The youth effect on gender balance in education

Can you imagine if you or a large number of your friends had to drop out of school before graduating? For most people in the developed world, the answer to this question would be a simple “no”.  But the reality is that globally, 1 in 5 adolescent girls is currently not in school.

Vivian Onano, a young activist originally from rural Kenya did see many of her friends drop out of school along the way. Some of them got married, and others didn’t finish because of financial or cultural concerns.

“My two brothers and I were raised by a single mum who did not have a stable source of income,” Vivian said. “But my mother made sure that I went to school. In fact, I was the only girl from my village who graduated from university.”

Mirna Fernandez, a 25-year-old activist from Bolivia also knows some girls who dropped out of their school, most often because they got pregnant. But according to her, the high number of girls dropping out of school “doesn’t make any sense”. “Girls more than boys will sustain a family and will take care of the next generation, so why shouldn’t I go to school?” she asked.

Worldwide, 62 million girls of primary and secondary school-age are not in school. This number adds to the fact that most of the 700 million people who are illiterate are women. Patience Stephens, Special Advisor on Education at UN Women, says the problem mostly revolves around poverty.

“Poverty is number one,” Ms. Stephens said. “Poverty meaning the ability to pay those school fees. And more importantly, the ability to supplement for what families lose because the girls have gone to school.”

According to youth themselves, girls are not prioritized enough when it comes to education: “I think that is because a lot of people don’t see potential in girls,” 19-year old Paulina Wojciechowska said. “They are seen more as the care givers,” Kadijatou Diallo added. “And so between going to school or caring for their homes and helping their families, people prioritize helping their families more. So girls are discouraged from going to school.”

Even if these girls end up staying in school, it does not always mean that their education will be equal to that of boys and young men, as teaching materials and in-classroom culture are often very male-centered, according to Ms. Stephens. “Even when they do stay, the attention that they get is going to be biased by social and cultural factors that cause them to graduate with perhaps fewer skills and with lower earning power than boys that they have been to school with,” she said.

Luckily, youth around the world have a pretty good idea of how they can contribute to a solution of this problem, no matter how unfamiliar it may be to them. Yixi Lang recognizes the value of leading by example: “We need to show our potential to our society. Try to show them what we are capable of.”

Young people have to be part of this global movement, Henry Ekwuruke, a young activist from Nigeria said.

 “Just help empower people. Push them to do things they believe in,” Elaina Estrin said. “Dream big!”

“Whether it’s in social media, in organization or in their own school,” Kadijatou Diallo added. “Or whether it’s just talking to their friends about it.”

Most important on the road to successfully keeping girls in school, however, is stimulating the ambitions of girls themselves, according to Ms. Stephens. “If a girl grows up in an environment where the role models that are around suggest that it’s okay to come out of school after 6th grade or 8th grade, then that’s the attitude she will grow up with.” 

The Youth Effect, a new monthly web series produced by the UN Webcast, Department of Public Information, in collaboration with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, will explore different topics that affects the lives of young people around the world.

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