You may be wondering what an 18-year-old student and the president of the world’s largest development agency have in common. One of us is fond of a Korean expression: Yeolsimhi gongbu hay, which means study with your hearts on fire. The other one of us often urges girls around the world to set your words on fire and speak out for the right to education.
What we share is a passion for education. We are particularly ambitious for girls’ education because it is one of the surest means we have to achieve equal rights and end extreme poverty. We also know that ambitious goals have to be matched by action.
The Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the United Nations in September are a good start. Goal 4 says all girls and boys should complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education by 2030. That’s a big step forward from the previous global goal of universal primary education, but commitments have no value unless they are kept.
More than a million people have signed a Change.org petition in support of every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe, quality primary and secondary education. This week thousands of people are going to see He Named Me Malala – a new documentary that raises awareness about millions of girls who are deprived of the right to learn. In too many parts of the world, girls are still unable to go to school with their brothers, or avoid being married off as children, or escape from violence or harassment if they want to learn.
Although good progress has been made on girls’ school enrolment in the past decade, in developing countries 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school. The situation for the poorest rural girls is dire: only 13 per cent of the poorest rural adolescent girls in South and West Asia complete lower secondary school. In many countries, the number of girls completing upper secondary school is so low that it is not possible to know how many are in or out of higher grades.
Yet, when girls succeed in getting a good secondary education, they develop self-confidence and skills that can have an amazing impact on society. Educating girls transforms countries and generations.
Young women who are educated have children later and have fewer children. They are able to earn more, and their sons and daughters are more likely to be healthy and educated. Korea literally educated itself out of poverty, leaving behind the ashes of a devastating war.
Greater ambition for girls’ education does not simply mean that every girl in developing countries should make the transition from primary to lower secondary school. While that would represent huge progress, it is not enough. Few parents reading this article are likely to think that access to a basic education is enough for their son or daughter. By 2030, when the Sustainable Development Goals are meant to be achieved, it will certainly not be enough. Twelve years of education should be the norm to which every child in every country can aspire.
The new global goal also says that all children must now get a quality education as well as access to both primary and secondary school. Unfortunately, for many countries this is a tall order, as more than 250 million children can’t read and write, despite having attended school for several years. But what’s the point of girls overcoming so many barriers to get to school if they don’t learn anything?
Above all, more funding is needed to fill the enormous financial hole in education in developing countries. Both donors and national governments must play their part, by increasing aid allocations to education and committing increased budget share to domestic education systems.
Another major gap is data. As I (Malala) have said before: “If we say girls count, then we must count girls.” In the language of the World Bank, that means collecting disaggregated data. We need to separately monitor and measure girls’ progress through school, right up to the end of school, so that governments can properly plan and address their needs.
So how to accelerate progress? International partners like the World Bank Group can provide knowledge, financing and technical support. NGOs including the Malala Fund can help fund schools, encourage governments and donors to do more and support girls to be advocates in their own countries. Key leadership must come from governments to invest more and make their public education systems work better to deliver quality education for all students, so that the poorest girls have the same opportunities as their peers in the wealthiest areas.
We want to make sure that the opportunity to finish primary and secondary school becomes the ordinary expectation of every girl in the world, no matter where she lives. And we will do what it takes – with our words and our hearts on fire.
Malala Yousafzai is the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and co-founder of the Malala Fund. Jim Yong Kim is president of the World Bank Group