It’s Oct. 11, when the world celebrates the International Day of the Girl. Started in 2012 as a United Nations declaration, the day acknowledges the importance of issues girls face across the globe — including education, nutrition and child marriage — and the many benefits of the global initiatives working to address them.
These are important issues. But missing from the global celebration of the benefits of these initiatives — especially around education — is a more full discussion on the cost of these programs on girls’ lives.
I am the founder of the TWII Foundation, an organization that supports Ghanaian girls on their journeys to become first-generation college students. I do this work partly because the data on the impact of educating girls are profound: They are less likely to contract HIV/AIDS, more likely to contribute to their country’s overall development and, if they become educated mothers, they are more likely to immunize their children and invest in their education.
I am also a social scientist who studies the consequences of “educate-the-girl child” initiatives (i.e., Let Girls Learn, #62 million girls), like the one I started. The primary goal of these campaigns is to increase the number of girls enrolled in school.
My research demonstrates that the number of girls attending school has increased globally, but many of these schools never had girls in mind to begin with. Around the world, even schools that tout high enrollment rates and good grades for girls can be physically, emotionally and mentally violent places for those same girls.
How I did my research
I draw on interview and observational data that I collected on elementary, high school and college students, especially girls, attending public schools across the United States, Ghana and South Africa between 2009 and 2017. In the case of Ghana, I followed dozens of girls for seven years — from their second year of high school until the year after they graduated from college. I observed their home and school life for hundreds of hours, using these observations to determine the challenges they face on the journey to attaining an education.
Gendered violence is a top concern, shaping girls’ perceptions of safety in school
In the United States, where girls attend school at higher rates than boys, 76 percent of girls between the ages of 14 and 19 report feeling unsafe as a girl in their daily life, and 69 percent report feeling judged as a sexual object. Perhaps its unsurprising that 1 in 7 U.S. schoolgirls report being absent from school because they feel unsafe in or on their way to school. Chicago Public Schools, specifically, made headlines in July with the news that 500 cases of sexual abuse and rape had been reported but went unaddressed.
In South Africa, where boys and girls attend schools at similar rates, girls are subjected to high rates of sexual abuse and rape in and around the schoolhouse. This year, an estimated 41 percent of rapes in South Africa were experienced by children — the majority of whom were girls. And in March, a security guard at a primary school in South Africa was accused of sexually assaulting 54 girls at the school.
In Ghana, where girls attend schools at lower rates than boys, 26 percent of schoolgirls report experiences with sexual violence. In July 2018, eight teachers were accused of sexually assaulting 10 female students at a senior high school in Ghana (half were eventually indicted). One Ghanaian expert I interviewed referred to these experiences as a product of what she called “STGs” — Sexually Transmitted Grades. She used the term to describe the experience of girls being asked to perform sexual favors in exchange for accurate reporting of their grades.
Taken together, whether girls attend school in the United States or Africa, their experiences with rape, sexual abuse and other violence are occurring in the same spaces touted as critical for their social and economic well-being — schools.
(And the numbers cited above are likely an underestimate because of the shame and stigma associated with reporting abuse. Indeed, even the accusations made by professor Christine Ford against newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh allegedly occurred while she was in high school and thus a young school girl but were only revealed to the public once she was an adult.)
This reality does not change the objective fact that there are still over 100 million girls out of school who could benefit from the continuation of policy initiatives that help them get an education. Nonetheless, it does raise questions about efforts that address only half of the education problem — getting girls enrolled in school, but failing to ensure that schools provide a safe space to learn.
If a girl is enrolled in school because of an educate-the-girl-child campaign but her school is a site of sexual violence, is the fact that she attends school enough to call that campaign a policy success? Or if a girl attains good grades in school, perhaps even better than her male classmates, but has been raped in the process, is her education worth the trauma she endured?
All supporters of this day, and educate-the-girl-child initiatives, generally, want girls to succeed. But what cost are we asking girls to pay?
Sally A. Nuamah (@sally_nuamah) is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “How Girls Achieve” (Harvard University Press, 2019).