Girls’ Education and Women’s Equality: How to Get More out of the World’s Most Promising Investment

To hear talk of it, you might think educating girls is a silver bullet to solve all the world’s ills. A large and still growing collection of research demonstrates the wide-ranging benefits of girls’ education. Recent research has nuanced some of those findings, but the fundamental result stands: Educating girls is good for girls and good for the people around them.[1]

Girls’ education is a high priority

Leaders in low- and middle-income countries champion the value of girls’ education. Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wrote that “investing in girls’ education is not only a moral imperative, it is a smart investment.”[2] Nigeria’s former minister of finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the United Arab Emirates’ former minister of state for tolerance Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi wrote that “educating a girl does far more than place a child behind a desk. It is the surest pathway to reducing infant mortality, mitigating high birth rates, slowing migratory pressures, and unlocking economic potential.”[3] President Ram Nath Kovind, of India, has spoken of the “empowerment-through-education of our daughters.”[4] Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet explained that “we focus on girls’ education because it sets them on a path to greater economic opportunities and participation in their societies.”[5]

Advocates, politicians in donor countries, and international organizations have also voiced their support. In 2015, US President Barack Obama said that “the single best indicator of whether a nation will succeed is how it treats its women. When women have health care and women have education, families are stronger, communities are more prosperous, children do better in school, nations are more prosperous.”[6]In 2021, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “it is his ‘fervent belief’ that improving girls’ education in developing countries is the best way to ‘lift communities out of poverty.’”[7]International organizations agree. In early 2021, the Group of Seven (G7) stated that “nowhere is our resolve stronger than in addressing the global set-back in girls’ education.”[8]

Most of these statements focus on the instrumental value of girls’ education: Educating a girl is good because it leads to a positive outcome beyond education, often beyond the life of the girl herself. But education is also simply a right. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, identified education as a human right.[10] Scholars have cautioned against labeling too many things as rights, noting that “a right that is not feasible is a meaningless normative injunction.”[10] But girls’ education is feasible and so should be seen as a right that countries can deliver on. Countries all over the world made dramatic gains in girls’ education over the past half century, in many cases eliminating gaps between girls and boys (and in some cases, even reversing them).[11] Because girls’ education is a right, independent of boys’ education, this report focuses not only on gaps between girls and boys but (mainly) on how to achieve effective high-quality universal education for all girls.

Despite progress, the world’s education systems still fail to reach and teach many girls

Two standard measures of success in educational investment are access (whether or not girls are in school) and learning (whether or not girls develop skills while at school). Access to education has expanded dramatically in recent decades (Figure 1), with gains for women in every low- and middle-income country. For example, the proportion of girls completing lower-secondary school jumped from half to three-quarters between 1995 and 2020.

Figure 1. Access to education for women has expanded in every low- and middle-income country

Figure 1. Access to education for women has expanded in every low- and middle-income country
Source: Authors’ construction based on lower-secondary completion rates from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.[12]
Note: The World Development Indicators' lower secondary completion rates are a proxy for completion, calculated as the number of enrollments in the last grade of lower secondary school divided by the total population of children who are the age appropriate for that grade.

Despite these large gains and the shift in attention to secondary school, many girls around the world still lack even basic educational access. In some regions, almost all girls complete primary school. But 1 of every 3 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1 of every 14 girls in South Asia, and 1 of every 12 girls in the Middle East and North Africa do not. Moreover, even small shares of girls not completing primary school can mask very large absolute numbers. At 96 percent, for example, India has a higher primary completion rate than the regional average, but its large population means that 4.6 million girls between the ages of 5 and 14 have not completed primary school.12

At higher levels of education, the challenge is even starker (Figure 2). Only half of girls complete upper-secondary school (or high school) in East Asia and the Pacific and in the Middle East and North Africa. The figure drops to 30 percent in South Asia and 20 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Benin and Guinea Bissau, only 5 percent of girls complete upper-secondary school. Afghanistan, Haiti, and Papua New Guinea all come in under 20 percent.

Figure 2. Around the world, most girls complete primary school, but completion rates for higher levels of schooling are low

Figure 2. Around the world, most girls complete primary school, but completion rates for higher levels of schooling are low
Source: Authors’ construction based on 2020 primary and lower-secondary completion rates from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators12 and upper-secondary completion rates from UNESCO’s UIS database.[13]
Note: The World Development Indicators' lower secondary completion rates are a proxy for completion, calculated as the number of enrollments in the last grade of lower secondary school divided by the total population of children who are the age appropriate for that grade.

