The Importance of Educating Girls and Women – The Fight Against Poverty in African Rural Communities | United Nations (2023)

Skip to main content

UN Chronicle

  • Home
  • About us
  • Search
  • Chronicle Conversations
  • Archives »
    • Article archives
    • Issue archives
  • Contact
  • Coronavirus (COVID-19)
(Video) Inside Story - Fighting poverty, educating girls - 12 July 09

About the author

Ann Cotton

Ann Cotton is founder and Executive Director of Camfed International (Campaign for Female Education) and co-chairs the UN Girls Education Initiative. In 2005, she received the Skoll Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship and the United Kingdom Beacon Prize for her leadership in girls' education, and was awarded an OBE in the Queens New Year Honours List. Prior to founding Camfed (, Ms. Cotton worked as an educational assessor and child advocate, and is currently an Honorary Fellow of the Open University in the United Kingdom.

The Millennium Declaration, adopted by world leaders in 2000, set ambitious goals and targets to be achieved by 2015. At the end of 2007, just past the midpoint of this process, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) seem almost as elusive as they were in 20001. This is particularly true for the second and third Goals, which aim to "achieve universal primary education" and "promote gender equality and empower women", respectively. Yet it is vital that the momentum for change not stall or stop, especially since the basic human rights of millions of children depend on the international community to keep the promises made.

For over a decade, education for girls has been identified as one of the best solutions to reversing the relentless trend of poverty and disease devastating large portions of sub-Saharan Africa. Not only does ensuring access to education for girls directly improve the feasibility of MDGs 2 and 3, it also has a positive impact on the other six Goals. Camfed's almost 15 years of experience has demonstrated the direct and indirect benefits of educating girls and young women: reduction of rural poverty (MDG 1), improved maternal health (MDG 5) and lower incidences of HIV/AIDS (MDG 6) are but some of the positive outcomes when a girl is educated.

Recent studies corroborate what Camfed has observed and fostered on the ground: girls who complete primary and secondary education tend to marry later, have smaller families and earn significantly higher wages2. Girls' education has been posited as a "vaccine" against HIV/AIDS, with comparative analysis of data from Zambia, for example, of non-educated and educated women showing a substantial difference in infection rates3. Educating a girl changes her destiny, as well as those of her future children, and ensures that she can contribute to the economic life of her community.

Girls in rural areas of Africa are excluded from education not because of cultural resistance or unwillingness, but because of poverty -- the main barrier to girls' education. Progress towards universal primary education has been made, especially after national Governments abolished school fees and increased expenditure; but there are still 24.4 million girls out of school in sub-Saharan Africa4. In 2005, the total net enrolment ratio of girls in primary education was only 66 per cent, and an even lower 24 per cent for secondary education5. Given the high percentage of girls excluded from education, the recognition of the multiple and long-term benefits of educating girls, and the targets set by the MDGs, the case for increasing and facilitating access to education as an antidote against the current situation seems clear and straightforward.

The international community, including world leaders, such as Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom6, has reiterated its commitment to girls' education numerous times since 2000. Yet, while there is widespread agreement that more must be done and spent on improving girls' primary school enrolment and completion rates, there is still little consensus on how this should be achieved. This is, however, vital for any real progress to be made, since it is not a question of different methodologies that is at the centre of current debates, but rather a more fundamental question of what is meant by "education for all".

For Camfed, "education for all" means that all children, not just the academically gifted or elites, must be given the chance to complete their education in a safe environment. Our work in rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa is underpinned and guided by the principle that education is a basic human right and all children must have access. Accordingly, we provide the necessary means for rural girls to go to school, since they are the group most likely to be deprived of this right on account of their entrenched poverty and marginalized social status1. Camfed's model provides for all girls their essential school needs: uniforms, shoes, stationery and books, school and examination fees, and when necessary, boarding necessities. This comprehensive package is vital for poor girls whose parents are unable to afford for any of these necessary items. The situation that Camfed has witnessed all too often is that girls drop out of school to take on low-paid employment, usually in exploitative conditions, or they resort to paid sex with an older man in order to secure their education, at the cost of their lives in the long term, given the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on this age group7.

