A spotlight on girls’ education: Analogous to a global health emergency

By HHR editorial assistant Krista Oehlke

Girls’ significant lack of access to education worldwide was linked to economic factors, entrenched customary practices, and inadequate government and global priorities in a recent Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health. The Forum was titled “Igniting Change Worldwide,” and used Richard Robbins’ new documentary Girl Rising as a launching pad to discuss barriers to girls’ education and what can be done to address them.

Moderated by Abigail Trafford, author and former health editor at The Washington Post, the panel featured the film’s producer Richard Robbins and also included Jacqueline Bhabha, FXB Director of Research; Alicia Ely Yamin, Program Director for the FXB Center’s Health Rights of Women and Children (HRWC) Program; David Canning, Professor of Population Science and Professor of International Economics and International Health at the Harvard School of Public Health; and Donna Barry, Advocacy and Policy Director at Partners in Health. Girl Rising documents the stories of nine girls in nine developing countries.

Clips from the film illustrated the expert panelists’ comments on the barriers that keep girls out of school. Outlining obstacles and solutions to the problem, Canning said it is imperative to see the improvement of girls’ education as a driver of economic development rather than expecting economic development to lead to girls’ education. He noted that, “The road to success is through investments in early childhood health and education.”

Panelists also brought a human rights-based perspective to the conversation. Yamin underscored education for all as a fundamental right, noting the need not only for law reform but also collective action and mobilization to address these intractable issues. “We need systems in place that can ensure all girls get a decent shot at education and a life of dignity,” said Yamin.

Panelists offered a framework through which we might conceptualize girls. Bhabha emphasized the “importance of seeing the young women as survivors rather than victims.” Referring to her FXB research project on adolescent girls in India, she described their focus on positive deviants – girls who have beaten the odds and made it to college. “We call these girls ‘champions’.”

And from the Forum, it’s clear the newly released documentary Girl Rising brings to light such champions. It repositions Western views of girls in the developing world as broken and hopeless to holding revolutionary status. As the film’s producer Richard Robbins noted during the panel discussion, the vision of these champions extends “far beyond helping themselves or their families” and their heroism inspires a promising trajectory for future growth. Robbins referred to research showing that investment in a cohort of girls’ education sets off “geometric exponential” change.

The panel called for urgent action to address girls’ education with Bhabha describing the situation as analogous to a global health emergency. Focus on girls’ education is critical; to use Bhabha’s words, it needs to be “a global priority.”

Watch the on-demand webcast from the Forum and continue the conversation at http://theforum.sph.harvard.edu/events/girls-health-and-education.

Girl Rising was produced in partnership with 10×10 global action campaign. Learn more about how you can view the film and take action here.