Of course, completing school is not enough to reap all the benefits education can offer. Learning matters, too. But without getting girls into school and helping them through it, they cannot even begin to realize the gains. Furthermore, even when it doesn’t improve the quality of learning (and it should), education can yield other benefits—delayed marriage or better nutrition through school meals, for example.[14]

The learning crisis that plagues education systems around the world affects all children, including girls. In Kenya, less than 50 percent of girls in third grade can do second grade class work in math, English, or Kiswahili.[15] In Uganda, only 34 percent of girls in grades three to seven achieve competence in reading, and just 46 percent of girls achieve competence in numeracy.[16] In rural India, only 44 percent of girls 14–16 years old are able to solve a simple division problem, and far fewer can solve a word problem.[17]

Not all of these poor outcomes reflect gender inequality. In many contexts, boys and girls have similar access to schooling and learning outcomes, and girls outperform boys in some places. In Kenya, for example, third-grade girls outperform third-grade boys on average (although not consistently in poorer communities).[18] Upper-secondary completion is more than 5 percentage points higher for girls than for boys both in Latin America and the Caribbean and in the Middle East and North Africa. These statistics do not suggest that policymakers and donors have already achieved their girls’ education goals and can move on: For a variety of reasons, it may make sense to invest in girls’ education even after equality in some educational outcomes (such as enrollment or completion) has been attained (Box 1).

Box 1. Should girls’ education be prioritized even when girls outperform boys?

In places where girls are behind, investing in girls’ education is obviously necessary. But doing so can make sense even in places where girls are ahead, for several reasons.

First, given gender discrimination, women may need to have higher educational outcomes just to achieve equal labor market outcomes. Although the link between access to education and labor market participation is inconsistent (see Chapter 4), there are clear private and social returns to girls’ spending more time in school and learning more while in school (see Chapter 2). Investments to make girls’ education more useful (see Chapter 5) and adopt complementary regulatory reforms (see Chapter 6) can strengthen the link between girls’ education and women’s economic equality.

Second, if girls’ education yields more positive externalities than boys’ education—as it appears to do—greater investments in girls’ education may make social sense. For example, massive expansion of schooling in Indonesia increased education for both boys and girls, but when those children grew up, only the children of beneficiary women (not men) completed more years of schooling themselves.[19]

Schools must do more than just enroll and teach students basic skills

One of the primary objectives of schooling is to teach students measurable and useful skills. Parents want their children to learn to read and do math; in countries with many languages, they often want them to learn skills in the dominant language of business and government.

But schools need to do more than just teach basic skills. They need to make sure girls are safe at school—free from physical and sexual violence and gender-based bullying, including teasing about menstruation—so that they can focus on learning.[20] One in every eight girls in Senegal reports sexual harassment by a teacher or other staff member. Millions of adult women in India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and elsewhere report having been raped by a teacher when they were in school.14 If one adds in harassment and assault by peers in a school setting, even more women have been affected. This is not to say that schools are uniquely risky: girls enrolled in school are not more likely to experience physical or sexual violence than other girls.[21] But when girls come to school, they are in the care of the education system, which is responsible for keeping them safe.

Schools also often provide meals, ensuring at least some degree of food security. Girls routinely reap even greater benefits than boys from these meals.[22] In various countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, not only did girls’ enrollment rise with the offer of school meals, their enrollment increases were 27–40 percent higher than for boys.[23] A large-scale evaluation of a school meal program in Ghana found that girls’ test scores benefited significantly more than boys’ test scores.[24] Yet many children do not receive school meals. Across 60 countries, 73 million vulnerable children who are enrolled in school experience extreme poverty, high nutrition challenges, and inadequate school meal coverage, according to the World Food Programme.[25]

Education systems can do much more than putting girls behind desks and delivering academic instruction to them. They can provide food security and safety, and they can do more to put girls on the path to gender equality, strengthening the link between girls’ education and subsequent economic equality.9

What does this report add?

There are many syntheses of “what works” to get girls into school and help them learn. From the 2004 report What Works in Girls’ Education to the 2022 systematic review Policies and Interventions to Remove Gender-Related Barriers to Girls’ School Participation and Learning in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, researchers have approached these questions from different angles.[26]

This report goes beyond what works to get girls in school and learning—still very important questions—to probe how education can work together with other societal systems and structures to provide better lifetime opportunities for women. The analysis results in eight main messages (Figure 3); each chapter illuminates a different aspect of the issue.

Figure 3. This report has eight main messages

This chapter lays out the current state of girls’ education in broad terms. It shows that although education has expanded, much more needs to be done. Chapter 2 examines the evidence behind the bold claims that are routinely made about the role of girls’ education. It shows that the evidence for some claims is strong but that other claims are less well supported. It reviews the evidence for how to get more girls into school and how to boost their learning while there.

