The Power of the Adolescent Girl: The Power of Education

October 09, 2015Christine Wallace

An adolescent girl, sitting on the cusp of womanhood, faces a period of disorientation. Sudden physical changes, peer pressure and decision-making that can impact her whole future can be overwhelming and bewildering.  However, it can also be a time of excitement and independence. A time to question authority, test the boundaries and determine her identity. Armed with the right tools and skills during this period, she can step into womanhood with self-confidence and ambition.

Education is one of these tools. Indeed, education can be the most important weapon in an adolescent girls’ armoury. The ability to read and write, add and subtract, be creative, use technology and know about the world beyond her home and community can open up a world of opportunity and help develop the self-esteem and ambition needed to turn opportunities into reality.    

This year’s International Day of the Girl Child celebrates The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030. It is a day that recognises her potential to positively change her life and the lives of those around her. It is also a day that recognises the challenges she faces – and the fact that if she lives in one of the poorest, conflict-affected or remote areas of the world, she faces greater challenges than others.  Not least, she often does not have access to school and a good quality education which would help her to overcome these challenges. 

In 2013, 59 million children were out of school. Of these, 30 million were in sub-Saharan Africa and 10 million were in South and West Asia – and an estimated 34 million of these were adolescent girls.  And even when girls are in school, they are not necessarily learning due to poor teaching, inadequate facilities and few books and resources. Assessments are showing that it is common for children to complete primary school without becoming literate and numerate, and without learning vital life skills. Why? Well, we are starting to answer this question through programmes like the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC).

The GEC, launched in 2012, is investing £300 million in the education of a million of the world’s poorest girls to expand their opportunities and improve their lives. 37 projects are working in 18 countries to enable girls to learn, through improved schools, better teaching and greater community engagement.  The GEC is working to tackle the barriers that stop girls getting into school and learning – by removing them, or by helping girls, teachers, parents and communities to navigate around them.

What are the barriers to education?

Early studies undertaken by the GEC identified a number of significant barriers to education, particularly for adolescent girls, which fall into six main categories.

Barrier 1: Poverty
Poverty is the most commonly cited barrier to girls’ education. Poor parents are often unable to afford high school fees, uniforms, equipment and textbooks. Adolescent girls are particularly affected: GEC research showed that girls from poor families are more likely to be ‘over-age’, which creates challenges for their learning and retention.

Barrier 2: Low aspiration
There is a marked lack of self-confidence and self-esteem amongst marginalised girls who are the focus of the GEC. Adolescent girls often have little freedom to make decisions about their lives, even important decisions such as marriage and pregnancy, events which usually mean an end to their formal education. Local role models - other educated young women - are scarce and consequently girls often believe their options are extremely limited.  

Barrier 3: Poor quality education and schools
The general quality of education and teaching can be very low in areas of poverty. There is often inadequate provision of teachers and teaching materials. Teachers might not fully understand the topic they are teaching and their techniques can be over-reliant on copying and repetition. The curriculum is frequently unrelated to the realities of job opportunities and often uses materials which perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Schools often lack adequate classrooms and sanitation facilities. Toilets can be located in remote parts of the school, usually without locks and often without handwashing facilities. Adolescent girls are routinely absent from school during menstruation because of poor school sanitary facilities and lack of sanitary pads, leading them to fall behind and be more prone to drop out.

Barrier 4: Community attitudes
Attitudes of parents, religious entities and other community members have a significant impact on whether or not girls get to school and are supported to stay there. Deep-seated, community views on girls’ roles and values influence the way girls’ education is approached and can result in girls being denied their right to education.  Families often prioritise boys over girls when it comes to education and in many contexts education is undervalued. There can be low awareness of the benefits of education to health, wellbeing and potential income generation. 

Barrier 5: Violence
Adolescent girls are often subject to violence - including corporal punishment in the classroom and sexual violence – at home, on their journey to school, and sometimes at school. Girls feel unsafe and their families fear sexual harassment, violence and insecurity – increasing the likelihood that girls drop out from education and are distracted from learning properly.  Girls’ mobility is often restricted as a consequence of the fear of violence.

Barriers 6: Personal situation
For many girls, the experience of marginalisation is exacerbated by their own personal circumstances which may include illness, disability, caring responsibilities, or ethnic discrimination.  These act as additional barriers which they must navigate in order to attend school and learn. Conflict and insecure contexts are a further threat to girls’ education, taking girls away from their homes and away from their schools.

So, how is the GEC tackling these barriers?

The GEC is working in a myriad of ways with girls, parents, communities and governments to tackle these barriers. Projects are using a combination of interventions, summarised here under four main ‘tools’ to get girls into school, keep them there and offer them a good quality education. 

1. Foundational skills in literacy and numeracy, especially for those who need remedial support 

  • Introducing varied curricula and new methods for teaching foundational skills
  • Working with local education authorities to improve classrooms and teaching materials, making them more inclusive and girl-friendly
  • Working amongst refugee and migrant populations to enable girls affected by conflict to continue their education
  • Offering adolescent girls who cannot attend school opportunities to study through non-formal education

2. Teachers who have  appropriate skills, positive attitudes and who have continued supported to improve  

  • Supporting schools to introduce new teaching methods and boost teachers’ confidence through training
  • Trialling and promoting non-violent forms of discipline
  • Peer-to-peer mentoring

3. Increase self-esteem so that girls are empowered and supported by their peers, parents, teachers and communities and improve their participation in school

  • Increasing parental and community awareness about the value of girls’ education, strategies to provide resources for girls’ education, and freeing girls from household and income-generating responsibilities
  • Providing mentoring, ‘big sister’ schemes and access to role models
  • Teaching sexual health and reproduction to adolescent girls at girls’ clubs and through the use of media and drama
  • Using the media to communicate messages about the importance of foundational skills for girls
  • Employing careful, confidence building interactions to help girls to share their experiences of violence, and referring them to appropriate services

4. Economic support for communities, parents and girls themselves

  • Providing financial and in-kind support to encourage parents to enrol out-of-school girls, and keep girls from dropping out
  • Supporting parents to generate additional income, while talking to them about the importance of investing in girls’ education 
  • Supporting particularly vulnerable girls with  transport to and from school
  • Assisting thousands of girls with individually tailored support to help them cope with disability

Not every girl faces every barrier to education, although many marginalised girls face more than one. Not every barrier can be surmounted, but they can be navigated around. For example, violence can and should be eliminated. Whereas a disability might be permanent, but school facilities and materials can be adapted to meet a disabled child’s needs.

Adolescence is a crucial period of transition. A time when young women face added responsibilities at home, additional investment in schooling and decisions that affect her, her family and her siblings.  Education is a difficult choice in this context but has the ability to unlock a girl’s potential and change her life in the years to come. Addressing the barriers which prevent girls getting to school, learning and graduating into secondary school is essential to bringing about this change.

It is no coincidence that the two of the new Sustainable Development Goals sit next to each other:

  • SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  • SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls 

The GEC has these goals at its heart and will play its part in striving to meet them by 2030. 

Chris Wallace is Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) Programme Lead. She has been working in international development for the last 30 years for INGOs, UN agencies, DFID and the European Union. She joined the GEC in 2012.

Photo Credit: Worldvision, Michelle Siu

See more Girls' Education blogs
Girls' Education

Add new comment

10 + 4 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.

Who we work with: