Communities Prioritize Girls’ Education

The article, “Invest in girls’ education to break cycle of poverty,” highlights the need for ongoing discussions and innovations to ensure that girls not only attend school, but also stay in school and receive a quality education. A meeting in New Delhi between UNICEF officials and editors in India focused on the fact that in India, 4.5 million girls are not enrolled in school. Rather than discuss failed attempts to improve female education, they shifted the discussion towards innovations in education that are improving girls’ access to school. They discussed community-driven solutions, such as free buses, that provide safe transportation to school for girls.

Like the talks in India, which focused on successful community driven projects, girls’ education in Guinea is improving due to mothers community groups. The article, “In Guinea, groups of mothers work together to keep girls in school,” provides insight into education in Guinea. Only 34% of girls in rural Guinea are enrolled in school and many young girls are forced to work to earn a living. As many of our blog posts have discussed, girls around the world do not attend school because of poverty, distance to school, shortages of teachers, violence, marriage and pregnancies. All of these challenges ring true in Guinea, as well.

To address the multitude of challenges facing girls in Guinea, UNICEF has partnered with mothers in villages to establish comités des mères des élèves filles or COMEFs. The COMEFs are associations of women that work to improve girls’ access to education. In addition to providing education for the girls, the mothers in the association receive training in community mobilization, negotiation and accounting. The associations work to ease parent’s fears about sending their daughters to school, they can address problems that arise in a school and they work with school and community leaders to make education a priority. The COMEFs provide multigenerational educational opportunities, as mothers learn new skills, which can generate income, and female children remain enrolled in school.

The COMEFs program, of course, is not a panacea for education reform, but it is one example of community driven programs that can greatly impact local education. This model, rather than depending on outside aid or increasing material resources by building schools, seeks to build local capacity by empowering mothers and educating their daughters.

Similarly, a UNICEF article highlighted a small group of committed villagers in Sangbast, Afghanistan, a community in western Afghanistan, who worked together to improve the educational outcomes of the girl children in their community. After a village elder donated land, the community constructed an all-girls school in the center of the village. By providing a local solution, the majority of the girls in the village are enrolled in school. While not every village has the money to construct a new school, this project highlights the benefits of utilizing local knowledge, resources and commitment to drive projects.

As I was reading the article, I questioned whether or not the school would have been as successful if it had been organized and built by foreigners. In this case, it seems that the community’s trust in local leaders allowed families to be comfortable with sending their daughters to a new school. Because there are many cultural practices and beliefs that contribute to low female enrollment in school, it is important that community schools respect and reflect the local cultural context.

Each of these articles highlights programs that are community driven. In development, we tend to look for solutions that can be implemented on a larger scale. While there are many benefits to scaling-up projects, it is also important for us to celebrate the small successes. As Dave mentioned in his post, Unrealistic Expectations, education reform is “is a supremely complex issue that requires systemic change across a broad range of issues, governments, cultures, and peoples.” In order for improvements to occur across, we must think globally, but focus our work locally. If we can shift our focus away from making huge changes for everyone, we might be able to implement strong, successful community programs that can greatly improve educational access in one village, town or neighborhood.


The Indian Express (2013, November 8). Invest in girl’s education to break cycle of poverty: UNICEF. Retrieved from

La Rose, T., Shimizu, I., & Havyarimana, G., (2013, November 5). In Guinea, groups of mothers work together to keep girls in school. UNICEF. Retrieved from

Madhok, R., (2013, October 8). An Afghan community comes together to ensure girls’ education. UNICEF. Retrieved from


Free school buses: a practical and transformative solution for Indian girls

As the 2015 MDG target approaches, nations are increasingly concerned with achieving universal primary education. Since the Millennium Development Goal 2 states the need for universal primary education, many states and aid agencies have focused their recent attention on young children. While primary school serves as the educational foundation, it is critical that states and organizations also focus on improving access to secondary school and beyond.

The article, “Educate girls to alleviate poverty” highlights the fact that primary school enrollment rates have improved, but girls continue to face challenges in accessing secondary school. The article further explains that gender gaps tend to increase as students age, citing estimates that women in South Asia have about half as many years of schooling as their male counterparts. Even though more girls are enrolled in primary school, it is critical for them to have opportunities to further their education in secondary school. The piece calls for greater emphasis on improving access to education, specifically post primary schooling for females.

