Address barriers that keep girls out of school

Video: French translation

Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) Executive Director Jenny Cafiso has underscored the need to address poverty and inequality, to increase public funding for education by governments, to support the education of forcibly displaced children, and to ensure that international aid and initiatives — including those supported by CJI are gender-responsive.  

These measures, along with other strategies, can help address the global crisis in education, which has a disproportionate impact on girls, said Cafiso in an online webinar, Empowering a New Generation: Girls’ Education as a Path to Global Change. The Jesuits of Canada organized the event held May 30.  

Worldwide, there are 758 million illiterate adults, two-thirds of whom are women, and there are 130 million girls who are out of school, said Cafiso, citing figures from UNESCO. This is not by accident, she said. “This is a result of policies and decisions made whereby at every level society and the economy is structured in such a way that it benefits the few, while the majority are left behind.” 

Ensuring education for all is critical because it is a basic human right, it is fundamental to peace, stability, and security. Education is a “multiplier right” that allows people to access their other rights, and it contributes to economic growth, she said.  

Cafiso shared several videos of interviews she conducted during her recent visit to CJI partners in India and Nepal. “If we don’t have an education, we are like blind people walking on the road… People think you should stop studying to get married. But it is my right to get an education,” said Sanju KC, a young woman completing an internship at the Nepal Jesuit Social Centre.  

Only 49% of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, said Cafiso,
citing a 2022 UN Women.  

In situations of war, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls in non-affected countries. Girls in Afghanistan are not even allowed to attend secondary school,” she added.   

She also identified several barriers to girls’ education: poverty, cultural norms, lack of safety, hygiene or sanitation that responds to girls’ needs, migratory status, and the fallout from Covid-19.  

“Attitudes towards girls’ education and cultural factors play a role, especially in places where child marriage and teenage pregnancy are common,” said Cafiso. In her recent visit to a public school in one of the poorest areas in Nepal, she said she had noted that there were more girls than boys, only to find out most of the boys were sent to private schools. “The higher number of girls in the school was in fact a ‘false positive.’ With limited resources, families choose to invest in their sons’ education as they are seen as having greater opportunities to work,” she noted.  

Safety remains a big issue for girls who are forced to walk long distances to get to school, said Cafiso. “As of 2012, an estimated 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to or at school every year, according to The Global Women’s Institute, citing UNESCO figures.”  

The pandemic has “exacerbated the vulnerability of girls,” said Cafiso, citing reports of an increase in adolescent pregnancies, forced marriages, and loss of parents or caregivers. As many as 11 million girls may not return to school, she said, citing UNESCO estimates.  

Children who are forced to flee their homes because of war, violence and the impacts of climate change are often denied school in host communities “who fear that if education is provided to refugees, they will have no incentive to go back home,” she said.  

Investing in girls’ education benefits not just the child or the child’s family, but their community, their country, and the world. When girls are educated, said Cafiso, their lifetime earnings increase, national growth rates rise, child marriages decline, child mortality falls, maternity mortality rates fall, among others.  

Cafiso stressed that it is not enough for girls to be educated for education’s sake. They must have an education that encourages them to expand their capabilities and personal agency.  

She added that “education in itself is not enough.” It must be accompanied by social and economic changes, work opportunities and measures to reduce poverty.  

CJI, whose 2023 Fall campaign will focus on girls’ education, is involved in advocacy for the right of the girl to be educated because it is integral to its mission as Jesuit institution, and it is a way to live out the Universal Apostolic Preferences, said Cafiso.  

She noted that Pope Francis has emphasized the “essential place of education” and the need to “encourage the full participation of girls and young women in education.” 

Cafiso introduced some of the education projects being supported by CJI, including the Amazon Bilingual Education program by Fe y Alegria, the schools and training institutes in South Sudan operated by the Jesuits Eastern Africa Province, and the programs run by the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Sudan, Colombia, Syria, and Lebanon.