By Brent Harlow
In this series of posts, I have been looking at policies and programs that have proven to be effective at improving educational outcomes in the developing world. In this post, I will be looking at the gender gap in education, which is most dramatic and pernicious in the poorest and most marginalized communities, where women often find themselves caught in inter-generational cycles that prevent them from attaining a greater degree of economic and social empowerment. And in keeping individual women from reaching their full potential, these cycles also prevent the sort of transformational action that can lead to broader social change for the benefit of all women (and, indeed, the men in their communities as well).
[b]The gender gap in education and some of its causes [/b]
Especially in poorer areas of the developing world, girls are still not completing primary school and going on to secondary in the same numbers as boys. One of the reasons researchers have given for this is that girls (who often do not expect to ever become wage earners themselves) feel pressure at a young age to give in to the sexual advances of older men who might offer them a degree of financial security, leading to pregnancy and dropping out of school. But even beyond pregnancy, girls often experience myriad social and family pressures to leave the path of education and economic empowerment and take on the traditional gender roles assigned to women inside the home, with greater amounts of time and energy dedicated to household chores and childcare, and continued financial dependence on male wage-earners.
[b]Interventions for narrowing the gender gap[/b]
Much of the work done to address the gender gap in education, therefore, tries to help girls at that crucial stage in their development, when the transition from primary to secondary often coincides, roughly, with the onset of puberty and new gender-based pressures to leave school. Research coming out of the Poverty Action Lab (PAL) has shown that there are interventions that can in fact work against these pressures to keep girls on the path of further education and future wage-earning, leadership, and change-making potential. [url=https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/conditional-cash-transfers-honduras)]A recent PAL study[/url] looking at the heterogeneous effects of conditional cash transfers (i.e. how different demographics are affected differently by CCT) found that subsidies to offset school costs significantly reduce the amount of time girls spend doing work in the home, and leave them with a greater amount of time and energy to devote to school. Also effective at offsetting school costs and opportunity costs in the area domestic work, merit-based scholarships make families more willing to support adolescent girls in the continuation of their schooling.
Other interventions are directed not only at keeping girls in school, but at helping them to imagine and aspire to future career paths and leadership roles outside the home. Especially in communities where few women earn wages or perform these social roles, there tends to be an overly limited view of what girls can or should aspire to in their own lives. However, studies (in [url=https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/impact-social-interactions-household-aspirations-and-investments-nicaragua]Nicaragua[/url] and [url=https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/impact-female-leadership-aspirations-and-educational-attainment-teenage-girls-india]India[/url]) have shown that when girls and their families actually see examples of women succeeding in these non-traditional ways in their own communities, their perceptions can be radically shifted, allowing them to imagine a much broader range of life possibilities for themselves. These girls and young women tend to invest more time and energy in education or wage-earning activity, and spend less time engaged in uncompensated work in the household. It may be, in part, for this reason that girl mentorship programs are effective—they provide girls with models of women who have managed to overcome the same obstacles they experience in their own lives, and go on to flourish as students, community leaders, organizers, advocates, and entrepreneurs. And it is these mentors who are perhaps uniquely qualified to coach, train and inspire the girls they help to do the same.
[b]BRAC’s Livelihood for Adolescents Program (ELA) [/b]
One important mentorship and life skills training program for adolescent girls, BRAC’s Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents Program (ELA), has been evaluated by the Poverty Action Lab in Uganda and is currently being evaluated in Sierra Leone (by the PAL) and in Bangladesh. The program, as described on [url=http://www.brac.net]BRAC's website[/url], strives to give “girls the confidence they need to assert themselves and resolve conflicts, making them aware of their rights, and training them in health and gender issues, including family planning and reproductive health. They learn the importance of staying in school and avoiding early marriage and pregnancy[…] from a series of trainings from peer mentors…” (Trainings include negotiation, management, leadership, financial literacy, vocational skills, sexual and reproductive health, and legal issues pertaining specifically to women.) The program also includes assistance in financially empowering young women through micro-credit.
The PAL’s evaluation of the program in Uganda shows that it is effective at shifting girls’ attitudes about the best time to start having a family and the role of women as wage-earners for their families. Girls in the program were convinced that women should start having children later, and that they should be wage earners for their families. What is more, the program was actually effective at reducing teen pregnancy rates and increasing the amount of time spent on income-generating activities. According to BRAC’s website, early qualitative data on the program in Bangladesh suggests that the program there has been effective at keeping girls in school and increasing the amount of time spent on income-generating activities. The PAL’s evaluation of the program in Sierra Leone is still underway, and results are not yet in. But whatever the data indicate, this program and its ongoing evaluation is vitally important to making progress toward eliminating the gender gap in education, which hurts not only girls and women, but everyone in communities that fail to develop and benefit from girls’ organizational, leadership, and entrepreneurial skills.
[b]The Starfish Program in Guatemala[/b]
Also innovating in this area is Givology partner Starfish, a non-profit organization committed to helping “young women lead transformational change” (according to their mission statement) in what is perhaps the most challenging social context in Latin America, i.e. the predominantly indigenous province of Sololá in the highlands of Guatemala. Fertility rates in Guatemala are higher than anywhere else in Latin America, and this is directly related to low educational outcomes: only forty-four percent of girls go on to secondary school, and the numbers are much lower still for indigenous women who make up the majority of the population in the area where Starfish operates. Among these rural indigenous women, the illiteracy rate is seventy percent, with only ten percent enrolling in secondary and less than one percent continuing on to university.
Starfish believes that in this context, where social and family pressures tend overwhelmingly to prevent girls from continuing through a full course of secondary education and going on to assume leadership and entrepreneurial roles in their communities, there is a great amount of untapped potential and transformational power that the right sort of intervention could unleash. Starfish strives to identify talented girl students as they are leaving sixth grade and provide them with the support they need to make it through secondary, and go on to become the leaders that will bring about the greater social changes in their communities that will benefit all girls and women (and boys and men too). They do this by providing scholarships to cover seventy-five percent of all school-related costs; by providing mentors who have themselves come from similar circumstances and are able to help the girls overcome common barriers that stand in the way of girls continuing their education; and by providing assistance to help graduates secure their first internship or job, receive more specific vocational training, or go on to university.
Starfish mentors are themselves among the very few to have come from these circumstances and succeeded in graduating from high school and going on to university. They serve as role models as well as advocates and trainers, leading girls through workshops on sexual and reproductive health, women’s rights, personal finances, leadership, critical thinking, environmental stewardship, etc., all of which aim to empower young women to bring about transformation in their own lives and in their communities.
The data suggest that Starfish has been effective at helping its Girl Pioneers surmount many of the obstacles that have historically prevented girls in these communities from exercising greater autonomy over the direction of their own lives. As reported on [url=http://starfish-impact.org/why-it-works/]their website[/url] , as of January 2016, 90% of those between the ages of 18 and 27 remain unmarried and without children; 85% of graduates are working, with 57% employed outside the home; 57% are in university or taking classes; 74% of graduates are members of community organizations; and 57% of graduates have held leadership positions, whether in starfish mentor groups or in their community organizations. Starfish graduates are fifty times more likely to attend university than their non-Starfish peers and receive six times more education than their mothers—a very large leap in just one generation. Starfish’s goal is to graduate 500 highly talented leaders in 20 years, and leave them to engage in the transformative action that will help reshape their communities in the years to come.
[b]Givology’s partnership with Starfish [/b]
Givology has partnered with Starfish to raise funds to continue this impactful work. Now in its ninth year working to help girls in Guatemala, Starfish has identified crucial areas where more training is needed to help mentors respond more effectively to the needs of girls going through their program.
It has become apparent that in a country where it is estimated that nine out of every ten women have experienced domestic violence, mentors need to be trained in methods of detecting and preventing violence in the home. Also in response to the high incidence of abuse and trauma, Starfish is looking to provide its mentors with resiliency training as well as future-focused therapeutic techniques designed to help girls remain committed to their long-term goals in the face of abuse and other hardships and challenges.
Givology donors interested in learning more about Starfish’s efforts in these areas can follow these links to specific projects: [url=https://www.givology.org/~pdviolence/]Preventing Domestic Violence[/url], [url=https://www.givology.org/~ghavoice/]Give Her a Voice[/url], and [url=https://www.givology.org/~shtscan/]Show Her That She Can[/url].
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