Camfed's model does not stop there. Through our network of Camfed-trained school mentors, we ensure that girls are fully supported emotionally and academically. This is especially vital for recently orphaned children. In some schools with which Camfed partners, 40 per cent of children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. Since Camfed sees education as an ongoing investment, our programmes also include business training and grants to rural young women, many of whom are part of our 7,500-member alumnae network, Cama (Camfed Association). These young women are demonstrating the incalculable benefits of educating a girl: they are supporting over 25,000 children (excluding their own family members) with the earnings they have made from their businesses. At one time, these girls had no chance of continuing their education beyond primary school, they are now confident young women who are being invited to speak to global audiences on the need to help educate and unlock the potential of many more girls -- potential that is currently being lost.

Increasing access does not have to mean that quality of education is compromised. It does, however, require a heavy investment in building up local capacity and infrastructure in order to prevent existing resources from being strained and stretched. Some Governments have already risen to the challenge. For example, in 2002 the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania launched the Primary Education Development Plan, which stimulated unprecedented investment in primary education and abolished school fees. To meet demand, the national government also invested in the training of tens of thousands more teachers and provided grants for renovation, textbooks and construction of new classrooms and schools. Results were immediate: net primary school enrolment rose from less than 60 per cent in 2000 to 96 per cent in 20068. The Tanzanian example illustrates that increasing the numbers of enrolment does not have to compromise the quality of education, provided that long-term planning and government investment take place. Increase in numbers of children stimulates demand and puts pressure on Governments to improve educational resources. Ensuring education for all, therefore, actually pushes up quality and standards in the long term.

Arguments have been put forward on the benefits of providing support to a limited few who have demonstrated academic potential in order to maximize investments and guarantee a future well-educated elite. Privileging a select group of children, even when this selection is based on academic criteria, betrays the principle of education for all. While academic indicators may be more impressive, such an approach would deny millions of children their right to an education and, more importantly, would perpetuate the inequality that has existed in the system for decades.

(Video) Rwanda: Fighting Poverty With Equality

The selection of girls that Camfed supports is based solely on need -- not academic performance or potential. Our staff and community partners on the ground identify girls who are at risk of not completing school due to poverty. Without education, these girls face early marriage, or migrating to cities to work as child labourers, where they are too often exploited. As a current Camfed beneficiary from Zambia put it: "If you are not educated, you are nothing." Camfed has seen over the past 15 years some of our beneficiaries proceed to tertiary education and become lawyers or doctors. Without Camfed's intervention, these girls would not have been able to complete primary education.

For young women who do not go on to pursue such careers, Camfed continues to invest in their extended education and economic empowerment as small businesswomen running local enterprises, which provides them with the skills and confidence to fulfil their potential and the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty that currently plagues rural sub-Saharan Africa.

Recently asked by a reporter from the Financial Times about the difference that education has made to her life and those of her friends, Mary, a Camfed beneficiary in Tanzania, answered, "We tell each other that we are making history". Mary's answer captures the sense of hope that education has brought to the lives of many thousands of girls that Camfed has supported so far. For the MDGs to become a reality rather than just a broken promise, the rights -- and dreams -- of rural girls and women must remain at the forefront of policy planning and strategies. The education of girls and young women -- with its dividends of poverty alleviation, gender equality, HIV/AIDS reduction -- is the single most effective means by which so many of the problems blocking Africa's development can be overcome.Notes1. Millennium Development Goals Report 2007 (United Nations, 2007), 12; see also "Executive Summary", Dakar +7: Education for All in Africa 2007 (UNESCO/BREDA, 2007).
2. For a summary of these reports' findings, see B. Herz and G. Sperling, What Works in Girls' Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World (Council on Foreign Relations, 2004), 22-40.
3. This study by Over Mead (1998) is cited in Herz and Sperling, What Works in Girls' Education, 32.
4. "Children out of school measuring exclusion from primary education" (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2005), 17.
5. Table 5, State of the World's Children (UNICEF, 2007), 121.
6. See Gordon Brown, "The next global cause: free education for all", The Independent (3 December 2007).
7. Two thirds of newly-infected youth, aged 15-19, in sub-Saharan Africa are female. See Because I'm a Girl. The State of the World's Girls 2007 (Plan International, 2007), 17.
8. Tanzania in Figures 2006 (National Bureau of Statistics, United Republic of Tanzania, 2007), 31-33.

