Girls' Education, Empowerment, and Transitions to Adulthood: The Case for a Shared Agenda

Authors: Ann Warner, Anju Malhotra, Allison McGonagle

© 2012 International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). GoodWeave is grateful to the ICRW for permission to reprint the following excerpt. Click here to download the full report.


Decades of empirical evidence and practical experience support the robust associations between women’s educational attainment and positive development outcomes. It is now conventional wisdom in development discourse that where education levels are higher among women, fertility rates are lower, family size is smaller, and women’s health and economic status are stronger.1 There is even evidence to suggest that in settings where education is more gender equitable, economic growth is more robust.2 What is less understood is how the education of girls and young women translates into positive development outcomes. We argue that it is the healthier, safer transition of adolescent girls to adulthood and their empowerment during this process that are, in fact, the linchpins between education and improved outcomes at the individual, community, and societal levels.

Education is essential to prepare adolescent girls for healthy, safe and productive transitions to adulthood. However, adolescent girls in much of the developing world are underserved by the education sector—too many are not in school, or are not receiving a quality, relevant education in a safe and supportive environment. At the same time, programs that emphasize girls’ healthy and productive transitions to adulthood are not adequately linking with the education sector. Despite the common goals held by sectors that serve adolescent girls—from education to reproductive health to economic development—their strategies are fragmented and they do not reach girls at an adequate scale.

This paper makes a case for why leveraging education to facilitate girls’ transitions to healthy, safe and productive adulthood is the single most important development investment that can be made. We provide guidance on how we can build on past progress, forge more productive alliances and redouble our efforts to ensure that all girls in the developing world have the opportunity to obtain a quality, relevant education. In order to do this, development practice must shift to accommodate and facilitate cross-sectoral collaboration for girls’ healthy transitions to adulthood. With a shared vision, and coordinated strategies to achieve that vision, sectors ranging from education to health to economic development can contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Why Adolescent Girls?

Adolescent Girls are a Large and Important Demographic in the Developing World

Girls are a critical demographic for social change and global development, representing a large and underserved population in the developing world. People under the age of 25 make up 43 percent of the world population,3 and 60 percent of the population in the world’s least developed countries.4 The current cohort of adolescent girls is the largest in human history, and the number is expected to peak over the next decade. Nevertheless, adolescent girls fall through the cracks of many development programs and services. Working with and for adolescent girls is increasingly recognized as a human rights and development imperative. According to a recent multi-country analysis, closing the gender gap during adolescence in education, economic activity, and health would significantly increase national economic growth and well-being.5

Adolescence is a Critical Developmental Period, and it is Often Fraught with Challenges for Girls

Adolescence is a critical developmental period for both boys and girls, yet, in many settings, girls face particular challenges during this period. While boys and girls are relatively equal in health and developmental outcomes during their early childhood, disadvantages mount for girls during adolescence.6 Girls experience a “density of transitions” during adolescence, in that biological and social changes tend to occur within a shorter period of time for girls than for boys.7 Girls reach puberty at a younger age than boys, which means that they face developmental and social challenges related to sexual maturation earlier in life. Girls have less access to sexual health information and are less likely than boys to use contraception. Girls are also more likely to marry and begin childbearing during adolescence: one-third of girls in the developing world give birth before age 20.8 Even if they are not married as adolescents, girls usually bear the burden of domestic responsibilities—often having to care for siblings, parents and extended family members, or spending significant amounts of time on domestic chores.

Such conflating events curtail childhood and have direct consequences for girls’ health, educational and economic opportunities. Early marriage is associated with social isolation, domestic violence, increased vulnerability to HIV and other sexual health infections, and early pregnancy. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls in developing countries ages 15 to 19.9 Whether they are married or not, girls are more likely to be socially isolated and excluded from education or social opportunities.10 Girls have fewer economic opportunities in every region of the world except for East Asia, and there is a particularly wide gender gap in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.11 Girls are also more likely to suffer from violence—both within the home and in the community, including in school or en route to school. A recent nationwide study in Tanzania reported that 3 of every 10 Tanzanian females aged 13 to 24 had been victims of sexual violence; of these, almost 1 in 4 reported an incident occurred while traveling to or from school and 15 percent reported that at least one incident occurred at school or on school grounds.12 A recent study among students in Bangladesh illustrated that 12 percent of girls rarely felt safe in school.13 Parents, too, may see school as dangerous, especially if the distance from home to school is great, and therefore see keeping girls at home as the best option for their protection.

