In Gilgit-Baltistan, the forgotten northernmost territory of Pakistan, Khadim Hussain recently got word that extremists planned to bomb the school for girls that he had started. His neighbors took to the streets in a show of public support, and the attack was called off. It is that community backing, built over decades, that protects Hussain and makes his program successful in the unlikeliest of places.

Hussain founded the Al-Zahra School two decades ago, when girls’ education was considered a sin in his Himalayan village. Despite initial resistance, after years of campaigning door to door, he enrolled thousands.

Although girls enroll in school in equal numbers to boys in some countries, in others they are appallingly behind. In Gilgit-Baltistan, 57 percent of girls attend primary school compared to 78 percent of boys.1 In 23 countries fewer than 85 girls are enrolled in secondary school for every 100 boys.2

Answering the question, ‘what can we do to address the remaining challenges in girls’ education?’ led us to a six month investigation into gaps in global education funding for the Brookings Institution. The answer to that question is both simple and surprising.

Girls’ education has made tremendous strides in recent years. At the primary level in 2000, girls represented 58 percent of children not in school, compared to 53 percent in 2012.3 Given increases in primary enrollment, the third Millennium Development Goal—promoting gender equality and empowering women—is thought to be one of the most successful.4 This leads to the misconception among some policymakers that girls’ education is a finished agenda, ready to be crossed off the list of development goals.

Yet, gender equality is far from achieved.

Disparity in girls’ education is highly localized. While global ratios have improved, in a key set of countries, and in regions within countries, little has changed. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, girls were just as far behind in lower secondary school in 2014 as they were in 2004.5


GRACE Pakistan
A young girl draws a picture at GRACE Pakistan.

To close the gender gap, we argue that policymakers have to understand and address challenges in context. This cannot be accomplished through large-scale, cookie-cutter programs replicated from country to country. Work in the places where girls are furthest behind—from Gilgit-Baltistan, to northern Nigeria, to Yemen—requires deep analysis of the specific barriers that girls face as well as trust in local leadership.

Government and international assistance rarely reach Gilgit-Baltistan. The Taliban banned girls’ education in the neighboring Swat Valley in 2009,6 and later attempted to assassinate girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai. Many people are suspicious after the war in Afghanistan and drone strikes across the border, and see girls’ education as a Western agenda to secularize Pakistan.

Yet Hussain, founder of GRACE Association for community empowerment, says extremism is not an absolute mindset,7 but rather one that can be challenged through dialogue. Having been to the US on a fellowship in 2013, villagers sometimes suspect him. From his sparse office at GRACE he told us, “They call me an American agent. I frankly tell them: ‘Yes, I am an agent—an agent of change; change for positive development and education for all.’ Then they have no comment.”

Where leaders like Hussain succeed in educating girls, communities derive manifold benefits including economic growth, improved maternal and infant health, lower fertility,8 and better-educated children.9

Hussain, paralyzed from the waist down after fighting polio as an infant in a region with no vaccines, says that despite his own handicaps, being an illiterate woman would be much worse. “I am a physically disabled person, but I can work and move around the world with my wheelchair. My mom cannot even talk about herself and cannot travel alone to her nearest city.”

Now, Hussain says Gilgit-Baltistan can develop through girls’ education. “Sustainable development starts with educated women. The educated girls we have in our community are the real change agents and our greatest strength.”

Fortunately, donors in international education also understand girls’ value. We found that budgets for girls’ education are growing in most institutions and three-quarters of funders prioritize girls in their planning. Still, education’s share of international aid is small compared to other sectors. Global health, for example, received 17 times more funding than education in 2014.10 During humanitarian emergencies education receives less than two percent of overall funding,11 leaving little for girls’ specific needs. Since money is scarce, funders face pressure to find effective models, to implement on a large scale, and to grant to non-profits that can handle volume.

However, given the complex challenges remaining in girls’ education, this is less and less realistic.