The article, “Bringing education to girls, on buses,” focuses on a practical solution to the issue of access. Pranab Saikia explains that many girls from rural villages surrounding Gurgaon, a city near New Delhi, were forced to leave school early because lacked a safe way to travel to school. Recognizing that it is not necessarily practical or realistic to build schools in every village for teenage girls, a local resident, Rakesh Daultabad raised money to provide free buss services for the young women. To date, three buses transport approximately 350 young women from their rural homes to their school in the city. This article highlights the fact that sometimes in education, the solution can be as simple as providing a school bus in order for students to safely travel to school.

After reading this article about buses, I was first struck by how such an obvious and simple solution can have a dramatic influence on a young woman’s life. While bus services are a practical solution, I would have liked to know how the founder, Rakesh Daultabad gained the trust of parents to transport their children. I would imagine that many parents would be skeptical of permitting their daughters from traveling to the city with strangers, especially males.

Additionally, while I agree that access to education and school enrollment is important, it is only one aspect of education reform. Attending school is not enough. It is imperative that students receive a high quality education in school. Simply transporting to student to school is not enough to ensure that they develop the necessary skills to become successful adults in the future. Schools must be improved and teachers must deliver quality lessons and learning opportunities. The Azim Premji Foundation is working to address the issue of quality in India through teacher training programs, curriculum building, school leader training and examination reforms.

In order for us to truly reform global education, and specifically education for girls, we must value and implement both practical approaches, such as Daultabad’s buses, to increase access, as well as the Azim Premji Foundation’s approach to improve the quality of schools, teachers and administrators. If we can focus on both access and quality, then there will be potential for true reform.


Chelala, Cesar (2013, October 19). Educate girls to alleviate poverty. Daily News Egypt. Retrieved from

Saikia, Pranab (2013, November 10). Bringing education to girls, on buses. Times of India. Retrieved from

Yemen ranks 136th out of 136 countries for gender parity

Recently I wrote about Costa Rica and its position in the 2013 Global Gender Gap Index, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF). While Costa Rican officials have acknowledged the truth behind their low score in female economic participation and have addressed the ways in which they plan to resolve this situation, Yemeni leaders have failed to recognize and address their position year after year.

Since the Index was established in 2006, Yemen has consistently placed last among all ranked nations. This year, Yemen placed 136th out of 136 nations in gender equality in terms of economic participation/opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. As the Index has expanded, beginning with 115 countries and growing to 136 countries within seven years, Yemen has been pushed further down the list and has unfailingly come in last place.

According to Samar Qaed and the Yemen Times, 86 countries have reduced their gender gaps for political participation since last year’s Index was released. This is one of the weakest areas of women’s rights in Yemen. As many of you may know, Yemen experienced an uprising in 2011 as an extension to the Arab Spring, though Yemen’s revolution was less publicized in the Western world due to its peaceful nature. The revolution began as a protest against unemployment, the poor economy, and political corruption, and as months progressed, thousands of Yemeni women risked protesting in the streets in hopes of political reform and gaining equal rights in every aspect. Apparently, as reflected in Yemen’s ranking again this year, these efforts had little-to-no effect on laws or the political system in general.

HOWEVER, upon closer reflection, Yemen does not actually place last in any of the four categories used in the Index ranking system! It ranks 131st in terms of the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity, 134th for the educational attainment gap, 81st for health and survival, and 131st for political empowerment. How, then, has the WEF determined that Yemen belongs in last place?

Short statistics lesson: (If you have no interest and wish to take the WEF’s Index at face value, skip to the following paragraph.) Apparently, a statistically complex system is implemented during which sub-indices within each of the four categories are weighted based on variation and standard deviation, and then the four scores from the sub-indices are averaged. This makes sense. While Yemen’s gender parity statistics for health and educational attainment were 97.27% and 69.8%, respectively, its parity percentages for economic participation and political empowerment were 35.77% and 2.27%, respectively. An average of these four measures of parity probability gives us Yemen’s overall parity score of 51.28%, which is the lowest overall score out of all 136 nations represented.

