Inexcusable Absence: Why 60 Million Girls Still Aren't In School and What to do About It

January 04, 2007

"The widespread neglect of the education of girls is one of the most distressing problems in the world today, which blights their future and damages the rest of the society as well. This is a very welcome report on an extraordinarily important problem, and I hope it will receive the attention it richly deserves."

—Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and Lamont university professor of economics and philosophy, Harvard University

"A must-read for students and practitioners of development."

—Larry Summers, former president of Harvard Unversity and World Bank chief economist

The images of girls returning to school in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban drew attention to the lack of educational opportunities for girls all too common in many developing countries. Girls’ education, indisputably crucial to development, has received a lot of attention--but surprisingly little hardheaded analysis to inform practical policy solutions. In Inexcusable Absence, CGD non-resident fellow Maureen Lewis and visiting fellow Marlaine Lockheed show that nearly three-quarters of the 60 million girls not in school belong to ethnic, religious, linguistic, racial or other minorities. Remarkable increases in primary schooling over the past decade have brought gender equity to the education systems of many poor countries, but the problem of these "doubly disadvantaged" girls has yielded little to these advances.

Based on an extensive review of empirical studies, the authors highlight the ways in which gender inequality intersects with different types of exclusion to exacerbate disadvantage. Then, drawing on detailed analysis of what is already working in both developed and developing countries, and emphasizing both the lack of household "demand" and the socially restricted "supply" of schooling for excluded groups, the authors offer concrete proposals for new policies and programs for reaching these girls and their parents.

Getting socially excluded girls into school is not simple. As Lewis and Lockheed show, reaching them is costly, in part because it often requires fresh approaches that may differ from mainstream educational policies. Attempts to change the "culture" of families who are reluctant to send their daughters to school can be controversial. In the classroom, the inclusion of local languages for instruction may make schools more accessible, but limited proficiency in official languages can restrict students' future opportunities in mainstream society. By the same token, gender-segregated schools have the potential to draw more students, but run the risk of establishing a second-class system if sufficient resources are not channeled towards them.

But getting excluded girls into school is a realistic goal. And giving girls the opportunity of attendance leads to high returns: this book finds that once girls are given access to school, they often overtake boys in the number of years completed and on measures of learning, at least until adolescence. This suggests that lack of opportunity is the single biggest reason that girls' achievement levels lag behind boys'. Inexcusable Absence will be an important tool for policymakers, informing interventions that can make a profound impact on the lives of the 60 million out of school girls.

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