The UN Chronicle is not an official record. It is privileged to host senior United Nations officials as well as distinguished contributors from outside the United Nations system whose views are not necessarily those of the United Nations. Similarly, the boundaries and names shown, and the designations used, in maps or articles do not necessarily imply endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.

Stéphane Jean

Supporting National Justice and Security Institutions: The Role of United Nations Peace Operations

While United Nations police, justice and corrections personnel represent less than 10 per cent of overall deployments in peace operations, their activities remain fundamental to the achievement of sustainable peace and security, as well as for the successful implementation of the mandates of such missions.

(Video) 3 reasons why we can win the fight against poverty | Andrew Youn

Shamila Nair-Bedouelle

The Lack of Gender Equality in Science Is Everyone’s Problem

How will we tackle today’s daunting challenges—such as climate change, biodiversity loss, water stress, viral epidemics and the rapid development of artificial intelligence—if we cannot call upon all of our best minds, wherever they may be?

Qu Dongyu

Keeping the Spotlight on Pulses: “Roots” for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security

(Video) How Poverty Shapes the Lives of Women and Girls in Nigeria

Pulses have a broad genetic diversity, from which the necessary traits for adapting to future climate scenarios can be obtained through the development of climate-resilient cultivars. Science, technology and innovation are critical to responding to this pressing need.

Documents and publications

The UN at Work

(Video) The problem of education inequality | CNBC Reports


Why is it so important to educate women and girls? ›

Educating girls saves lives and builds stronger families, communities, and economies. An educated female population increases a country's productivity and fuels economic growth.

How does educating girls help the community? ›

Educated girls are less likely to face discrimination. They are safer and better protected from exploitation and abuse. They invest more in their communities. And they contribute more to the economy and to society.

What are the benefits of educating women in underdeveloped countries? ›

Educated women are an imperative in any society, but the benefits to the developing world are overwhelming. Educated women contribute to the quality, size, and productivity of the workforce. They can get better paying jobs, allowing them to provide daily necessities, health care, and education to support the family.

How does educating girls benefit the economy? ›

Investing in educating girls' increases the skilled labor availability, and improves their productivity. Higher productivity leads to increased economic activity and production. This further pushes the total goods and services produced, i.e. the GDP.

What is the importance of female education in rural areas? ›

Educating and empowering women can help to build a progressive family, society and nation. An educated woman can help to uplift many lives. Therefore, Rural India requires to empower women by building education and employment opportunities for them.

Why is it important to educate women in developing countries? ›

When girls have access to education, they develop the knowledge, confidence and life skills necessary to navigate and adapt to an ever-changing world. The education of girls not only helps them achieve their individual potential, but also helps to break intergenerational cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

Why is educating girls the best way to end poverty? ›

Here are six reasons why educating women and girls is the key to decreasing poverty and improving lives.
  • Educating women limits human and sex trafficking. ...
  • Educating mothers prevents malnutrition and illness. ...
  • Educating girls promotes safe sex and family planning. ...
  • Education encourages women to marry later.
Oct 20, 2021

How educating girls can alleviate poverty? ›

Educating Girls Helps Break Generational Poverty

Education narrows the pay gap between men and women and increases the likelihood of women finding work, reported by UNESCO. This means girls have choices and opportunities. They have the chance to overcome generational poverty and pursue a bright future!

