Editor’s note: This post is part of the NextBillion Series “By Women, For Women: Leaders and Innovations in Gender Equity.” Learn more about our other 2019 series here.
Despite the abundance of rhetoric and resources aimed at eradicating gender inequality, norms are slow to change.
Girls are 1.5 times more likely than boys to be excluded from primary school. Hiding behind this statistic are millions of stories. Like Naomi Mutuku Williams: Until she was eight years old, she had limited schooling, and spent most of her time playing in alleys with friends in a Nairobi slum. Her parents could not afford to send her to government schools, which often charge hidden costs for “teacher motivation,” exams and uniforms. Her life changed when she was offered a sponsorship at a local community school by Bridge International (where I work as Global Measurement and Evaluation Manager). Suddenly, education was accessible for her – she is now a top student at one of the best secondary schools in Kenya.
Her story illustrates the impact of education, but it also raises a difficult question: How can we ensure that the rest of the 132 million out-of-school girls get into a classroom?
A Pervasive Global Problem
Education access is fundamentally tied to gender. In Kenya, and contrary to the law, 23% of girls are married before they turn 18, which cuts short their formal schooling. Studies find that misperceptions about menstruation result in girls in Uganda missing up to eight days of school a term due to their period. And systemic gender disparity is worsened by extremist violence. For example, in northeast Nigeria Boko Haram actively targets girls seeking a formal education, most famously in the Chibok kidnapping tragedy. What’s more, traditional gender perceptions in some communities in Africa can lead to parents only sending their boys to school.
All these factors combine to make education unequal at best – and unobtainable at worst – for girls across most of Africa.
To use Kenya as an example of how gender disparity manifests in educational outcomes, 26% of adult women are illiterate compared to 16% of adult men. In Uganda, the gap is even larger, with 38% of adult women illiterate compared to 21% of adult men. And while enrollment in primary education has increased, UNESCO data shows that girls are less likely to finish secondary school. In 2017, only 40% of candidates that met minimum university entrance qualification in Kenya were female. Unequal access to education is exacerbated by fewer female role models in schools, and generally higher investments in boys’ education.
According to the newest UN data for 2018, the gender parity at primary school level has been getting worse since about 2011. The latest UN data also reveals that the number of girls out of primary school is increasing globally.
Solutions to the Gender Disparity in Education
How can we tackle gender disparity? Bridge International Academies has taken a multifaceted, research-based approach to improve educational outcomes for girls. Research has shown the impact of motivation on achievement, so we provide scholarships to top performing female pupils. Teachers are trained to ensure they call on both boys and girls in the classroom. Girls are encouraged to take on leadership roles, excel academically, and engage in co-curriculars like chess, the arts, taekwondo and computer programming.
Research has also shown the powerful impact of female role models in educational attainment: A 2007 J-PAL study found that the presence of female leaders in a village was able to eliminate the gender education gap. We think that by empowering women we can empower girls. That’s why Bridge International started the Super Mama programme – an initiative that supports and empowers strong women in their communities. Super Mamas work to build and strengthen the relationship between Bridge schools and the local community. They provide female community members with support and advice in a myriad of activities, such as starting a new business, decorating their schools, or developing new savings programs. Most Bridge Academies in Kenya have a women’s representative, elected by the community, and two Super Mamas, who work together on women empowerment programs. Through Women Leaders Conferences, these leaders are further equipped to support women in starting businesses, creating forums around important issues and acting as leaders themselves.
The Impact of Gender Equality on Academic Performance
Bridge’s support for gender equality in the classroom and in the community has also translated to improved performance on high-stakes, end-of-primary-school exams, such as in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Uganda’s Primary Leaving Exam (PLE). For the fourth consecutive year, girls attending Bridge in Kenya for five or more years were the highest performing cohort in the Kenyan exam, averaging 281 marks – approximately two thirds of a standard deviation above the national average. The success of this cohort supports our findings that extended education at Bridge appears to close the gender achievement gap endemic in typical KCPE outcomes.
In Uganda, boys outperform girls nationally, when looking at all types of schools. But this was not the case at Bridge Uganda schools where equal opportunity, supportive teachers and community engagement enable girls to surpass their male peers. Nationally, boys are 9% more likely than girls to be in Division 1 and 2 in the PLE. At Bridge, this is reversed — girls are 3% more likely than boys to be in Division 1 and 2. In both Uganda and Kenya, Bridge girls will sit the national exams again this year, and we anticipate that their trend of ongoing success will continue.
We’ve seen similar effects across Nigeria as girls in Bridge schools, and Nigerian government schools supported by Bridge, have been reaching higher academic attainment than their peers. A study in 2018, backed by the UK Aid agency DFID, even found that all types of pupils reached equal outcomes at Bridge schools in Lagos, regardless of their socioeconomic background.
Bridge can quickly adjust its pedagogy and develop high-impact programs that empower girls because it operates as a non-state actor. But we hope that the lessons we learn in our schools can be applied nationally – by either government or private schools – to improve outcomes for the millions of girls out of school. Like many other organisations in this space, we are guided by the principle that all children should have access to high-quality education. Natasha Wanjiru, who graduated from elementary school at Bridge in 2015 and is now a scholar at the elite Episcopal High School in Virginia, USA, sums it up neatly. “Bridge has equipped me with something nobody can ever take from me – an education and a chance to realize that I can help other girls achieve their dreams too.”
 Adult literacy is defined as the percentage of people over 15 who can read and write a simple statement related to their everyday life.
Mark Buttweiler is the Measurement & Evaluation Manager at Bridge International Academies.
Photo courtesy of organization.