Adolescent Girls Continue to Lag Behind Boys in Educational Attainment in Many Areas

Over the last three decades, there have been significant gains around the world in girls’ enrollment in schools. Many regions and countries have reached gender parity in primary education. Globally, girls are now just over half of the out-of-school population (53 percent in 2009),14 compared to 57 percent at the beginning of the millennium.15 But as a consequence of some of the factors mentioned above, gender-based inequities do persist. Where overall enrollment rates are lower, gender gaps also tend to be higher. For example, in West and Central Africa, where overall enrollment figures are among the lowest in the world, the gender gap is also wide: the net primary enrollment ratio from 2003 to 2008 was 71 percent for boys, compared to 64 percent for girls.16

While parity in education at the primary level has increased significantly in most parts of the world, girls’ participation rates decline at the secondary level in many regions. The share of girls in total secondary enrollment has increased from 43 percent to 48 percent since 1990, and in most countries, girls who have completed primary education are just as likely as boys to make the transition to secondary education.17 However, key regions in the developing world continue to experience gender disparities in secondary school enrollment. In the Arab States, South and West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, the male GER is significantly higher than the female GER. Total enrollment in secondary school in Sub-Saharan Africa has grown nine-fold since 1970, but overall levels of participation in secondary school are the lowest in the world, and the gender disparities are the widest.18 Latin America and the Caribbean stand out for having a gender gap that favors girls over boys.

The gendered patterns of secondary school completion are mixed: in some countries and regions, girls complete at similar or higher rates than boys, and in other countries and regions, boys compete at similar or higher rates than girls.19 However, girls are more likely than boys to drop out. In most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, boys are more likely than girls to graduate from lower secondary school.20

Gender interacts with other factors, such as household wealth and geographic location, to affect educational attainment. The gender gap in educational access is much wider between girls and boys from the poorest households, as compared to girls and boys from the richest households. There is also a wider gap between girls and boys in rural areas, as compared to urban areas. For example, in Nigeria, there is more than 60 percent gap between secondary school enrollment among the richest males and the poorest females.21 Overall, girls and women are more likely than boys and men to have their education cut short due to adverse circumstances such as poverty, conflict, natural disasters, or economic downturn. And girls who belong to religious, ethnic, linguistic, racial or other minorities are more likely than other girls to be excluded from school.22

Enrollment and completion rates tell only part of the story of the progress and limitations of educational attainment. Simply attending school does not equate to learning or gaining skills required to live healthier and more productive lives. There is abundant data from global learning assessments showing that too many children are leaving schools without having acquired even basic knowledge, skills and competencies, amounting to what has been coined a “global learning crisis.”23 The gender gap in learning is inconsistent, with girls outperforming boys in some regions and boys outperforming girls in others. Some research has looked at gendered aspects of school quality, including teachers’ attitudes toward female students, gender-responsive textbooks and materials, and supportive and empowering classrooms and school environments (including appropriate sanitation facilities for girls).24 Research from Kenya and Bangladesh indicates that the quality of teaching and the gender sensitivity of the school environment influence demand for education for girls even more than boys.25,26 However, school-level factors are not the only contributors to learning outcomes; recent data from Malawi indicates that household-level variables have a bigger effect on learning outcomes than do school-level variables.27

Finally, at the tertiary level, young women currently outperform men in tertiary enrollment in many regions, suggesting that there may be good value and return to investing in girls’ education at lower levels. However, segregation persists in the fields of study in tertiary education, with young women being overrepresented in the health and education sectors, and underrepresented in engineering, manufacturing, construction and sciences.28 This has important implications for women’s earning potential, since there is a strong association between math and science skills and increased earnings.29

