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Targeting teenagers to bridge the gender gap in education

Achieving gender equality in education remains a distant goal in many developing countries, with the COVID-19 pandemic stalling progress on many fronts. Emerging research, however, is highlighting promising, cost-effective programmes and interventions that deserve policymaker attention.  

Despite significant progress in the last 25 years on increasing girls’ literacy and school attendance rates, 51% of countries have yet to achieve gender parity in primary education. This gap is even wider in lower secondary and upper secondary education – 58% of countries have not achieved gender parity in the former, and 76% in the latter. In many places, girls are still held back by prevailing gender norms claiming it is less important for them to get an education than it is for boys.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has further hampered progress due to prolonged school closures, increased domestic violence, increased burden of unpaid care work, and reduced health services, placing even more obstacles in the way of girls attending and staying in school. 

However, we now know much more about what can bridge the gender gap in education than we did 25 years ago. Given the large gender gap in upper secondary education (see Figure 1), education programmes targeted at teenagers seem especially important to help girls stay in school and have brighter futures. Recent interventions – some with very low costs – targeting teenage girls and boys in developing countries show promising, positive impacts on girls’ empowerment, boys’ attitudes on gender equality, and educational outcomes.  

Figure 1: Percentage of youth (upper secondary school age) who are not in school

Source: UNESCO World Inequality Database on Education

Representation matters 

Recent studies have focussed on the impact of real life and media role models in changing educational aspirations, gender attitudes, and school performance. In their study of Somali primary schools, Kipchumba et al. (2021) introduced visits from female and male college students to a random selection of schools. They found that female role models had a significant impact on male and female students’ attitudes on gender equality in education and the workforce. Interestingly, female role models had no impact on girls’ and boys’ aspirations to attend college, and male role models did not impact gender attitudes or college aspirations. Two years later, a survey of a sub-set of the primary school students revealed that female role models’ impact on gender attitudes lasted. The findings show that such a low-cost intervention (each role model received $50 per visit to cover food and transport) can have a significant, lasting impact in a fragile setting.  

Riley (2018) introduced an even cheaper role model intervention in Ugandan schools with positive effects on academic performance. The study assigned 1,500 secondary school students to watch the movie Queen of Katwe or a placebo movie at the cinema as the students were preparing to take their national exams. The students who watched Queen of Katwe – a biographical film about a female Ugandan chess champion – did significantly better on their tests, with improvements equivalent to going from the 50th to 55th percentile of test scores. Female students showed the biggest test score improvements. For upper secondary students, improved test scores increased the probability of a student being accepted into a public university from 30% to 36%. Results indicate that exposing students to role models can be an extremely cost-effective method (at $5 per movie ticket, or even cheaper if screenings can be arranged in schools) for improving academic performance.  

Figure 2: Students failing math in placebo vs treatment group  

Source: Riley (2018)

Involving boys is important 

Evidence also shows that gender equality programmes targeted at boys and men can change their attitudes and behaviours towards women and girls. Dhar et al. (2018) had male and female teenagers participate in classroom discussions about gender differences and equality over three years in Haryana, India – an area that experiences high levels of gender discrimination. They found that the intervention had a sizeable impact on teenagers’ support for gender equality. Gender-equitable behaviour also increased for participants, such as boys helping more with household chores.  

In Bihar, India, an IGC project by Santhya & Zavier (2021) found that youth clubs for boys had a sustained impact on their attitudes on gender roles and violence against women and girls. Youth clubs also helped reduce perpetration of violence in the young men’s intimate relationships.  

Several programmes have also focused on health behaviours. In Tanzania, Shah & Seager (2021) evaluated a soccer-based health programme targeted at young people. As part of the programme, young women who took part in the goal-setting component reported improvements in the quality of their partners and an increase in their own sense of personal agency. The study also found that young men’s attitudes towards violence against women changed. Both these factors appeared to reduce intimate partner violence. Female participants also reported having fewer partners and spending less time with male partners.  

Soft skills can be powerful 

While there is much evidence on how formal education helps women reach their potential, another body of research focuses on how social and emotional skills – so called ‘soft skills’ – empower girls by equipping them to become their own agents of change.  

In an IGC-funded study, Ashraf et al. (2020) evaluated a unique programme aimed at teaching negotiation skills to secondary school girls in Zambia. The dropout rate for girls in their early teens is nearly three times higher than for boys, a trend exacerbated by the requirement of fee payment for secondary school. The study found that equipping girls with negotiation skills improved their educational outcomes over the next three years by allowing daughters to cooperate more effectively with their parents. Participating girls reported they were less hungry, had more control over their futures, and had more positive interactions with those around them. At the cost of approximately $60 per participant, and considering the total increase in years of schooling associated with the programme, the researchers found that the intervention produced an estimated 0.16 additional years of education per $100 spent.   

In India, Edmonds et al. (2020) evaluated the Girls’ Education Programme (GEP) consisting of a curriculum focused on life skills like self-confidence and critical thinking. They found that the average dropout rate for the group participating in GEP was 25% lower than the dropout rate for the comparison group. The GEP group was also 4% more likely to progress to the right grade. However, GEP did not impact girls’ school attendance or academic performance. It also appeared to have no effect on the likelihood of them engaging in child labour or on reducing child marriage.  

Another IGC study (Bandiera et al., forthcoming) studied the impact of a multifaceted policy intervention attempting to jumpstart teenage girls’ empowerment in Uganda. The intervention simultaneously provided teenage girls with vocational training and information on sex, reproduction, and marriage. The study found that four years post-intervention, women in treated communities were 48% more likely to engage in income-generating activities. Teenage pregnancy and early entry into marriage or cohabitation fell. Strikingly, the share of girls reporting sex against their will dropped by close to a third.  

Key takeaways 

While there is still much progress to be made on achieving gender parity in education, emerging evidence is illuminating potential solutions and strategies to help countries close the gender gap. Multi-pronged programmes – like the ones studied by Bandiera et al. and Shah & Seager – show promising results from tackling a few dimensions of gender inequity at once.  

The studies discussed above show that, firstly, many of these potential solutions are low-cost but have high returns, highlighting that even in fragile and resource-constrained settings, changing gender attitudes and girls’ aspirations is possible. Secondly, involving boys in gender equality programmes is imperative in changing their own gender attitudes and their behaviour towards girls and women. Finally, how much agency girls have over their own lives and futures affects their long-term prospects in receiving education and entering the workforce.  

Editor’s note: This article is part of our gender equality series.

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