Barriers to girls’ education include poverty, religion, culture, politics, and social or legal institutions. These barriers manifest in vastly different ways. In a dozen countries, many of them in West Africa, more than 15 percent of girls are married by the age of 15.12 In other of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, girls are generally well educated, but rarely transition to the workforce or participate politically.13 Political violence and Islamic extremism are another growing threat, with girls the target of attacks in 16 countries.14 What works in Sierra Leone, where Ebola closed down schools and girls took up caregiving roles,15 will not work in Jordan where the education curriculum, controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, prepares women for marriage.16

The first step in reaching girls that are still out of school is assessing barriers at the local level.

Startlingly, breakout analysis on the barriers girls face is not required of developing country governments that receive up to $100 million grants from the Global Partnership for Education, a partnership of nearly 60 donors, governments, international and civil organizations, and private sector actors in education. Especially for countries where girls are severely behind, this should be a requirement for all education funding. And many ministries would welcome technical support and capacity building to get this done.

The second step is perhaps even more obvious: support work in places where girls are furthest behind.


Xanthe Ackerman
Syrian girls living in southern Turkey practice writing at a school desk.

Half of the children who are out of school reside in conflict-affected countries,17 and 70 percent of secondary-school-aged refugee children in camps are out of school.18 Of the countries with the biggest gender gap, almost all are war-torn, and there, girls are at high risk of early marriage and violence.

Yet, only a third of funders told us that their institutions can rapidly respond in places affected by conflict.

For some donors, supporting a school like Al-Zahra would be too risky. One philanthropist told us, “I’d worry that taking Western aid would make them [leaders in places like Pakistan] a target of anti-Western fundamentalists.”

Yet Hussain is effective in his isolated region. He says having a strategy and taking precautions lower the risk. According to Hussain, “extremism has roots in poverty…if the funder supports community development approaches…such as clean drinking water, an irrigation channel, mother and child health care…threats to girls’ education services providers can be minimized.” He also suggests foreign organizations keep a low profile and avoid banners and visits in logo-emblazoned vehicles.

Recognizing that need outstrips education funding, donors can immediately make their work more impactful.

While local context and solutions should have pride of place in the girls’ education movement, sharing a framework can highlight issues, align actors, and build momentum.19 Top priorities embraced by Brookings, Clinton Global Initiative and dozens of funding institutions include: education quality, retention through secondary school, school safety, transitions to the workforce, and support to local leaders like Hussain.20

UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, proposes a pooled fund for education in humanitarian emergencies to boost resources.21 This should be applied immediately, and could be groundbreaking if the fund includes an explicit focus on girls. Foundations and corporations could overcome risk by collectively making grants. Local organizations on the ground, like GRACE Association, could serve as intermediaries, building the capacity of smaller partners.

Funders can also weigh institutional factors when determining their strategies. Pakistan, for instance, home to one-tenth of the world’s out of school children, is a top recipient of international education aid. But, the government is notorious for spending just two percent of its gross national product (GNP) on education—less than half the share recommended by UNESCO, and a seventh of the national military allocation.22 Backing local advocates that push for education spending with a focus on girls and disadvantaged groups, and supporting watchdog groups that guard against corruption, can have a powerful impact.


Lindsay Mgbor / Department for International Development
Young women attend class at a school in northern Nigeria.

In 2000, world leaders wrote the Millennium Development Goals to halve poverty by 2015. Two major criticisms of the goals were a lack of emphasis on the most marginalized, and the focus on primary education at the expense of secondary education.

Education funders responded to those criticisms and adapted their programs. Now most funders aim to reach marginalized groups of girls in the countries where they work and the majority support secondary education.

But having faced those challenges, the hardest one remains. If we want to look back in 15 years and truly cross girls’ education off the list of challenges to women’s equality globally, it’s time to look at the local.


Xanthe Ackerman

Dr. Xanthe Ackerman is a writer based in Istanbul. She is the founder of Advancing Girls' Education in Africa, an international non-profit that supports life-changing opportunities for secondary school...


Kaitlyn Scott

Kaitlyn Scott is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, studying humanitarian affairs. She also holds an MSc from the London School of Economics in International Development and...

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