Similarly, appropriate technological knowledge and skills are essential for participation in the 21st-century workforce. As technologies are incorporated into business and everyday life in developing countries, it is increasingly important that students gain advanced technological skills in order to compete in the modern job market. However, there is currently a significant gap in access to and use of technology between women and men. Studies have found that women in low and middle-income countries are 21 percent less likely to own cell phones.30 Additionally, women represent a small fraction of internet users in many developing countries: 16 percent in Ethiopia, 31 percent in Venezuela, and 27 percent in India in 2000.31 High quality, advanced educational programs, which incorporate technologies in their instruction, provide an opportunity to equip girls with the necessary skills to engage with technologies and narrow the gender digital divide.32

Making the Connection Between Education, Girls’ Transitions to Adulthood and Positive Development Outcomes

While most of the available empirical evidence has substantiated population-level associations between educational attainment and positive development outcomes—such as economic growth, reduced fertility, improved maternal health—there has been insufficient understanding of the pathways that individuals follow that lead to these macro-level outcomes.33 How exactly do these investments become the channel for progress in development indicators? We argue that the pathway between interventions for relevant, quality education and positive development outcomes needs to be “telescoped” to draw out the linkages and the particularly important role played by girls’ transitions to adulthood. Education enhances both individual resources and individual agency, which are the essential components for empowerment.

Figure 2 illustrates how education provides the ingredients for more positive transitions to adulthood, which are the essential precursors to a range of positive, macro-level development outcomes. There are multiple ways that being in school can delay and improve transitions to adulthood. First of all, school-going tends to be incompatible with marriage or pregnancy because social norms, social policy, or restrictions on time make it difficult for girls to go to school and be wives and mothers at once.34,35 Furthermore, when girls are exposed to a quality education, they acquire information and skills, which can yield literacy, numeracy, and cognitive skills. With more skills, they are better-equipped to compete in the labor market and to secure higher-paying jobs. By reducing their social isolation and getting exposure to peers, mentors, and an enhanced sense of services and opportunities in their community, girls can gain social capital. Finally, a quality education can also enhance girls’ aspirations, autonomy and decision-making ability, all of which contribute to their capacity to envision and plan for their futures.36,37,38

Figure 2, ICRW

In summary, education offers many of the ingredients for a successful transition to adulthood, namely “the acquisition of relevant capacities, including cognitive competencies, marketable skills, social capital, and complementary values and motivations, that enable individuals to function effectively in a range of adult roles, including worker, household provider, parent, spouse, family caretaker, citizen, and community participant.”39

These individual-level changes are accompanied by changes at the household and community and level. When girls are in school, households may gain financial returns—either directly, through subsidies or incentives for school enrollment and attendance, or indirectly, through perceived and actual returns to the household through girls’ enhanced financial literacy skills and preparation for work. Family members may also gain non-economic opportunities through girls’ schooling, such as access to other social services and resources. As more girls go to school, their social status is enhanced, and community perceptions and norms regarding what is acceptable and expected from girls begin to change.40 Adolescence becomes an extension of childhood, a period for learning, playing, growing, and investing in the future, rather than a period of premature adulthood, in which marriage, childbearing and domestic work are the central focus.

It is no accident, therefore, that research focusing on transitions to adulthood finds that girls’ attendance in school during adolescence is correlated with delayed sexual initiation, later marriage and childbearing, lower rates of HIV/AIDS and other reproductive morbidities, fewer hours of domestic work, higher wages and greater gender equality.41 Girls’ acquisition of knowledge, skills and experience, along with enhanced familial and community support, prepares them to be more informed and able workers, citizens, spouses and parents. These benefits yield inter-generational dividends, as these women will have fewer, healthier and more highly educated children. In short, empowered girls who become healthy, productive, and empowered adults are a force for positive social, economic, and political change.