Writer and journalist Naderah Abdulqadus explains that the gender gap expanded after the Yemeni unification in 1990. She says that, in South Yemen, there were laws guaranteeing women’s social rights, which protected girls from child marriages, teenage pregnancy, and (indirectly) low educational attainment. These laws were annulled upon unification with North Yemen. Additionally, Amal Al-Makhdi, National Dialogue Conference (NDC) representative for the Houthi political wing, asserts that women in rural areas are still unpaid for the work they do, giving them no incentive to stay in school.

If I have learned anything within recent months here at UPenn, it is that educational attainment is the foundation for all growth. Education leads to greater career opportunity, which leads to higher economic participation. Education gives citizens incentive to vote because they are able to understand the issues and the platforms, and they are interested in bettering their nation. Additionally, education has been proven on numerous occasions to lead to better health and survival outcomes due to knowledge about nutrition, disease, pregnancy, and childbirth. It seems that provision of education infrastructure, as Al-Makhadi suggests, could lead to increased gender parity. Now the question is: Is that what the Yemeni government wants?

Qaed, S. (2013, November 12). Palpable disparity: ‘Opportunities afforded to women are not many’. Yemen Times. Retrieved from

New all female university in Saudi Arabia

Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

In 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia created the Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) in Riyadh, the largest women’s university in the world.  The article, “This gorgeous campus is the world’s largest women’s university – and it’s in Saudi Arabia,” highlights the many design features of the 32 million square foot university.

The campus includes sporting facilities, a medical center, research centers and a K-12 school and because of its architectural design, women are permitted to de-veil on the campus. The buildings were designed to meet the structural needs of modern learning with an emphasis on flexible space and environments that are conducive to team-based learning. The university’s design combines modern design elements with a traditional aesthetic to ensure that women can learn in an environment that respects cultural practice.

While the university is celebrated as a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s push for improved female education, simply providing high quality education does not immediately lead to change for women in the workforce. Abeer Allam in the article “Saudi Arabia’s women graduate’s hit ‘walls of tradition,’” highlights to challenges that face female university graduates in Saudi Arabia. Despite a recent emphasis on increased female participation in the economy, he explains that “educated women, whether graduates of local or overseas universities, face a daunting mismatch between their skills and available jobs when they return home or leave education.” Often times, female graduates are not hired due to traditional cultural norms, as well as the high cost to employ women due to gender segregation accommodations that companies must implement. In order for women to become fully integrated into the economy, steps must be taken to ensure they are employed.

The article further explains that Saudi Arabia is increasingly emphasizing female education as a means for modernization and economic diversification. While the idea of modernization is typically viewed as a positive step for development, we must tread with caution to make sure that modernization is not a movement to become more western. PNU, in its architectural design and services, seems to be providing students with a quality education that considers local practices, though despite this, women continue to face issues with unemployment.  Hopefully, by equipping females with marketable skills and knowledge, PNU will serve as a catalyst for change by enabling women to become not only employed, but at a level that matches their training.

Too often education and literacy (which can encompass a broad range of skills) are viewed as a panacea for change. While improving girls’ access to education is critical, education is simply a means for achieving change. Education enables change, but does not automatically fix problems. In the case of Saudi Arabia, by establishing a world-class female university, the country is taking a step towards increased female opportunity in the formal economy. As Schwartz stated, “PNU is both beautiful and a place from which larger things might spring.” If Saudi Arabia truly wants increased female participation in the formal economy, further steps must be taken to make their education worthwhile.


Allam, Abeer (2013, October 20). Saudi Arabia’s women graduate’s hit ‘walls of tradition.’ The Financial Times. Retrieved from

Schwartz, Ariel (2013, October 29). This gorgeous campus is the world’s largest women’s university – and it’s in Saudi Arabia. Co.Exist. Retrieved from

A Call For Action?

On October 31, USAID announced its new partnership to raise awareness for girls’ education in India. Partnering with several other organizations, they will create local-language releases of the film “Girl Rising” to increase public dialogue on issues surrounding girls’ education in India.

