By Tara Stafford Ocansey, Radhika Iyengar and Haein Shin
Today as we celebrate International Day of the Girl, we know that girls with secondary education are six times less likely to be married as children, and twice as likely to send their children to school. We know a child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to live past age 5, and that women with secondary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to be educated about the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS. Yet even as much progress has been made since the Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000, , two-thirds of the 25 million children globally who are unlikely to ever enroll in school are girls, and as the level of education moves up, the numbers grow and the gender gap widens.
Worldwide, the rate of youth attending high school or its equivalent is just 63%. To break down the numbers, that’s 142 million youth who aren’t attending high school, a majority of whom are girls. The latest Global Education Monitoring Report from UNESCO explains how even when equal numbers of boys and girls are in school, girls still face discrimination, and that other sectors need to work alongside education to combat discrimination and increase opportunities for girls.
In September 2015, leaders from around the world adopted the sweeping set of Sustainable Development Goals, which go far beyond the “unfinished business” of the Millennium Development Goals to address 17 urgent and interlinked challenges relating to sustainable development. Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education aims to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all." Within this goal, there are targets to ensure all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, to increase the number of youth and adults with relevant technical and vocational skills, and to eliminate gender disparities at all levels. The inclusion of a target ensuring youth have relevant technical and vocational skills is critical to consider alongside improving access to formal primary and secondary education. In our years of experience leading the Connect To Learn initiative’s girls’ scholarship and empowerment programs in some of the world’s most remote and impoverished regions, we have learned that even with a secondary education, many girls graduate into economies ill equipped to offer them meaningful employment opportunities, and systems that lack mechanisms to help enable a higher education for those who lack the family financial support to pay for it. Ensuring that young girls have opportunities during their secondary education to gain technical and vocational skills can help enable them to earn income on their own while in school and after graduation, which can in turn help them save to pursue a higher education, or provide a foundation for a successful career as an entrepreneur, and possibly both.
This belief has been translated into Connect To Learn’s work integrating technical and vocational skills training into its scholarship program for girls. Through partnership with Ericsson, Connect To Learn’s scholarship students and their peers have access to computer labs and connectivity in their schools, equipping them with digital skills needed to compete in a rapidly changing economic landscape. Vocational training is provided by allocating a portion of scholarship funding to bring in local experts to conduct trainings in skill areas in demand in the girls’ communities. In Connect To Learn’s programs in Nigeria and Kenya, girls have received training in skill areas including soap making, rug making, production of household cleaners and food processing (juicing, cake baking, etc). The products of these local initiatives in turn benefit the local community. For example, in Nigeria, the project has helped facilitate the girls selling their soap products to their schools to support their health and hygiene programs, and the girls are also earning income selling their goods in their communities to save income toward their higher education. The team in Nigeria has recently partnered with a local NGO called the Centre for Learning and Educational Development Advocacy (CLEDA), an education consultancy in Nigeria providing a business-oriented approach to education solutions, to build on the scholars’ vocational training in areas of producing chalk, beads, soap, candles and cakes.
In Rwanda, the girls on Connect To Learn scholarship will commence a 3-month vocational skills course during their holiday between their 2nd and final year of high school, starting this November 2016. The girls will be studying one of three tracks, cosmetology, catering or tourism, and will receive a certificate at the end of the course that they can use to find jobs after their scheduled graduation in December 2017.
The inclusion of these vocational training programs alongside the girls’ formal secondary education is not only helping them to achieve the financial independence to pursue their goals, it is also helping to break down stereotypes around the role of girls and women in their communities. Families are becoming more understanding of why delaying marriage of their daughters so that they can finish their schooling can be a good thing not only for their daughters, but for themselves and for their community. In some communities where Connect To Learn works, the progress of the program has even inspired some parents to form their own savings committees to help enroll more girls in school, and to support students at risk of dropout due to lack of funds.
There is great potential to help build the academic and economic opportunities of both girls and boys through programs like Connect To Learn, and to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. We know girls have a huge role to play, and we are proud to contribute to more girls finding their power and contributing to the work of improving their world through improved access to education and vocational skills training.
If you’re interested in learning more about Connect To Learn’s work, visit http://www.connecttolearn.org.