The relationship between education and transformation at the individual and societal level is not necessarily linear or automatic. Household-level characteristics, the external environment, and the level and quality of education matter greatly. In a global literature review of the benefits of education to women, Malhotra et al. found that empowerment-related returns on investment in education are often realized more fully in secondary levels or higher. Furthermore, the economic, social, legal and political environment surrounding the education system and the individuals within it is critical: girls and women are best able to take advantage of the platform of education where the environment is safe and secure, where the labor market is robust, where the normative environment is supportive of women’s and girls’ empowerment, and where the legal and regulatory environment supports women’s and girls’ equal rights.42 Therefore, it is equally critical to address the enabling environment in which girls live.

Catalyzing a Joint Action Agenda

Given the natural convergence on adolescent girls as a key investment for multiple sectors, now is an optimal time to forge new alliances among the various constituencies working on education, population, reproductive health, economic advancement, and girls’ empowerment. These constituencies can jointly focus on education programs and policies with a clear and direct aim of achieving both educational and broader life transition goals for adolescent girls and draw on their respective experience, opportunities and expertise, to contribute to more effective interventions and methods for measurement. Such efforts need not overreach to create complex multi-sectoral programs. Rather, limited, strategic, and effective cross-sectoral coordination can be achieved by creating linkages across development sectors and selectively incorporating key intervention components and outcome measures. With a shared vision, and joint strategies to achieve that vision, these sectors can contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Components of a Joint Action Agenda

In 2011, a multi-disciplinary group of experts from the education, reproductive health, and girls’ empowerment sectors convened at the International Center for Research on Women to discuss a joint action agenda. This group identified the following as priority areas for action.

  1. Coordination among various sectors within donors, governments, research institutions and implementing agencies
    In order to design and implement cross-sectoral approaches to education-based empowerment strategies, more coordination within and among donor agencies, government ministries, implementing agencies and research institutions will be required. Rather than developing strategies that are based purely on technical or functional areas of expertise, a more strategic approach, which is supported by population-based assessments of needs and opportunities, is required. This will take into consideration the multiple needs, assets and opportunities of different adolescent girls in different contexts. Examples of increasing collaboration and resource mobilization among previously siloed agencies include the World Bank Adolescent Girls Initiative and the United Nations Adolescent Girls Task Force. While the modalities and structures of the different groups will vary, what is important is that strategies are rooted in understanding and responding to what adolescent girls need and want.
  2. Collaboration on research, key standards and impact and metrics for measurement
    A limitation to increased collaboration is the lack of agreement on standards of impact and metrics of measurement. In the education sector, for example, the indicators for progress are often focused on enrollment, attendance, completion rates, student/teacher ratios and standardizing test scores. While there is now an enhanced focus on defining and measuring learning outcomes, there is limited attention to how learning outcomes are connected to other life outcomes, such as delayed marriage, childbearing, increased economic participation, or other empowerment-related indicators. In the reproductive health sector, access to health services, contraceptive uptake, age of marriage and childbirth and household decision-making are among the many indicators that are often evaluated, but there is often less in-depth focus on educational attainment (formal or informal), reasons for discontinuation of education, or the acquisition of numeracy, literacy and other cognitive skills. Cross-sectoral collaboration can help define shared goals among different fields, and to identify the intermediate outcomes and indicators for measuring shared progress.