Girl Rising is a powerful film that highlights the real-life stories of nine girls born into difficult circumstances in India, Haiti, Cambodia, Peru, Afghanistan, Sierre Leone, Egypt, Nepal, and Ethiopia. Many of the girls play themselves, and well-known actresses, such as Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Alicia Keys, Meryl Streep, and actor Liam Neeson, narrate the film.

Girl Rising has been stirring up attention all over the world. For the International Day of the Girl on October 11th it was shown at more than 2,000 events in over 150 countries. Though the film is about girls in 9 specific countries, it reflects the common issues girls face in most developing countries. USAID’s partnership in India is not the only example of a country putting hope in the film’s ability to bring change. In the Philippines, Intel’s Yvonne Flores mentions, “they are currently in talks with the Department of Education on the possibility of integrating the Girl Rising film in the curriculum”.

I would like to note that I have not personally seen the film, but nonetheless, I still want to weigh in. I appreciate that the partnership in India is working to translate the English film into local languages, ultimately I think this will allow the film to have a stronger impact on a wider audience. Yet, I am not entirely convinced that showing the masses the issues girls are facing will have any major effect. People in developing countries know that girls aren’t going to school. Most of them could probably tell you the top three reasons why they are not. It isn’t rocket science. The thing is that a major factor behind lack of girls’ education stems around cultural beliefs that girls are inferior to boys. Showing a video to raise awareness about the struggles girls go through will not ultimate convince people that girls should be valued. Last week I wrote a post about Kakenya Ntaiya a masaai woman who has opened up a school for girls in her village. What I liked most about Kakenya’s story is that she was actually changing the beliefs of the men in her village. Yvonne Flores said that the film promotes awareness and, “calls for commitment and action from everyone“. How? More often awareness does not lead to action. Those of you reading this are most likely aware of issues preventing girls’ education. Are you doing something? Raising awareness is a great first step, but I think the Girl Rising film is just that: a first step.

If you would like to watch the film here are some upcoming showings of “Girl Rising” near Philadelphia:

  • When: Tue, November 12, 2013 at 07:30 pm   Where: Plymouth Meeting 10
  • When: Tue, November 19, 2013 at 07:30 pm  Where: King Of Prussia Stadium 16 & Imax
  • When: Mon, December 23, 2013 at 07:30 pm  Where: Barn Plaza Stadium 14

To find a showing where you live, check out this website


Barawid, R. (2013, October 10). Girl Rising. Manila bulletin. Retrieved from

USAID (2013, October 31). Girl rising partnership in India [Press release]. Retrieved from

Greater Education Means Greater Inequality?

As reported by The Times of India, a recent survey of formally employed Indians showed something odd: the higher level of education a woman has, the greater the inequality is between her and her male counterparts. Specifically, among those with no formal education, women are paid 11.99% more on average. Completing some form of basic education means that both groups will earn more, but the pay gap switches, with men 10% ahead. The trend continues up to those with master’s degrees, where men earn 40.76% more than women. To avoid listing out all the data from the report, here’s a chart:

"Percent Difference in Salary of Females from Males"

Data from Varkkey & Korde (2013)

(If you’re not familiar with some of the categories, you don’t have to take my word for it: here’s the full report. It’s not a long read, and covers far more than just this one issue. It’s fascinating.) So with the PhD-level data outlying somewhat, we can see the pay gap becoming more pronounced the more education one receives! This is directly counter to the conventional understanding that investing in your education reduces economic inequality.

As we read again and again, educating young girls is supposed to solve these problems later in life. So why hasn’t it worked in this case? The report offers some theories:

  • There is a perception that a woman’s primary responsibility is unpaid care work
  • Women exit the work force earlier in life than men (for marriage or motherhood)
  • Women take breaks in their careers
  • Women opt for part-time jobs to care for children
  • Women “are categorized as potential mothers”

So here we get to the truth of the matter. Women should only work as long as they are single and without children, while men should work regardless of their marital or parental status. This is obviously not a story isolated to India.

It’s easy to discuss the obvious sexism inherent in these assumptions: women’s intense labor in the home and with children is economically undervalued; women should be the primary caregivers of children; all women will get pregnant and leave work; married women should not work, etc.

