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Across the world -- including in the U.S. -- equitable access to education isn’t always a guarantee. From birth, many girls begin an uphill trek through gendered injustices to reach opportunities that should have been accessible from the start.
With over one in five girls denied enrollment globally, centuries-old limitations prevent women from following the same pathways that seamlessly lift men into positions of opportunity and success. And, while we’ve made some progress in addressing Sustainable Development Goal 4.5 to eliminate gender inequality in education, women and girls still face challenges in accessing equal educational opportunities because of systems that discriminate against race, citizenship status, region, and household income.
Race and Education
In the U.S., gaps in the quality of education persist for Black students. In a system that was designed to leave students of color behind and disburses resources and dollars inequitably, we’ve seen the negative results: The 2017-2018 high school graduation rate was 89% for white students; 81% for Hispanic students; 79% for Black students and 74% for American Indian students.
These effects are even more pronounced for girls of color, who find themselves at the intersection of racial and gender discrimination. Because of structural criminalization, neglect, and discrimination, educational institutions in the U.S. have blocked Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students from equal learning opportunities.
Citizenship and Region
Migrant or refugee students often face subpar learning conditions or loss of learning opportunities due to unequipped schools and language barriers. Meanwhile, immigrant students bump up against frequent interruptions to their education that have a compounding effect for girl learners. Without an educational pathway, women and girls can become more vulnerable to forced marriage or trafficking.
In parts of the world struggling with country-wide conflict and climate-induced disasters, education is often not a priority. And, once again, women and girls absorb the brunt of this neglect.
Some of this can be attributed to exploitative or corrupt governments that have reallocated funds meant for girls’ education. In Afghanistan, for instance, funding for women’s education often finds its way into budgets that perpetuate a dangerous, conflict-based climate or more resources for boys’ schooling. During the coronavirus pandemic, compounded by increasing levels of domestic violence, women and girls have been forced into increasingly dangerous circumstances, adding yet more obstacles to an already heavily obscured educational pathway.
Financial status also impacts educational opportunities, as the benefits of schooling seldom reach those living in low-income households. Whether through a lack of social capital or structural barriers, students living in poverty have a much harder time accessing the educational resources they need to succeed later in life. The path to education and wealth-building is even more difficult for girls growing up in these households, already discouraged by gender marginalization or facing gender-based violence.
Globally, reports estimate -- at the minimum -- 35% of women experience some form of violence in their lifetime. Approximately 15 million girls around the world have had at least one encounter with a forced sexual act, and 23% of all female undergraduate students have experienced sexual assault or misconduct at some point in their schooling.
Consequences of Gender Inequity
This widespread systemic inequity generates circumstances that set countries up for repeated catastrophes and instability. A report from the World Economic Forum details the multiplying cost of barring girls’ access to opportunities, the consequences of which have devastating impacts on a nation’s economy, politics, and overall health.
For instance, the report pinpoints gaps in education equality as the source of between $16 billion and $30 billion in annual economic loss for some nations. A levelled-out playing field has the potential to improve lifetime earnings for women and lead to an economic benefit of between $15 trillion and $30 trillion each year.
The costs of inequity have never been more clear than in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the economic and health crises that have long affected communities of color and been ignored. On top of that, women have faced the brunt of this virus as household caregivers and healthcare workers. In areas that have been chronically oppressed and exploited, gaps in gender equality have widened exponentially.
This guide is intended to help donors better understand the gender equity landscape, specifically around the benefits of supporting women and girls’ education.
Barriers to Girls’ Education
Criminalization of Black and Latinx Girls in School
Recent protests have revealed what Black communities have long known in America: Communities of color are overpoliced on the streets, and even in our schools. Schools’ strict disciplinary policies often result in suspensions and expulsions for students of color (when their white counterparts receive no punishment or less severe punishments for the same behavior), effectively pushing them out of the education system and restricting opportunities for success throughout the rest of their lives.
