • A year of schooling for the mother reduces child mortality by about 10 percent
  • Educated women are more likely to send their children to – and keep them in – school
  • An increase of 1 percentage point in the share of women with secondary education is estimated to raise per capita income by 0.3 percentage points
  • Education increases women’s productivity and participation in the work force

One of the success stories in girls’ education can be found in Vietnam, where overall, access to instruction and literacy has been rising. But despite the achievements made over the past two decades, many obstacles remain to keep children from going to school, journalist Nicholas Kristof says.

“Vietnam attracts me partly because it is so dynamic, it’s booming so much and they have huge opportunities in education, but girls are still dropping [out] at much higher rates than boys,” Kristof says.

One of those who embodies both the successes and challenges of educating girls in developing countries like Vietnam is 14 year-old Nhi, who attends school in the mornings, but then must sell lottery tickets for the remainder of the day to support her father and brother.

“As far as we can tell, she’s the primary earner in the household right now, working long hours,” Kristof says of Nhi, who has been helped by the program Room to Read, which has established libraries, built schools and put millions of books into the hands of children in 10 developing countries worldwide.

But the margins for success for girls like Nhi remain dangerously small. An illness or accident can undo any progress out of poverty, and education – particularly for girls – is one of the first things that a family in economic crisis abandons.

This fact makes educating girls and young women that much more important for families and the communities they live in.

“This is how a middle class forms, this is how a civil society forms. … These girls are raising the bar,” says John Wood, founder and co-chair of Room to Read.

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Presented by ITVS, funded by Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional program funding provided by the Ikea Foundation, US Agency for International Development (USAID) (in partnership with FHI-360 and C-Change), Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Coca-Cola Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Seedling Foundation, the Nike Foundation, the United Nations Foundation.;

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is not in any way affiliated with or in partnership with the Half the Sky Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1998 to enrich the lives and enhance the prospects for orphaned children in China. For more information about the Half the Sky Foundation, visit