    For example…In terms of non-intervention research, the Population Council’s Malawi Schooling and Adolescent Survey is a longitudinal, school-based survey that is gathering individual data on a variety of household characteristics, schooling experiences, and detailed information on relationships and sexual experiences. The different waves of data collection are helping to shed light on how experiences at the household and school level affect a variety of educational and life course outcomes. While it is neither feasible nor desirable that every program working with girls share the same outcomes and indicators, more harmonization of how activities are expected to lead to broader change and transformation for girls would be a significant step forward, and would allow the field to more effectively parse out what works to empower girls and why.
  3. New partnerships and collaboration on the ground to ensure that girls stay in school and gain relevant information and education for their transitions to adulthood
    As illustrated by the examples above, there are promising partnerships being forged in the development field. However, there is a great need for more collaboration between organizations that have historically focused narrowly on education, those that have historically focused on reproductive health, and those that have tackled other aspects of girls’ empowerment. The education sector provides a huge platform for reaching girls with the essential ingredients for empowerment and healthy transitions to adulthood. The reproductive health and girls’ empowerment sectors can lend strategies and expertise in reaching vulnerable populations and providing gender-sensitive and relevant information in a safe and supportive environment. Together, they can collaborate to ensure that girls are gaining a quality education that will be relevant to their transitions to work, citizenship, marriage, and parenthood.
  4. Investment in efforts to scale up promising approaches
    This paper has identified only a few of the innovative approaches that have demonstrated promising results for improving girls’ well-being and empowerment. Such approaches need to be scaled up in order to reach more girls, and by proxy, to facilitate intergenerational change and progress. Too many girls—especially girls in the poorest households and the poorest countries—are being left behind as others progress. The education sector offers the scale and infrastructure to reach the largest number of girls; therefore, the best hope lies in collaboration and coordination with it. With more coordinated and wider-reaching approaches, we can help reach enough girls to drive progress toward a “tipping point” for secure and sustainable development.


Several of the major sectors in the development field increasingly recognize the importance of investing in adolescent girls, and also recognize the central role that education plays in seeding change at the individual and societal level. Despite this shared focus on adolescent girls and increasing overlap in strategic priorities, the various sectors are not yet coordinating enough to determine how and when educational investments can yield better test scores in the short-term, healthier transitions to adulthood in the medium-term and more robust development outcomes in the long-term. The various parties that hold the pieces to this puzzle have in the past been content to concentrate on their portion of the challenge, but the needs and opportunities are before us to put those pieces together. With a coordinated effort 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.



  1. See, for example: Dollar, D. & Gatti, R. (1999). Gender inequality, income, and growth: Are good times good for women? Policy Research Report on Gender and Development, Working Paper Series, 1;

    Herz. B. & Sperling, G. (2004). What works in girls’ education: evidence and policies from the developing world. Council on Foreign Relations Press;

    Klasen, S. (1999). Does Gender Inequality Reduce Growth and Development? Evidence from Cross-Country Regressions (Rep. No. 7). Washington, DC: The World Bank Development Research Group/Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network;

    Lloyd, C. & Young, J. (2009). New Lessons: The Power of Educating Adolescent Girls. New York: Population Council;

    Psacharopoulos, G., Patrinos, H., & World Bank Development Research Group (2002). Returns to investment in education. World Bank, Education Sector Unit, Latin America and the Caribbean Region;

    Rihani, M. (2006). Keeping the Promise: Five Benefits of Girls. Academy for Educational Development, 92;

    Subbarao, K. & Rainey, L. (1995). Social Gains from Female Education. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 44; and