Penalties for racialized crimes like drug use are much harsher for Black girls, who are suspended at a rate of 12%, much higher than their peers in other demographics. Girls as young as 12 are often publicly suspended or even arrested in front of their classmates. Like other institutions, the education system leaves Black women and girls a minuscule margin for error and very few of the protective benefits that allow their white peers to thrive.
The same is true for Latinx girls. Zero-tolerance policies, as well as harsh disciplinary policies, send Latinx students straight through a school-to-prison pipeline that disrupts their entire lives, both inside education and out. The effects are more pronounced for girls with disabilities in Latinx and Black communities, who experience segregation along with disproportionate levels of punishment.
Today, the need for allies to stand up and dismantle these systems is more urgent than ever, and one starting point is education. The South Side Giving Circle is focusing its energy on supporting Black women and girls with strategies for direct, local grantmaking in Chicago. Student unions are training communities of teachers to prioritize Blackness for positive change in high schools around the U.S. Students at the college level are requiring universities to pay reparations for centuries of oppression. And Nevada has made a concerted effort to engage Latinx girls in computer science programs and negate the school to prison pipeline.
Lack of Women’s Education Leadership
Women who play larger roles in the education sector drive meaningful, reproducible change as role models and leaders in the community, helping shape policies that benefit all students, yet there’s a vast underrepresentation of women in education’s leadership positions.
Girls aren’t receiving the same baseline representation in school, especially in grades 9-12, which reinforces the cycle of fewer women in leadership positions globally. This issue is even more pronounced in conflict-ridden or poor regions of the world, where over 130 million girls remain out of school, exacting a toll of nearly $30 trillion dollars in earnings and productivity.
Data has shown that students of color benefit from attending schools with teachers of the same race, yet women of color are overwhelmingly excluded from positions of academic leadership. Biased hiring practices and the absence of family-friendly policies are just a few of the barriers faced by women of color, who often find themselves in an education system led by -- and therefore geared toward -- white men.
But change can happen, and donors have an opportunity to support new initiatives: Young women of color are developing solutions with communities to reimagine how our systems can look for a just future. And, efforts to elevate the voices of teachers of color and change the narrative surrounding women leaders in education systems are clearing the path for a new education landscape.
In some parts of the world, girls face barriers to education because of long-held cultural norms like child marriage and early pregnancy. In some cases, stigma and lack of support and services cause girls to drop out or miss school during and after teen pregnancy.
Absence from school has devastating effects for girls. According to a report from the UN, countries that offer less than 60% of girls the opportunity to finish schooling experience significantly worse gender disparity than others, especially in impoverished communities. In Pakistan, where education offers a tentative escape from child marriage, only 13% of girls are still in school by the ninth grade and 21% enter marriage by 18.
School closures caused by COVID-19 in underdeveloped parts of the world could produce increased rates of child marriage and should be a reminder that women and girls fare worse in global crises. Cases of unwanted pregnancies and domestic violence are likely to increase, while resources for menstrual hygiene can be harder to access.
Worldwide, at least 500 million girls and women lack adequate facilities for menstrual health management, and in some places, cultural stigmas prevent girls from attending school or women from working while they’re menstruating. Organizations like Days for Girls work to combine health education (for boys and men, too) with social entrepreneurship -- teaching women to sew and sell washable pads.
Meanwhile, policies banning child marriage, like one passed in Tanzania, can help protect girls from life-altering circumstances. Philanthropy can support advocacy work to help enact similar changes in other countries and, in turn, improve education outcomes for girls around the world.
Life skills education is one way nonprofits are tackling the issue head on in India. By providing girls with accurate information about sexual and reproductive health, they can protect themselves and take their learnings back to their communities to help change the narrative about child marriage. PSI focuses on providing women with information on a variety of contraceptive methods in an effort to increase their autonomy.
In the United States, the quality and content of sex education in schools varies by state, but progress is happening. In Colorado, successful teen parent programs have caused teen birth rates to plummet. And, an important initiative in 2020 has reformed sex education standards in the United States to include vital information on STDs, contraception, and reproductive justice.
