Female Education to Change the World

You want to make a difference in the world. You have a global world view and are concerned for humanity. You want to make a charitable donation and generate the biggest impact that you can. Where do you focus your attention? It is a question I often get asked as a philanthropy advisor and it’s not one that I can easily answer. That is because I recognise that philanthropy is rarely a dispassionate activity. Most philanthropists have personal interests and passions, and it is good that they follow them. My role is not to tell them what they should be interested in. It is important that a philanthropist’s interest is sustained because philanthropy tends to be most effective when it’s a long-term endeavour. Supporting a cause that they care about is more likely to achieve long-term commitment. That said, if I’m really pushed on the matter, the one cause I would suggest is female education in the developing world.

Admittedly, there is a degree of subjectivity on my part in making this suggestion. Although I do not have children, I’m lucky enough to have three young nieces. They are bright, funny and caring individuals that are benefitting greatly from a loving family, good healthcare and a good education. After they have run me ragged with their boundless energy, I often sit back and feel more optimistic about the world. The eldest is passionate about the environment and reversing climate change and will regularly lecture her parents on the importance of recycling. I want all girls to have the same chances that my nieces are getting.

For most of history, men have ruled the world. I am hopeful, however, that my three nieces will be part of a generation that sees more women taking the lead. I am optimistic that greater female leadership will create a better world. 

In this article, I discuss my rationale for recommending grants to charities that promote female education, especially within the developing world. In doing so, I explore both the ethical and utilitarian imperatives for improving girls’ education. I start by looking at the benefits of female education, before considering effective strategies for educating more girls.

The Issue

Every day, girls face barriers to education caused by poor infrastructure, poverty, cultural practices and violence. Globally, UNESCO estimates that 129 million girls are out of school. Three-quarters of these girls are in southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In many countries, girls of primary school age are more likely to be out of school compared to boys. These statistics are troubling. Given the world’s accumulated wealth and knowledge, access to a basic education should be a basic human right. Yet too many children are denied it. Lack of female education is especially worrying because it is a source of life-long disadvantage. As I will illustrate below, young women without an education fare less well across a range of measures. 

Benefits of female education

Literacy and numeracy

Education acts as a gateway to a better life. The ability to read and understand information provides access to knowledge, and knowledge allows people to better themselves. Unless girls are given access to education, they will forever lack the basic numeracy and literacy skills needed for a better life.

Literacy and numeracy provide fundamental building blocks for long-term personal development, but there are other ways that education benefits young girls.

Marries later

A key benefit to female education is around marriage. Every day, an estimated 41,000 girls under the age of 18 get married. That’s almost 15 million every year. Keeping girls in school for longer helps to reduce rates of early marriage. An education gives girls the knowledge and confidence to make informed decisions about when and who to marry. Education also gives girls and their families the knowledge to resist cultural patterns of early marriage. Resisting child marriage is beneficial because it reduces the reduces the risk of domestic violence and social isolation.

Lower rates of pregnancy

As well as reducing teenage marriage, education helps girls to avoid teenage pregnancies. Education also has the effect of lowering unwanted pregnancies throughout adulthood, thereby lowering birth rates and reducing population growth. This effect can be seen in some sub-Saharan Africa countries, where the birth rate among girls with a secondary education is at least three times lower compared to those with no education

There are several explanations for how education reduces pregnancy. Education improves girl’s knowledge about contraception, which limits unwanted pregnancies. As women’s educational achievement increases, so does their earning potential, which means wages forgone during childbearing become a larger opportunity cost. Furthermore, women are often empowered through education, which gives them a greater say in how many children to have. 

Families are healthier

Educated women make better decisions about pre-natal care, basic hygiene, nutrition and immunisation, all of which contribute to healthier children. By reducing teenage pregnancies, female education helps to reduce child mortality and child stunting. The children of educated women are less likely to be malnourished. Since good nutrition is essential to good mental and physical development, an educated mother is more likely to raise intelligent and healthy children.

Higher incomes

Education improves an individual’s earnings potential. It is a truth that we all inherently understand. In the developed world, we know that higher levels of education tend to correlate with higher incomes. In the developing world, it is harder to prove the causal relationship between education and income because the quality of data for research is not so readily available. That said, there is reason to believe that female education has a dramatic effect on earning potential, not least because lower rates of pregnancy allow women to work for longer and earn more money across their lifetime. And, as women earn more, they bring more money into the household which improve standards of living through better access to housing, nutrition and healthcare.

