Despite Wide-Ranging Benefits, Girls' Education and Empowerment Overlooked in Developing Countries

(April 2010) Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impact of girls’ education on child and maternal mortality, health, fertility rates, poverty, and economic growth. Yet less than 2 cents of every dollar spent on international development is directed specifically toward adolescent girls, and they remain at the margins of international development programs.1 However, a March 2010 United Nations joint statement indicates that the international community is beginning to recognize that girls are a powerful catalyst for change.2


Investing in Adolescent Girls Brings Widespread Benefits


A key to reducing the cycle of poverty lies in an educated, healthy, and productive citizenry that is able to provide for the next generation. Adolescent girls hold a considerable yet untapped potential for accelerated national growth; their educational attainment, level of involvement in the labor force, and capability as caretakers of the next generation have a great impact on entire communities. There are about 600 million adolescent girls in developing countries and the 10-to-24-year-old age group is the fastest-growing segment of the population. This demographic trend can boost the economic prospects of developing countries by providing opportunities to these young people.


On average, girls with higher levels of education are more likely to participate in the labor force, engage in paid employment, earn more for their families over their lifetimes, and have healthier children who stay in school longer.3 Girls receive a higher economic return on investment in education than boys, and there are especially high wage gains from secondary education for girls. Female secondary education has an 18 percent return in the form of eventual wages, compared with 14 percent for males. In addition, girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to be married as children than those with little or no schooling.4 The educational attainment of adults in the household also positively affects children. In many countries, maternal education levels have a greater influence over school enrollment of children than the education level of fathers.


The positive effects of additional years of schooling go beyond the impact on earnings and labor force participation; fertility and child mortality rates are also highly correlated with maternal education. A girl who receives secondary and higher education beyond grade 7 has, on average, 2.2 fewer children. The positive effects of maternal education are also transferred to the next generation: Every extra year of schooling reduces infant mortality by up to 10 percent.5 In addition, the ripple effect from improving the lives of young girls becomes even stronger for the local community because of the tendency of females to reinvest their income at home. Girls and women spend 90 percent of their earned income on their families, compared with 30 percent to 40 percent among males.6 Together, these characteristics make young women important targets of pro-growth strategies in developing countries and a powerful potential source of community development.


Adolescent Girls Are Often Neglected


Several trends in the developing world have been recognized as negative influences on the future potential of girls. High out-of-school rates, early marriage and childbirth, and the serious risk of limiting diseases make it more difficult for girls to break out of the cycle of poverty. The Millennium Development Goals brought a greater focus to the gender gap in school enrollment in the developing world; however, the majority of out-of-school children (54 percent) worldwide are still girls. In 28 countries, there are fewer than nine girls enrolled for every 10 boys in primary school.7


There is a high correlation between widespread child marriages and the social standing of women. Child marriages are especially common in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and in some parts of Latin America, where one in seven girls marry before the age of 15 and as many as 38 percent marry before they turn 18. Marriage and motherhood at an early age are barriers separating girls from education, skills acquisition, and the labor force in these regions. Mortality rates for infants born to women under age 20 are 73 percent higher than for those born to older mothers. Equally alarming is the ratio of exposure to HIV: in 2005, 75 percent of 15-to-24-year-olds living with HIV in Africa were female.8 Girls are particularly vulnerable to infection because of their unequal power in relationships, their limited access to information, and their physical vulnerabilities. Despite these well-documented conditions, adolescent girls today do not benefit proportionally from development programs designed for women; simply because they are often invisible in their communities, adolescent girls might be among the hardest-to-reach populations in the developing world.


UN Joint Statement and Goals For the Future


International organizations have started to include adolescent girls in their wider programs and are intensifying their efforts to tailor new initiatives to better serve the needs of young girls. In March 2010, six United Nations organizations (ILO, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNIFEM, and WHO) pledged to “increase [their] agencies’ support to developing countries to advance key policies and programmes that empower the hardest-to-reach adolescent girls.”9


The main goals of the UN joint statement are to count girls, invest in their future, and recognize that they are an important part of their community. The statement offers these strategic priorities:


  • By assessing and quantifying the current condition of adolescent girls worldwide, they become more visible to policymakers. The collection of accurate education, health, and other quality-of-life statistics is crucial in order to identify areas where programs will carry the greatest impact for young girls’ lives. Gathering this much-needed data will make it easier for organizations and governments to invest in young girls, and to design programs and policies directly addressing their well-being.
  • Educating adolescent girls, making sure they have access to quality schools, and easing their transition from primary to post-primary education improves their prospects for a better life.
  • Ensuring access to age-appropriate health and nutrition information will help girls become more productive and active members of their communities.
  • Keeping girls safe and free from violence recognizes their human rights and brings them justice if they experience abuse and exploitation.
  • Girls need role models in the form of other adolescent girl leaders. They should have the opportunity for friendships and mentoring and should not be isolated from social interaction. Initiatives should seek to empower young girls and women through strong networks that provide peer and adult guidance and safe spaces of support.


Through these ambitious goals, the UN is taking a leading role in improving the future of adolescent girls worldwide.


Kata Fustos is an intern in the Communications department at the Population Reference Bureau.




  1. Nike Foundation, The Girl Effect, accessed at, on April 21, 2010.
  2. Accelerating Efforts to Advance the Rights of Adolescent Girls–A UN Joint Statement, accessed at, on April 20, 2010.
  3. UN Millennium Project, Taking Action: Achieving Gender Equality and Empowering Women (Sterling, VA: Task Force on Education and Gender Equality, 2005).
  4. Ruth Levine et al., Girls Count: A Global Investment & Action Agenda Reprint (Washington, DC: Center for Global Development, 2009).
  5. T. Paul Schultz, “Health and Schooling Investments in Africa,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 13, no. 3 (1999).
  6. Nike Foundation, The Girl Effect.
  7. UNESCO, EFA Global Monitoring Report: Reaching the Marginalized (Paris/Oxford: UNESCO/Oxford University Press, 2010).
  8. Ruth Levine et al., Girls Count.
  9. Accelerating Efforts to Advance the Rights of Adolescent Girls–A UN Joint Statement.