Stereotypes within STEM
From finding the next vaccine for a pandemic to addressing climate change, our world will continue to demand more from the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. And, as many large-scale issues disproportionately affect women and people of color, we need better representation in these areas.
Despite this, girls currently represent a mere 27% of participants in higher education’s engineering and manufacturing classes; meanwhile, in programs for communication technologies -- think software engineering degrees -- women make up just 28% of class populations globally, according to a report from the UN.
Students of color are vastly underrepresented in STEM programs. Funding inequities for schools that serve higher percentages of Latinx, Black, and Indigenous students leave them unequipped with the tools needed to support science and math classes. Then, with STEM classes already lacking diversity, these students find it difficult to break into tech-oriented fields in higher education.
Preconceived notions about certain groups’ abilities to pursue careers in STEM have distinct effects on students of color. Studies reveal a particularly debilitating correlation between stereotypes and performance in STEM courses along racial boundaries, the implications of which limit social mobility and exacerbate discrimination in hiring practices. Such lack of opportunity effectively removes women in BIPOC communities from some of today’s most lucrative careers and perpetuates the cycle of intergenerational poverty that affects people of color.
Girls experience these biases as well, with stereotypes and expectations discouraging girls from pursuing careers in STEM that have been historically male-dominated. Language in educational messages creates strong associations between girls and non-STEM fields, suggesting that women may be more suited for familial or maternal roles, rather than the tech-oriented jobs of their male peers.
Biased messaging exacerbates inequality: For instance, in a study of 70 countries at UNESCO, results indicated that 15-year-old girls have significantly lower self-efficacy than boys in all STEM subjects except those involving medicine. As one might expect, the report also revealed a notable relationship between damaged self-esteem and lower performance in STEM classes.
But the future is bright: Advocates are working to close the gap between male and female representation in STEM, including efforts to train teachers and administrators on the pervasiveness of stereotypes in girls’ STEM education. Meanwhile, the organization Black Girls Code works to improve girls of color’s access to computer programming courses, providing them with tech skills and reversing prejudiced stereotypes. In rural parts of the country, environmental STEM curriculums are a response to girls’ interests and experiences.
After a significant increase in participation between 2000 to 2015, women outnumber men in enrollment in higher education math, stats, and natural science courses. Donors have an opportunity to support this continued progress and support innovative solutions to ensure more girls have access to STEM education and careers.
Where to Focus Your Giving
Gender Equity in Education
To understand where to target our giving, it’s important we understand which barriers are most prohibitive in the fight for equity in girls’ education globally and where we’re coming up short in addressing them.
Girls living in poverty, for instance, don’t have access to resources that help them navigate the education system. The result? They rarely attend school for more than five years of their lives. Trapped in a harsh cycle, women constitute 60% of the world’s chronically hungry population. Then, with unequal access to resources or programs that address their needs, women are prohibited from reaching the same agricultural output in developing nations as men leaving 12% to 17% more hungry people worldwide.
Breaking the cycle is difficult: But it’s been proven possible. One program helps women access water in dry areas, allowing more time for self-sustainment and education. Other system-level changes, like safer infrastructure, provide protection from potentially abusive or violent situations. And sustained efforts to grow women-owned businesses also contribute to structural shifts in the cycle of gender marginalization.
Within wealthier nations, increased funding to programs for girls’ education won’t entirely deconstruct its foundation of discrimination. The American education system inherently favors white men and perpetuates race and gender stereotypes that prevent real progress.
While it’s easy to foot the bill for skin-deep solutions with immediate funding or one-time gifts, the real challenge lies in effecting change on the systems level. Funders can invest in advocacy and community-oriented nonprofits with a commitment to increased and continuous giving. By supporting life skills education to empower girls, for example, donors have an opportunity to create broad, long-term societal change.
