The Puggle: February 2024 edition

2024 may be a Leap Year, but the recent G7 Girls’ Education Global Objectives update finds that we are not leaping forward on girls’ education. More, not fewer, girls are out of school — in part because of the Taliban’s devastating decision to ban girls from secondary school in Afghanistan, but even without this setback, the number of out-of-school girls would have stagnated around 106M over the last seven years.

Source: G7 Global Objectives Report 2023, UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI)

In the spirit of leaping forward, this month, we share three recommendations to help expedite progress toward a world where all girls (even the most marginalized) are in school and learning.

1. Use intersectional identification strategies.
Diminishing impact is often a sign that large-scale enrollment efforts are not reaching more marginalized groups

Girls already endure systemic barriers to education due to their gender. When they face additional marginalities (e.g., poverty, rurality, disability), the barriers compound, but aggregate data masks this.

Source: G7 Global Objectives Report 2023, UNGEI

Education systems should employ an intersectional approach to identify where there are large swaths of out-of-school girls and target enrollment efforts accordingly. Organizations like Educate Girls and Aangan Trust have successfully demonstrated how to do this in the Indian context and are now building the capacity of local governments to do the same.

2. Employ participatory design strategies.
To effectively support girls to enroll and stay enrolled in school, it’s critical to address the context-specific barriers they face.

Traditional top-down approaches to program design often lack alignment with on-the-ground realities. Echidna Global Scholar Susan Opok’s research provides strong evidence for this: despite Uganda’s 2020 mandate to support the education of pregnant girls and young mothers, most are still out of school in refugee communities due to poor dissemination (guidelines only available in English), financial barriers (no funding to meet mandate), and heightened gender discrimination in some communities. Also, consider the African Population and Health Research Center’s finding that most programs targeting adolescent mothers aim to delay sexual activity and childbearing without attempting “to understand the experiences of pregnant and parenting adolescents… or to develop and test appropriate interventions” that can improve outcomes for these adolescents and their children.

In contrast, engagement of out-of-school girls can ensure that their needs are understood and integrated into program design. Not only is this more inclusive, but it’s also more impactful, as girls understand their realities best. Moreover, as the Global Fund for Children’s work with migrant adolescent girls in Mexico demonstrates, participatory approaches can empower marginalized girls to recognize themselves as leaders capable of driving meaningful change. 

Sensitive topics like gender discrimination can particularly benefit from participatory approaches that seek input from key community stakeholders, which can reduce backlash and build buy-in. Such community-level support can be a crucial enabler for out-of-school girls to persist through the difficult task of rejoining school.

3. Tend to learning.
A growing body of research (a few years old, but one of our favorites) demonstrates that low learning is a strong predictor of dropout, particularly for girls. To support marginalized girls in staying in school, we need to hold governments accountable for the quality of education they deliver. 

But this is hard to do without regular learning data updates. Already, more than half of all countries do not report on basic reading and math outcomes due to lack of appropriate monitoring infrastructure and/or government reluctance to publicly share this information. The UN Statistical Commission’s recent decision to downgrade SDG 4.1.1a — “Proportion of children in grades 2/3 achieving minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics, by sex” — due to lack of data risks further disincentivizing government efforts

The People’s Action for Learning Network’s advocacy campaign, “Measure Early, Measure All, Measure Well: Safeguard Data for the Future of Foundational Learning,” is an effort to push for prioritizing monitoring learning (and offers a superb overview of what this downgrade is, and why it matters). 

In addition to literacy and numeracy, we must tend to the gendered messaging children are exposed to in schools. Girls learn better in gender-equitable classroom environments. Yet, the Center for Global Development’s latest analysis of 1,255 language textbooks from 34 countries (including a few high-income countries) still finds deep gender bias:

Source: Sexist Textbooks, Center for Global Development

We know gender-biased messaging reduces girls’ learning trajectory. We also know that gender transformative messaging can empower girls to continue their education and have greater agency over decisions concerning their lives (e.g. whether to go to school, get married, or work).

We owe girls better. In this Leap Year, let’s work to hasten progress toward a world where all girls (even the most marginalized) are in school and learning.