Female empowerment

Education, and the knowledge and skills it creates, also provide a route to empowerment. Numbers and the written word were first developed by political institutions to control food and people and, over five thousand years later, knowledge is still a source of power and influence. Women with an education are more able to participate in decisions, whether that is at a family or community level. Educated women are also more aware of their rights and are more likely to think beyond cultural norms. They are more likely to stand up for themselves in male-dominated cultures and to speak out in the best interests of their children. As such, education empowers young women to pursue a better life.


As well as generating social outcomes, female education has the potential to generate substantial environmental benefits. In a simple way, female education helps to mitigate climate change because it tends to reduce family size, thereby decreasing pressure on natural resources and lowering carbon emissions. However, the environmental benefits of female education go much further than this.

Women have a stake in subsistence farming families and communities throughout the world and they need to be at the heart of climate change solutions. These communities are often badly affected by the effects of climate change, including poor harvests and other weather-related disasters. Educated women can use their experience and knowledge to contribute to solutions and take action on climate change. Education helps women to access the political institutions that will make key decisions, including those at a global, national and local level. It is already noticeable how countries with more women in government are more likely to adopt environmental and climate protection policies.

Overall combined benefit

Overall, there are sound utilitarian reasons for giving girls a good education. As described above, there are clear economic, social and environmental benefits. It’s a point neatly summed up by a recent World Bank study, which estimates that the ‘limited educational opportunities for girls, and barriers to completing 12 years of education, cost countries between US$15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.’ Investing in female education not only transforms the lives of the girls but also transforms communities. 

We have also seen that there are strong moral imperatives to give girls a good education. Access to an education is a basic human right, and it is one that helps protect women against maltreatment.

Crucially, female education generates lifetime benefits by breaking old poverty cycles and creating new positive cycles. An educated mother is more likely to send her children to school, thus continuing the cycle of education. Although this impact is difficult to prove because it ideally requires longitudinal studies, the argument is nonetheless persuasive because of the many intermediate beneficial outcomes noted above.

How to increase girls’ access to education

Of course, it is one thing to know that female education generates social, economic and environmental benefits, but it’s another thing to actually increase rates of female education. So, what strategies and tactics are most likely to improve access to education for girls in developing countries? How can we get more girls to complete secondary education?

The first thing we need to understand is why girls are not in school. In addressing this question, it becomes apparent that the reasons are complex and vary across regions, countries and continents. Relevant contextual factors include local education systems, economic circumstances and cultural factors. Girls may not be in school for a whole host of reasons, including war and conflict, family poverty which forces girls to work, child marriage, gender-based violence, poor school safety and failure to meet the sanitation needs of girls. Understanding local circumstances becomes essential because local factors will determine the strategies that are most likely to work in that context. What works in one context may not work elsewhere.

Strategies and tactics must respond to the local context to be effective. Listed below are some common strategies and tactics that have been found to work in more than one context.

  • Provide information to parents about the benefits of education.
  • Provide financial support to families so that they can afford to send their girls to school.
  • Challenge discriminatory gender norms among local communities.
  • Provide transport for girls to get to school so that they are not exposed to increased risk of violence when they walk long distances.
  • Improve menstrual hygiene management.
  • Encourage governments to prioritise gender equality in education.
  • Improve teacher training to develop gender-responsive pedagogies.
  • Remove gender stereotypes from learning materials.

The list is far from exhaustive, but it provides some insight into the sorts of interventions that can work, depending on the local context.

Charities working for female education in the developing world

There are many excellent charities that work to improve access to education for girls in the developing world. Among these, there are various multi-activity charities, such as Action Aid, Plan International and UNICEF, that promote female education as part of a wider portfolio of development work. 

Some charities are dedicated to the issue of female education in the developing world. A specialism in female education is useful because it allows an organisation to generate and apply learning across all their work. Two charities worth mentioning are Camfed and The Malala Fund. Camfed focusses on sub-Saharan Africa and works with local groups, which helps to ensure interventions are well adapted to local context. The Malala Fund is named after the Malala Yousafzai the Noble Peace Prize winning female education activist. Although active globally, the Malala Fund is especially active in Asia, including in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Crucially, both charities recognise the need to work with and support networks of local activists.

Get involved

If you have read this far, it probably won’t surprise you to know that I support some of these charities. Whilst barriers to female education remain, I feel optimistic that change can and will happen, aided by the support of effective charities. Female education has the potential to tackle many of the world’s most pressing economic, social and environment challenges. As more young girls get the same chances as my three nieces, I feel confident that the world will change for the better. 

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