Collaboration and authenticity within foundations are more essential ingredients for real impact in the movement for girls’ education. Of course, any solution that doesn’t include the voices of those in communities it aims to serve can’t truly impact widespread change.
Pathways to Change
Here are several examples of how changemakers around the world are using these best practices to advance progress for girls’ education:
Storytelling: Filmmakers in Afghanistan follow two girls’ paths through their country’s education system, using poignant imagery to draw awareness towards the injustices that surround girls on a global scale.
Fundraising: Jamaica-native Davinia James proves that any “little” thing helps, collecting $15,000 in pennies to fund Afghanistani girls’ education on the other side of the world. And in a high school near San Francisco, Tsegenet Awoke and her classmates raised more than $64,000 towards girls’ education in Burkina Faso.
Policy changes: Recent legislation in Uganda attempts to install a gender-sensitive pedagogy that would strip its schools of corrosive gender assumptions among teachers and students. The effects mirror those of another Ugandan program, which uses sex education to arm girls with the necessary knowledge for real agency over their bodies.
Girls’ Education: Who You Should Know
From established organizations and movements to impact investing and individual contributions, learn who you should know.
It’s essential to direct your giving to organizations led by people closest to the issues, in this case, women-led and BIPOC-led organizations. Another best practice is committing to a nonprofit for an extended period of time. Multi-year donations allows an organization to measure effectiveness and adapt accordingly. Unrestricted funding has a similar effect; providing nonprofits with a generous flow of resources allows for freedom, innovation, and growth.
While this list isn’t exhaustive, we’re sharing a compilation of vetted organizations that center equity, transparency, effectiveness, and systems change:
Funding Movements and Campaigns
Movements, a grassroots effort to achieve a specific goal, are another way donors can support real change. From women’s rights to racial justice, movements require immediate mobilization of money, long-term support, and trust from donors. When you adjust your giving strategy to join forces with social movements, you can become an amplifier for change. Focusing on the root causes of an issue, engaging policymakers, and supporting credible, impactful leaders can help you become an effective contributor. Here’s a look at some of the movements around girls’ education and gender equity.
Funding Social Entrepreneurs
Constantly subject to revaluation and renovation, the world of giving revolves closely around the progress of social entrepreneurs. Of course, for these innovators to develop the most effective methods for driving systems-change, they need support, especially during early stages of impact. Funders are absolutely crucial in supporting these advocates for justice, who utilize inclusive funding strategies and impact investing to effectively rebuild previously discriminatory structures with real justice and equity.
Fortunately, some organizations have already dedicated their entire capacity to supporting and sustaining up-and-coming entrepreneurs for social change, offering donors an easy-to-use outlet for sustaining innovation. But for those looking to start giving directly, Skoll provides a list of several transparent, impactful social entrepreneurs for women and girls’ education:
Engaging in Donor Networks
Often, the most impactful contributions towards equity in women and girls’ education hinge upon effective collaboration. Donor collaboratives and giving circles are some of the fastest growing influencers of social change. One such example, Maverick Collective, is a donor network addressing a variety of issues impacting women and girls. Women Moving Millions consists of women who’ve contributed at least a million dollars towards elevating the lives and voices of women. Other funds for women’s equity in education and the workplace also require connected support from donors in the communities they serve, while women’s foundations address gender inequity inside education and out.
Collaborative efforts like these are serving communities with concerted efforts to promote small nonprofits and engage philanthropists in grassroots movements. Their pooled resources generate impact in movements led for and by members of marginalized communities. Of course, they can’t do it on their own -- donors are critical in growing donor collectives’ capacity for impact. Improving efficiency and effectiveness within the structure of giving circles and women’s foundations can streamline collaborative impact right away. So, what can you do to get involved?
Read more about how women are utilizing collective giving to drive systems-change -- then, use your new knowledge to join unified efforts to elevate equity in women and girls’ education in your community.
Where to Give to Support Women and Girls’ Education
Now, the only thing left to do is start giving! Start donating to girls’ education today.