“Millions of Girls Never Set Foot in the Classroom”

Young girls living in rural communities are especially at risk because of lack of education, ingrained harmful practices, and gender-specific violence

Gambian girls at school

“Education changes lives. It provides a ladder out of poverty” yet, millions of girls “have never set foot in the classroom.” Photo: Unesco Africa – license: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Kaitlin Drape – Several CSW62 meetings addressed the perils of young girls in rural areas. The side event, “Leaving no girl behind”, was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom. During this event, Kiki James, CEO of ACE Charity in Abuja, Nigeria, noted that 130 million girls globally are out of school, and many countries have failed to provide “free, safe and quality education” for girls. Many schools do not have proper facilities including bathrooms, and lack safety features such as fences and security guards. Many girls fear going far from their homes because of the dangers of being kidnapped. ACE brings in teachers, computers (and the generators to run them), books and supplies and joins with the community in ensuring security.

Omar Abdi, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, noted that lack of education contributes to early marriage, early motherhood, and gender-based abuse. “Education changes lives. It provides a ladder out of poverty” yet, millions of girls “have never set foot in the classroom.”

Asiya Kazmi from Girls Education Challenge emphasized the importance of the right environment and teachers to learning outcomes, as well as using online opportunities. She discussed that their sustainable model includes “Learning Guides” – older students who can work with younger girls as tutors. This can create future teachers, and reinforces the value of young women in the community.

Sustainable development goals concerned


Harmful gender-based practices also oppress girls and women. For example, FGM (female genital mutilation) is a major issue for young girls – one that can result in devastating life-long health problems. Though it is prohibited in most countries of the world, in many rural communities are not enforced. At the discussion, “Successful Strategies for Ending FGM,” sponsored by the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), panelists explained that girls as young as 8 years old are subject to the practice, which also encourages child marriage. The practice is “a certificate for marriage,” said Nice Leng’ete, who works for AMREF in Kenya. Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director of Equality Now, commented that laws are not sufficient. “There are laws, but no one is using the law.” She explained that educating the police and judges is the key. Her organization often prosecutes individual cases to raise awareness of the legal prohibitions.

Gender-based abuse is engrained in some of these cultures, said Princess Osita-Oleribe from Center for Family Health Initiative (CFHI) at a panel discussion sponsored by Health Aid for All Initiative. Moreover, often women themselves perpetuate these practices.  “Laws must be agreed upon,” she emphasized, but also people have to “buy in” to the standards.  To achieve a change of mindset, her organization has sponsored civic forums in nine villages which have reached a thousand people. They have also initiated a billboard campaign and passed community charters which prohibit violence against women and girls.

Many do not even have access to sanitary pads. “This also effects their education,” said Dr. Ohajuruka. Because of the taboo associated with their periods, they are too embarrassed to go to school, and girls often miss a week of classes. The Family Health Initiative provides hygiene kits which provide reusable cloth pads and cleaning products and educational information.

To gain an education and create change, girls themselves must gain a stronger voice in their communities, according to Dr. Beth Osnes, a speech pathologist and co-founder of Speak.world, who offered a presentation entitled “Vocal Empowerment” about the organization’s work in Guatemala and Tanzania. Speak.world, is a “12-session program which uses science and art to unleash the contributions of young women,” said co-founder Chelsea Hackett, and includes voice training and analysis of social issues.

In the discussion sponsored by Girls Learn International entitled, “Girls’ Political Empowerment: Strategies and Technologies for Engaging Girls”, several young women discussed the importance of intersectionality in achieving human rights for girls and women, and the importance of girls sharing their personal stories using technology like social media.  For many girls, race, gender, as well as economic status collide and create a more difficult challenge for activists. Nevertheless, women and girls can participate in taking up this challenge and gain a voice by sharing their own unique stories, and expanding the global narrative about the core experiences which relate to the human rights of women and girls.