    Summers, L. (1994). Investing in all the people: educating women in developing countries. (Vols 45) World Bank Publications.
  2. Klasen, S., 1999
  3. UNFPA (2011). State of the World Population 2011. New York, New York: United Nations Population Fund.
  4. UNFPA (2012). Population Dynamics in the Least Developed Countries: Challenges and Opportunities for Development and Poverty Reduction. New York, New York: United Nations Population Fund.
  5. Chaaban, J. & Cunningham, W. (2011). Measuring the economic gain of investing in girls: the girl effect dividend. Washington, DC: World Bank.
  6. UNICEF (2011a). Boys and Girls in the Life Cycle. New York, New York: United Nations Children’s Fund, Division of Policy and Practice.
  7. Lloyd, C., National Research Council, & Institute of Medicine (2005). Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, The National Academies Press.
  8. UNFPA (2004). UNFPA State of the World Population 2004: The Cairo Consensus at Ten: Population, Reproductive Health and Global Effort to End Poverty. New York: UNFPA.
  9. UNICEF (2011b). The State of the World’s Children. New York, New York: United Nations Children’s Fund.
  10. Hallman, K. & Roca, E. (2007). Reducing the social exclusion of girls. Promoting Healthy, Safe, and Productive Transitions to Adulthood Brief. New York: Population Council.
  11. UNFPA, 2011.
  12. UNICEF (2011c). Violence Against Children in Tanzania: Findings from a National Survey 2009. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: UNICEF Tanzania.
  13. Chisamya, G., DeJaeghere, J., Kendall, N., & Khan, M. (2011). Gender and Education for All: Progress and problems in achieving gender equality. International Journal of Educational Development.
  14. UNESCO (2011b). Global Education Digest: Comparing Education Statistics Across the World. Montreal, Canada: The UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
  15. UNESCO (2011c). Out of School Children: New Data Reveal Persistent Challenges. (Rep No. 12). UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
  16. UNICEF, 2011b.
  17. UNESCO (2011a). Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011: The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education. Paris, France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
  18. UNESCO, 2011b.
  19. UNESCO, 2011a. 
  20. ibid
  21. ibid
  22. Lewis, M. & Lockheed, M. (2006). Inexcusable absence: Why 60 million girls still aren’t in school and what to do about it. Center for Global Development.
  23. Perlman-Robinson, J. (2011). A Global Compact on Learning: Taking Action on Education in Developing Countries. Washington, D.C.: Center for Universal Education at Brookings.
  24. UNGEI (2012). UNGEI at 10: A Journey to Gender Equality in Education. New York, New York: United Nations Girls’ Education Initiatives.
  25. Lloyd, C., Mensch, B., & Clark, W. (2000). The effects of primary school quality on school dropout among Kenyan girls and boys. Comparative Education Review, 44, 113-147.
  26. Khandker, S. (1996). Education achievements and school efficiency in rural Bangladesh. (319 ed.) World Bank Publications.
  27. Grant, M., Soller-Hampejsek, E., Mensch, B., & Hewett, P. (2011). Differences in School Effects on Learning and Enrollment Outcomes in Rural Malawi. Retrieved December 2011, from
  28. The World Bank (2012). World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.
  29. Hanushek, E. & Woessmann, L. (2010). The Economics of International Differences in Educational Achievement. Discussion Paper No. 4925. Bonn, Germany: The Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  30. Cherie Blair Foundation for Women (2010). Women & Mobile: A Global Opportunity: A study on the mobile phone gender gap in low and middle-income countries.
  31. Primo, N. (2003). Gender Issues in the Information Society. Paris, France: UNESCO Publications for the World Summit on the Information Society.
  32. Winthrop, R. & Smith, M. (2012). A New Face of Education: Bringing Technology in to the Classroom in the Developing World. Center for Universal Education, The Brookings Institute.
  33. Lloyd, C. & Mensch, B. (1999). Implications of Formal Schooling for Girls’ Trnasitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries. In C. Bledsoe, J.B. Casteline, J.A. Johnson-Kuhn and J.G. Haaga (eds), Critical Perspectives in Schooling and Fertility in the Developing World. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press: 80–104.
  34. ibid
  35. Baird, S., Chirwa, E., McIntosh, C., & Ozler, B. (2009). The Short-Term Impacts of a Schooling Conditional Cash Transfer Program on the Sexual behavior of Young Women. Health Policy, 1–14.
  36. LeVine, R., LeVine, S., Richman, A., Uribe, F., Correa, C., & Miller, P. (1991). Women’s Schooling and Child Care in the Demographic Transition: A Mexican Case Study. Population and Development Review, 17, 459–496.
  37. Martin, T. & Juarex, F. (1995). The impact of women’s education on fertility in Latin America: searching for explanations. International Family Planning Perspectives, 52–80.
  38. Kumar, A. & Vlassoff, C. (1997). Gender Relations and Education of Girls in Two Indian Communities: Implications for Decisions about Childbearing. Reproductive Health Matters, 10, 139–150.
  39. Lloyd, C., NRC/IOM 2005
  40. Lloyd, C. & Young, J., 2009
  41. Lloyd, C., NRC/IOM 2005
  42. Malhotra, A., Pande, R., & Grown, C. (2005). Impact of Investments in Female Education on Gender Inequality and Women’s Empowerment. In XXV International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) XXV International Population Conference Tours, France.

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