Chapter 3 asks which girls are still not benefiting from educational investments. It steps back from the impressive expansions in access to girls’ education to look at which girls are still missing out. It shows that many of the girls who remain out of school face multiple vulnerabilities. Girls’ education is more sensitive to household income than boys’ education, so poor girls are particularly vulnerable to changes in income. On average, girls in rural areas are poorer than girls in urban areas, and fewer schools and other educational resources are available to them. Reaching poor, rural girls therefore requires additional resources.

Chapter 4 asks how well girls’ education translates into gender equality. It lays out the evidence that education systems are not closing gender gaps in the labor force. The good news is that education delivers economic returns for women and that those gains are often larger than for men. The bad news is that education does not erase labor market inequalities.

Chapter 5 asks what education systems should do differently to contribute to gender equality beyond the classroom. It provides evidence on which reforms to education systems could help them empower girls and contribute more directly to gender equality, including by rooting out system-level gender bias in the physical environment and in curricular materials.

Chapter 6 asks what other legal, economic, and political supports need to be in place for women—and the societies around them—to reap the returns to education. It identifies a set of complementary policies—outside of education systems and labor markets—that would help girls reap more of the benefits of education and strengthen the connection between education and gender equality broadly. These policies can include setting leadership quotas, making discrimination illegal, and enforcing laws against gender-based violence.

Chapter 7 asks what it takes to get such reforms to take hold. It examines the role that politics plays in determining where, when, and how meaningful progress toward gender equity in education and beyond is possible. Through country examples, it shows that mere legal reforms are often insufficient. Girls’ education is critical, but on its own, it will not lead to better lives for women. Shifting the focus from girls’ education alone to a more expansive view of gender equality is crucial.

Interwoven between the chapters are a series of spotlights, which examine areas that cut across chapters and feed into the overarching objectives of the report. Spotlight A explores the funding of education projects by international agencies. Spotlight B identifies where data on girls’ education are available and where they are missing. Spotlight C discusses the role of violence in limiting girls’ education and women’s equal opportunity. Spotlight D explores the interplay between education and migration, one of the choices that girls sometimes make both to expand their education and reap the benefits of education. Spotlight E explores how education can narrow the gender digital divide that persists in many countries.

Much remains to be accomplished on the girls’ education agenda, which is the focus of this report. For many countries, boys’ education is also a topic of increasing concern.[27] While that absolutely merits action as well, it does not eliminate the many challenges in improving life outcomes for girls in developing settings.

This report is a call to action. Each of its chapters lends itself to constructive action to improve girls’ education (Table 1). As education systems and their international partners take effective action, all girls can enjoy a high quality, safe education that improves the rest of their lives.

Table 1. Recommended actions for improving later life for all girls


                    Recommended actions

2: What Do We Know about Girls’ Education (and What Don’t We Know)?

• Advocate for girls’ education based on rights and claims that are backed by strong evidence.

• Invest in programs that have proved to work at scale (such as eliminating school fees, improving pedagogy, and feeding students).

• Build evidence on improving girls’ education, especially for interventions that can be implemented at scale.

3: Which Girls Are Still Being Left Behind?

• Allocate resources to reach girls with multiple vulnerabilities.

• Design multifaceted solutions for girls facing multiple challenges.

• Collect data on multiple vulnerabilities and on which girls are not receiving a good-quality education.

4: Does Girls’ Education Deliver Gender Equality Later in Life?

• Push for laws and policies that protect women’s rights and promote equity, but don’t stop there. Support school-to-work transitions.

• Strengthen cross-sector collaboration between school and work for women.  Reflect gender norms in policies and interventions.

• Increase the number of women who work in both the public and private sectors.

5: How Can Education Systems Contribute More Effectively to Equality?

• Make school environments safe and accessible for all students.

• Recognize and combat gender bias in schools. Identify and eliminate sources of gender bias in education systems.

• Ensure that education systems are intentional and specific about how they are working to strengthen empowerment for girls.

6: What Complementary Policies Are Needed to Improve Outcomes for Girls?

• Make discrimination illegal. Subsidize childcare.

• Use more quota systems. Make politics more family friendly and domestic responsibilities more equal.

• Leverage technology to reduce the burden of care work. Implement policies that target men who commit violence.

7: What Political and Legal Conditions Will It Take to Reform Girls’ Education?

• Shift policy objectives to prioritize gender equality rather than girls’ education per se.

• Build coalitions between government, civil society, and partners to achieve gender equity, using girls’ education as one instrument for attaining it.

Read the full report here.

