Is Educating Girls the magic bullet that cures poverty?


As a seasoned aid worker, it really worries me that many policy-makers imply that if we can just get girls to complete school, they can break out of poverty.

Don’t get me wrong, focusing on educating girls is critical. Only 23% of rural girls living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa complete their primary education, according to the UN (1). Most experts agree that educating girls has a multiplier effect, as girls who complete primary and secondary education are likely to earn income, have fewer unwanted pregnancies and break the cycle of poverty (2). Achieving universal primary education for both girls and boys is a hugely important global Millennium Development goal. And one that I fully support.

But then what?

The assumption seems to be that once girls have been to school they will be able to get a job, be economically productive and generally be able to improve their lot in life.

The day they proudly leave their schools, clutching their (proverbial) graduation certificates, they have the pick of the job offers, work hard, smash through the glass ceiling on their way to the top of their industries, buy a Mercedes Benz and invest in private education for their children. Women are known invest more in their families and communities than men. Research shows that women invest 90% of their incomes back home, compared to 30-40% of male incomes (3).

So all you need to do to break poverty, is to get girls in school, keep them there until they graduate, and it all falls into place – educating girls is the ultimate catalyst for social change, poverty alleviation and economic development.

If only it were that easy.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but a simple glimpse out of the window in an average African town or village will reveal that it is not quite that simple. The streets aren’t exactly bustling with recruiters. What do you think the job prospects are for a recent graduate of a primary school in rural Africa? Heck, what are the job prospects of a university graduate in France? (A lot better than for a rural girl in Africa, yet France has 10% unemployment).

I think I can say with certainty that nobody actually knows what the unemployment rate is in the country where I live – Zimbabwe. Estimates vary from 95% according the CIA Factbook, to 11% according the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. The huge difference is partly due to how you define unemployment. The economy is hampered by a number of factors, with the upshot that there are not many formal jobs available for anyone. Most people get by either through subsistence farming or trading in the informal sector. Are those activities classified as “employment”? (Hint: Yes, by the Reserve Bank, but not by the CIA).

Zimbabwe has had an incredibly robust education system and the highest literacy rate in Africa (UNDP reported that it was 99.5% among young females in 2011), and a large percentage of females enroll in secondary school. Even if most girls do complete secondary school – and again it’s hard to be certain in the absence of robust recent data – how can they earn incomes and break the cycle of poverty – when there are no jobs on offer?

Ah, so now you start to see the shortcomings of soundbite policy-making. Yes, educating girls is a game-changing strategy and one with an incredibly high return on investment in terms of social and economic development.

But a school education is not enough to guarantee you a good future: without income-generating skills, girls and women are often dependent on family or external support or forced to take desperate coping strategies like early or coerced marriage, transactional sex (which brings a high risk of HIV infection in southern Africa), living on the streets or worse.

So now it’s time for the next step.

We – the global community – want women to have real choices, and real chances to break out poverty. We want them to have financial freedom from charity, from families and from acts of desperation. And if there are no jobs – and prospects for creating them are slim – then enterprise development is a good option.

Many non-profits, aid agencies and religious groups provide micro-finance and income-generating projects for women. These projects and cooperatives can alleviate poverty and provide a safety net when times are hard. They provide safer coping mechanisms for women and girls, and clearly that’s a lifeline for many.

But in my opinion, it is not enough.

I don’t want women to barely survive, clinging precariously to a living that gets them through one more day. I want women to thrive. I want women have real choices and real chances to change their lives. I want women to be empowered with the skills, knowledge and opportunities they need to attain better economic, social and environmental future for themselves, their families and their communities.

If we can empower women to acquire the skills, savvy and resources they need to take their businesses beyond subsistence to provide opportunities for growth and development – then we can finally achieve sustainable development. And that is exactly what EBW2020 aims to do.

It’s the perfect time to empower a billion women.

We stand at a defining moment in history: with advances in technology, changes in the global economy and growing support for social enterprise, now is the best time we’ve had to be able to make a real difference. There are many projects out there that support women economic empowerment and we need them all. It’s a case of all hands on deck: we need to crowd source ideas and innovations, we need to leverage technology and we need to connect women together so that they can develop customised solutions.

EBW2020 is global partnership of change-makers, working together to ensure that one billion women get the tools, technology & resources they need to succeed. I’m honoured to be a part of it. And I’m going to do everything I can to fulfil its mandate. Together we can make a real difference. We can change our world.

Join us.
1. UNESCO, Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2013-4.
2. World Bank, December 2014: Girls’ Education Brief (
3. Phil Borges,2007: Women Empowered: Inspiring Change in the Emerging World [New York: Rizzoli, 2007]