In most societies women tend to have fewer choices or opportunities in life than men because they have less access to resources, rights and voice. This disadvantage translates into in a vicious cycle of social and economic deprivation and lack of empowerment that has to be arrested for countries to reach their full potential. Investment in education has been found to be the best way to do so.
Promoting gender equality in education has therefore been a key area in global development discourse and actions. New and innovative policies, strategies and practices have been tried out in various countries and much is now known about what works and what does not work in educating girls. For example, conditional cash transfers, when targeted at specific groups such as the poor or the marginalized, have been shown to encourage girls’ school enrolment and retention (Filmer and Schady 2006, Chaudhury and Parajuli 2006).
In spite of progress made over the past 15 years, the disheartening reality is that universal primary education and gender parity remain a dream in many countries. Approximately 77 million children are still out of school, 57 percent of them are girls and roughly 70 percent of out of school children are from Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (UNESCO, 2006). Moreover, there are emerging challenges such as the feminization of HIV/AIDS that threaten progress towards universal education and gender equality.
The symposium builds on lessons learnt over the past decade and also on the World Bank’s Gender Action Plan – “Gender Equality as Smart Economics”, which seeks to advance the economic empowerment of women and promote shared growth. While the plan focuses on economic sectors, it is widely accepted that one of the critical pathways to achieving women’s economic empowerment is through education. Education gives women the skills and competences that lead to increased participation in the labor market, increased earnings, faster economic growth and the reduction of poverty. The economic empowerment of women is not only smart economics because of the income that is generated consequently but also because it helps to breaks the vicious cycle of poverty particularly for the next generation.