09 August 2023

Education of unequal opportunity. African girls still don’t have as much access to schools as their brothers, international organizations alarm, and HTT research confirms

Education in sub-Saharan African countries is still a privilege, not a natural experience. Especially for girls.

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Photo: unsplash.com

Empowerment should be equal for boys and girls so that one gender does not have an advantage over the other.

Teachers from a school in Kenya researched by HTT

Girls should be taught how to prevent unwanted pregnancies through contraception and family planning methods.

Teachers from a school in Kenya researched by HTT

Zimbabwe adopted the Education Amendment Act 2020 (…). The Act has provisions to protect, respect, and fulfill the right to education. It addresses issues pertinent to education, such as the prohibition of expelling pregnant girls from school.

Excerpt from the report on Zimbabwe schools (which is part of the research on education worldwide conducted by HTT in spring 2022)

In an era of Artificial Intelligence and specialized robots, there are still places in the world where education is a privilege not available to all. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in four children is out of school.

Most of them are girls.

The problem of inequality in access to schooling was also confirmed by a study conducted by the Holistic Think Tank. The HTT researchers visited schools on five continents, also investigating education in African countries: Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. While children worldwide have the same dreams and needs, their realization is very different.

The African reality

Africa is home to more than one billion people. While it is not the most populous continent in the world, it has the highest birth rate (about 2.4 percent per year). It is also the youngest continent in the world – children make up almost half of the population here.

The conclusion of these data is quite clear: the people of Africa will largely determine the world’s future. And yet, the “passport to the future,” as Malcolm X said, is education. And this in African countries is still a privilege. Although the 1945 UNESCO Constitution requires all countries of the world to provide full and equal access to education for all residents, the reality of sub-Saharan Africa is different. There are countries – like South Sudan and Sierra Leone – where most children do not attend school.

In some countries, it is officially mandatory to send children to school, but in practice, it is not always respected. This is the case, for example, in South Africa, researched by Holistic Think Tank, where only 74 percent of children go to school (another issue is the level of education: one teacher covers 80 students, and class sizes are sometimes as high as 140). There is also compulsory schooling in Tanzania, but since there is no population registries there, the law is almost impossible to respect.

As the Center for Citizenship Education’s (CCE) information indicates, even if African children begin education, there is a very high risk that they will not even complete elementary school. The youngest family members in sub-Saharan African countries work for the benefit of their family, including herding cattle or walking many miles to fetch water for the well. Working for the family makes it difficult both to attend school regularly and to further their knowledge outside of school. Additionally, in this part of the world, hunger is a common problem. Children come to school with empty stomachs (and sometimes already having worked on the land before in the morning), and being malnourished, they learn much less effectively than their peers in developed countries.

A school in South Africa where HTT conducted research
A school in South Africa where HTT conducted research

The problem of dropping out of education primarily affects female students. Fifty-four percent of girls in sub-Saharan African countries will not complete elementary school.

Parents’ dilemma

At the core of the girls’ educational underprivilege is both poverty and cultural conditioning, according to which a woman’s role is primarily to be a wife and mother, especially in rural communities.

The average fertility rate in sub-Saharan African countries is between five and six children per family (almost seven in Nigeria). Sending children to school, even a “cost-free” school, involves expenses that a large proportion of African families are unable to undertake: school materials, proper clothing, shoes, and sometimes a uniform must be purchased. What’s more, “extra hands” disappear from the household for a large part of the day, as most African children extensively help their families with farm work, care for younger siblings, or go to wells miles away.

Consequently, parents often assume they can only afford to send one or two children to school. Education is treated as an investment expected to pay off in the future – the offspring anointed to finish school is expected to financially support their parents and siblings in a decade or few. Adults, therefore, send to school those of their children who seem most suitable for it.

They are usually sons.

Girls’ weakness and power

There are more than 600 million girls aged 10-19 in the world. That’s the most in human history.

In sub-Saharan Africa, one in four girls will become a mother before she reaches the age of 18. This is largely due to the parents’ calculation: the girl should be married off as soon (and preferably) as possible. Also in order to protect her from being a victim of rape, which is a big problem here. If the girl is sick or disabled, she is up to three times more vulnerable to this form of violence, UNICEF data shows.

The difference between the number of boys and girls who do not finish school is more than 10 percent to the disadvantage of girls. This disparity widens even further in civil or military conflict situations – then girls are two and a half times more likely to miss school than boys, as UNICEF warns.

Meanwhile, CCE calculations show that providing African girls with each additional year of education (above the regional average) increases their earnings by as much as 10-20 percent. In a paper titled “Health and Schooling Investments in Africa,” Yale economist Prof. Paul Schultz argues that investing in girls’ education makes no less economic sense than for boys. Educating girls guarantees higher returns (expressed in increased salaries) than educating boys.

Likewise, The World Bank warns of the importance – economically, demographically, politically, and socially – of girls’ education. Research conducted by this institution in 100 countries shows that increasing the share of women with secondary education by every one percent translates into a higher annual increase in GDP per capita of 0.3 percent.

Women’s education also strengthens their position in society, reduces gender inequality, and is a powerful tool for women’s political participation. It implies strengthening democracy in the state. It also positively affects women’s sexual awareness and reproductive management. World Bank research shows that with every four years of education, a woman gives birth to one fewer offspring.

HTT’s values

Based on research conducted by HTT in 10 countries worldwide, the Holistic Think Tank has developed a list of “What School Ought To Teach” values. It includes such competencies as agency, self-care, trust and hope. Our proposed IDS methodology also emphasizes social justice, respect for every person, responsibility for others, and morality. Spreading these values can help make the school a place liked by children and appreciated by parents. A place that is equally accessible to children of both sexes and in all countries.