Girls Matter: A Conversation with Ann Warner

Three Girls, Afghanistan

Three girls at the opening of a new daycare in Afghanistan.
Photo © U. Roberto Romano.

“Education is pivotal to eliminating and preventing child labour, to establishing a skilled workforce and to promoting development based on the principles of social justice and human rights,” says the International Labour Organization in its 2007 publication Consolidated Good Practices in Education and Child Labour: Education as an Intervention Strategy to Eliminate and Prevent Child Labour. GoodWeave’s mission to eliminate child labor in the carpet industry, and its efforts to return rescued children to school, is clearly aligned with the broader educational goals and values of many other organizations and institutions.

Throughout the world, however, girls have often lagged behind boys in resources and programs, with insufficient consideration given to the particular needs and concerns of girls. At the same time, girls are often at risk in ways that boys are not, with more obstacles in the way of their education and safety. It cannot be overstated that the economic and ethical future of countless communities depends on a groundswell of powerful, focused support for girls.

According to Ann Warner, senior gender and youth specialist at the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women, education must be the cornerstone of an integrated global effort to empower girls. GoodWeave spoke with Warner, an expert on adolescent girls, issues of violence against women, population and reproductive health, and HIV and AIDS, to learn more.

As the lead author of Girls’ Education, Empowerment, and Transitions to Adulthood: The Case for a Shared Agenda, a new report from ICRW (read our excerpt here), Warner worked with co-authors Anju Malhotra and Allison McGonagle to make a persuasive and accessible case for the value of many diverse organizations and initiatives working together to seek better lives for the world’s girls through education.

Though classroom attendance in primary grades has long been seen as an essential beginning for all girls, Warner envisions a world where the quality of education is the most important consideration. “The first step is getting girls into schools, all girls, and this includes the most marginalized girls who are the most likely to be excluded. Girls must be not just sitting in schools but also acquiring skills, knowledge, resources, relationships and networks that will help them have healthier and safer adulthoods. We certainly need to get to universal access but also move beyond access to emphasize quality and relevance.”

As various sectors in the world of development and social change—primarily health and education—are making inroads to highlight and address these specific needs of girls, the report recommends greater coordinated efforts to yield more satisfying results: “With coordinated and leveraged resources, strategies can be sharpened, funding can be enhanced and progress can be accelerated. By investing jointly in girls’ education, empowerment and healthy, productive transitions to adulthood, we can unleash the potential of adolescent girls to transform their own lives and the world around them.”

Are there any possible counter-arguments to a greater focus on educating girls? “Honestly, I don’t think that there are too many people out there, whether they are donors or policy makers or parents, who disagree that educating girls is important; most people really are on board and they see the economic and social benefits of education,” Warner says. “However, the reality is that this often competes with practical constraints. In many settings, simply the cost of sending girls to school—fees, supplies, materials, uniforms—can be a huge barrier for poor households. Often boys are favored to go to school over girls both because of social norms and because opportunities in the labor market often favor men. [Education for girls] isn’t seen as having the same return on investment in the short term.”

Yet research shows a significant economic benefit from even incremental increases in girls’ education. According to a 2002 World Bank working paper, “Returns to Investment in Education,” quoted by, an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent; an extra year of secondary school, 15 to 25 percent. “Girls who are educated are, in the long run, likely to marry later, bear fewer children, educate their own children, and be less vulnerable to sexual abuse and coerced sex,” says Kavita N. Ramdas, executive director of Ripples to Waves and former president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, in the Summer 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Engaging men and boys in what is sometimes seen as a women’s issue is also important. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” Warner says, “of women gaining power to the detriment of men. Everyone has a stake in a more equitable world. Economies grow and opportunities are enhanced. The case is there, but we’re still experimenting with how to effectively engage men and boys. A community-based approach is often the best one, enlisting all members of the community as allies.”

Girls themselves tend not to need persuasion to go to school, Warner says: “They are eager to be educated, to satisfy their curiosity, to interact with their peers and use their imaginations. School provides an opportunity to do that. Girls are often more eager than the grownups in their lives to go beyond tradition.” At the same time, puberty can be a time of great vulnerability for girls, when they are most often pulled from school for marriage or work, and at greater risk for violence or risky sexual behavior. Because secondary and tertiary education have significant benefits beyond primary education, it’s especially important to keep girls in school through this critical period.

With respect to GoodWeave’s mission to end child labor in the rug industry as well as move rescued children into educational settings, the Girls’ Education, Empowerment, and Transition to Adulthood report does not specifically discuss child labor as a barrier to education. Warner acknowledges that this is an example of the report’s core argument—that the work of the philanthropic community is fragmented and that the need for dialogue and shared strategies should be addressed. Education as a means to viable and dignified adult employment dovetails with the need for children to have safe, nonexploitive environments and to learn skills that will give them future options. In addition to basic literacy and numeracy skills, Warner says, “There’s a lot that schools can offer in terms of other cognitive and critical thinking skills that can be applied to a range of job and career opportunities, helping girls to be better parents, more informed community members, positive contributors to communities.”

Yet even basic literacy, though progressing, is a challenge for many of the girls in GoodWeave regions. From “Despite a major improvement in literacy rates in India over the past decade, the number of children who are not in school remains high. Gender disparities in education persist with far more girls than boys failing to complete primary school. The national literacy rate of girls over seven years is 54% against 75% for boys. In the Northern Hindi-speaking states of India, girls literacy rates are particularly low, ranging between 33–50%. Although lower primary schools are within one kilometer of 94 percent of India’s population, at an average every second girl child in India has not been enrolled.”

Though there is progress toward the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015. “We can’t just assume that we can stop at the Millennium Development Goal of primary access for boys and girls,” Warner says. “We have to push ourselves further because we know that secondary access is vitally important.” In Afghanistan from 2007–2010, according to UNICEF figures, female participation in secondary school grades declined to 15% (versus 38% for boys).

Finally, Warner says, schools in the developing world often present physical hazards for girls in the school environment, and bias on the part of teachers and administrators, all requiring awareness and evolution. “We can’t forget that we have to use a gender-sensitive approach to that and make sure boys and girls are benefiting equally. Schools must be girl-friendly, which at a minimum means schools are safe and girls are free from violence and harassment. And we need to be sure that the curriculum itself is not discriminatory and that the teachers are not reinforcing stereotypes and discrimination. We can’t assume that the education sector can do all this on its own,” she says.

“It’s about collaboration across sectors. We all have a stake in ensuring that women and girls have an advantage in being educated. There really is a global benefit in terms of economic growth, political stability and security, in creating a more equitable world.”

More articles on this subject:

Girl Power to Granny Power: A Conversation with Paola Gianturco

Difficult but Not Impossible: GoodWeave in Afghanistan

Motorcycle Girls: From Child Laborers to Shop Owners in Nepal

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At the age of five, Manju was already working on the rug looms. While she has since been found and freed from illegal carpet work, some 250,000 children throughout South Asia still toil in obscurity. Through GoodWeave nearly 3,600 kids like Manju have been rescued, rehabilitated and educated, and thousands more deterred from entering the work force.

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