Consider also what messages these pay gaps are sending to the young girls currently in school: I should not worry too much about getting an advanced degree, because I will eventually leave work to care for my husband and children; I am best suited to work involving household chores and child-rearing; because I am always seen as a potential mother, I should feel incomplete as a woman until I have a child.

So how can these disparities be remedied? If education is not the panacea we imagine it to be, then what is the answer? Well if I knew that, I wouldn’t be in school studying this, but here’s my stab at it: more education.

Educating the young girls themselves is one thing, and the most important. On the whole, a quality education opens doors economically, socially, personally, psychologically, and you get the idea. But what about their parents, neighbors, male classmates, political and community leaders, and the rest of the nation?

Just as important for India to teach young girls letters and numbers, history and economics, physics and anthropology, is for India to teach itself that the women these girls will become can be valuable contributors to every aspect of India’s future success. Limiting their potential contributions by insisting that a woman’s value is derived from her husband and children hurts not only that woman and her community, but India as a whole. To deny half the population the ability to fully exercise their capabilities is to deny them the chance to flourish as individuals.

(And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every other country could stand to learn the same lessons. Just look at the gender gap in the US.)

Unnithan, C. (2013, November 3). For women, more education means salary discrimination at work. The Times of India. Retrieved from

Varkkey, B. & Korde, R. (2013). WageIndicator. Gender pay gap in the formal sector: 2006 – 2013: Preliminary evidences from Paycheck India data. Retrieved from

Beyond Access to Education

Despite recent gains in girls’ enrollment in Afghan schools, much needs to done to ensure that girls not only have access to education, but more importantly, access to a quality education.

In the article, “Despite gains, future of Afghan girls’ education remains uncertain,” UNICEF highlights the success of the Zarghona Girls School in Kabul. During Taliban rule, school founder Shaima Alkozai secretly taught girls in her home. Following the fall of the regime, she founded the school to provide females with an education. Currently, her school serves 8,000 female students ranging from first to twelfth grade. Many of the girls show high levels of commitment, enthusiasm and dedication to their schooling, but their experience in not the norm in Afghanistan. While Alkozai’s school is a picture of success in Afghanistan, UNICEF reports that many girls in Afghanistan lack access to an education, especially girls from marginalized populations, such as the homeless or disabled. While there is much to learn from successful programs like the Zarghona Girls School, we must continue to push policy makers to ensure that quality is an aspect of all schools, rather than a select few.

Similarly, NPR published a piece, “Are Afghanistan’s schools doing as well as touted?” to critically examine education across the country. The story highlights the challenges facing education in Afghanistan, specifically challenges facing Afghan girls. Cultural barriers, such as early marriages, continue to prevent girls from attending school, but even for girls who are enrolled, there are severe limitations to the quality of their education. Many schools lack female teachers as well as trained and qualified teachers, making it impossible for older girls in all-female classes to learn. Schools lack permanent structures and resources and some schools continue to face security threats and challenges. In order for the Afghan education system to have lasting effects, the system must ensure both access and quality for all students.

The push in the past decade to meet the MDGs and the Education For All targets have placed emphasis on school enrollment, and specifically increasing enrollment for girls. While getting girls to attend school is the first step, it is imperative that we shift the focus towards ensuring quality. Often times, schools are viewed like a black box, with little regard for what takes place in schools. Policy makers operate with the mindset that as long as students attend schools, individuals and society will reap the benefits of education. This mind-set is unacceptable because it essentially gambles educational outcomes and children’s futures.

In order to ensure that Education For All does not simply mean universal enrollment, we must make sure that students have access to high quality programs. Curriculum must reflect the local cultural context, schools must prepare students for future success in their communities and education must be equitable for all children. As the articles suggest, the work towards improving Afghan girl’s education is far from complete. Simply attending school is not sufficient. Until all girls, in both rural and urban areas, have access to high quality, equitable and fair educational opportunities, we must continue to examine, evaluate and improve on what is taking place in classrooms.


NPR. (2013, October 24). Are Afghanistan’s schools doing as well touted? Retrieved October 27, 2013 from

UNICEF. (2013, October 28). Despite gains, future of Afghan girls’ education remains uncertain. Retrieved October 28, 2013 from