Why is girls education important in Africa? ›

The education of girls and young women -- with its dividends of poverty alleviation, gender equality, HIV/AIDS reduction -- is the single most effective means by which so many of the problems blocking Africa's development can be overcome.

How does educating girls change the world? ›

If all girls had a secondary education, 60% fewer girls under 17 would become pregnant. A child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past age 5. If all women completed primary education, there would be 15% fewer child deaths worldwide.

Why education is important in rural communities? ›

An education system in rural communities has the opportunity to build capacity and knowledge in the rural populace, helping them to make informed decisions about their farms and to innovate in agricultural affairs. Education also exposes the masses to information and helps prevent the misinterpretation of information.

Why is education important in rural areas? ›

With education, the rural population can apply new knowledge and implement better technology and practices into their businesses. This will even help in bringing the per capita income of the country up and reducing poverty.

Why is it important to educate people about poverty? ›

Education will help end poverty because, with basic education, parents learn more about how to care for themselves and their families, which in turn leads their children towards healthier lifestyles. Health education gives families have a higher chance of survival and even reduces rates of HIV and AIDS.

Why is it important to be educated on poverty? ›

Poverty is inversely and inextricably linked to education. The more education you have, the more likely it is that you will be able to increase your income earning capability to pull your family out of poverty.

What are the benefits of female education? ›

A large number of empirical studies have revealed that increase in women's education boosts their wages and that returns to education for women are frequently larger than that of men. Increase in the level of female education improves human development outcomes such as child survival, health and schooling.

Why it is important to save and educate girls? ›

Girls who receive an education are less likely to marry young and more likely to lead healthy, productive lives. They earn higher incomes, participate in the decisions that most affect them, and build better futures for themselves and their families. Girls' education strengthens economies and reduces inequality.

What effect does poverty have on girls education? ›

Poverty is the most important factor that determines whether or not a girl can access education, according to the World Bank. If families cannot afford the costs of school, they are more likely to send boys than girls. Around 15 million girls will never get the chance to attend school, compared to 10 million boys.

How does education help children break the cycle of poverty? ›

Children who grow up with adults who value education are encouraged and expected to complete their school assignments and to graduate from high school themselves. This in turn is passed along to their children, which, over time, breaks the cycle of poverty.

What is the value of educating girls? ›

Educating girls raises economic productivity, and lowers infant and maternal mortality, child marriage, and the incidence of malaria and HIV/AIDS. Educated women have a positive impact on agricultural production, communities' resilience to natural disasters and they take more of a leadership role in decision-making.

How will a nation develop by educating the girl child? ›

Girls' education means greater earning potential

Educated women are more likely to work and even own their own businesses. They generally earn higher incomes throughout their lives. According to UNESCO, a single year of primary education can increase a girl's wages later in life by up to 20%.

What are the benefits of education for women? ›

A large number of empirical studies have revealed that increase in women's education boosts their wages and that returns to education for women are frequently larger than that of men. Increase in the level of female education improves human development outcomes such as child survival, health and schooling.

Why is it important to study women? ›

Graduates of the Women's and Gender Studies program understand the differences that gender makes in peoples' economic, social, and political lives. They can identify and articulate changes that could improve peoples' lives, based on gender differences.


1. The United Nations. Rural Women
(Miran Media)
2. UNCDF and Women's Economic Empowerment
(United Nations)
3. Gender equality: The last big poverty challenge
4. Women empowerment and gender equality
(Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
5. The Journey Episode 2: Life without Clean Water
6. India: Managing Menstrual Hygiene
(United Nations)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Neely Ledner

Last Updated: 01/07/2023

Views: 5589

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (62 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Neely Ledner

Birthday: 1998-06-09

Address: 443 Barrows Terrace, New Jodyberg, CO 57462-5329

Phone: +2433516856029

Job: Central Legal Facilitator

Hobby: Backpacking, Jogging, Magic, Driving, Macrame, Embroidery, Foraging

Introduction: My name is Neely Ledner, I am a bright, determined, beautiful, adventurous, adventurous, spotless, calm person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.