Background Materials

The Political Economy of Girls’ Education in Rwanda,Timothy P. Williams, PhD October 2022



[1]Barbara S. Mensch et al., “Evidence for Causal Links between Education and Maternal and Child Health: Systematic Review,” Trop Med Int Health 24, no. 5 (May 2019): 504–22,

[2] Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “‘Africa Rising’? Not Really, Unless We Invest More in Girls,” CNN, August 2015,

[3] Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, “How to Achieve the next Step in Girls’ Education,” CNN, 2017,

[4] TNN, “Educated Girls Will Empower India of the Future, Says President Kovind,” The Times of India, December 22, 2021,

[5] Michelle Bachelet, “Speech by Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, at the Event ‘Empowering Girls through Education,’” UN Women, October 11, 2012,

[6] White House, “FACT SHEET: Let Girls Learn – A Comprehensive Investment in Adolescent Girls Education,” Whitehouse.Gov, October 2016,

[7] Sean Coughlan, “Boris Johnson Says Girls’ Education Key to Ending Poverty,” BBC News, January 2021,

[8] FCDO, “Declaration on Girls’ Education: Recovering from COVID-19 and Unlocking Agenda 2030,” GOV.UK (London, UK: FCDO, 2021),

[9] United Nations, “General Assembly Resolution 217A,” 1948,

[10] Basu Kaushik, Policymaker’s Journal (Simon & Schuster), accessed November 17, 2021,

[11] David K. Evans, Maryam Akmal, and Pamela Jakiela, “Gender Gaps in Education: The Long View,” IZA Journal of Development and Migration 12, no. 1 (January 2021),

[12] World Bank, “Indicators Data,” accessed November 17, 2021,

[13] UIS, “UIS Statistics,” accessed November 17, 2021,

[14] Michelle Kaffenberger and Lant Pritchett, “Effective Investment in Women’s Futures: Schooling with Learning,” International Journal of Educational Development 86 (October 1, 2021): 102464,

[15] Uwezo Kenya, “Are Our Children Learning? Uwezo Kenya Sixth Learning Assessment Report” (Nairobi, Kenya: Twaweza East Africa, 2016),

[16]Uwezo Uganda, “Are Our Children Learning? Uwezo Uganda Eighth Assessment Report” (Kampala, Uganda: Twaweza East Africa, 2019),

[17] ASER Centre, “Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018” (India: Pratham, 2019),

[18] Moses Ngware et al., “Quality and Access to Education in Urban Informal Settlements in Kenya” (Nairobi, Kenya: African Population and Health Research Center, October 2013).

[19] Richard Akresh, Daniel Halim, and Marieke Kleemans, “Long-Term and Intergenerational Effects of Education: Evidence from School Construction in Indonesia,” Working Paper, Working Paper Series (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, November 2018),

[20] Anja Benshaul-Tolonen et al., “Period Teasing, Stigma and Knowledge: A Survey of Adolescent Boys and Girls in Northern Tanzania,” ed. Joel Msafiri Francis, PLoS ONE 15, no. 10 (October 2020): e0239914,

[21] David K. Evans et al., “Adolescent Girls’ Safety In and Out of School: Evidence on Physical and Sexual Violence from across Sub-Saharan Africa,” Working Paper (Washington, DC: Center for Global Development), accessed December 14, 2021,

[22] David K. Evans, Amina Mendez Acosta, and Fei Yuan, “Girls’ Education at Scale,” Working Paper (Washington, DC: Center for Global Development, 2021),

[23]Aulo Gelli, Ute Meir, and Francisco Espejo, “Does Provision of Food in School Increase Girls’ Enrollment? Evidence from Schools in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Food Nutr Bull 28, no. 2 (June 2007): 149—55,; Gregory Pappas et al., “Community-Based Approaches to Combating Malnutrition and Poor Education among Girls in Resource-Poor Settings: Report of a Large Scale Intervention in Pakistan,” RRH, September 2008,

[24] Elisabetta Aurino et al., “Food for Thought? Experimental Evidence on the Learning Impacts of a Large-Scale School Feeding Program,” J. Human Resources, December 2020, 1019-10515R1,

[25] World Food Programme, “State of School Feeding Worldwide 2020” (Rome: World Food Programme [u.a.], 2006),

[26] Barbara Herz and Gene Sperling, “What Works in Girls’ Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World” (New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, January 1, 2004); Stephanie R. Psaki et al., “Policies and Interventions to Remove Gender‐related Barriers to Girls’ School Participation and Learning in Low‐ and Middle‐income Countries: A Systematic Review of the Evidence,” Campbell Systematic Reviews 15, no. 3 (2022),

[27] Michel Welmond and Laura Gregory, “Educational Underachievement Among Boys and Men” (Washington, DC: World Bank), accessed March 11, 2022,

Rights & Permissions

You may use and disseminate CGD’s publications under these conditions.