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Ensuring Education for Women and Girls at All Levels: A Feminist G7 Agenda

by Anna Vanderkooy

Published: May 28, 2018

Educating women and girls is associated with vast benefits to individuals and society as a whole. Researchers estimate that every $1 spent on enhancing female education around the world yields a return of $5 in social, economic, and environmental benefit.

Education receives the largest share of the world’s gender equality-focused aid (approx. 40%), with funding focused on increasing girls’ enrolment in primary and secondary school. However, in the case of Canada’s funding for global education, an almost 20% gap exists between current realities and the FIAP target for 95% gender targeted/integrated funding. Canada spent over $104 million in international assistance on education in 2015-2016 (7.3% of total Canadian international assistance). The weighted average percentage of these funds which targeted/integrated gender equality was 77%, indicating that much work is left to be done to reach FIAP’s target of 95%.

In this piece, we review policy options at each level of education funding (preschool to higher learning) that are likely to maximize development impact as well as ensure explicit benefits for women and girls.

Table 1: Canada’s 2015-16 International Assistance Funds on Education

Source: Author calculations based on Global Affairs Canada’s Historical Project Data Set.

Pre-primary Education

Extensive research points to the importance of early childhood learning inside and outside of the home for both boys and girls. Skills are acquired most efficiently in the early years/levels of education and levels of development amongst preschoolers strongly predict future educational success and earnings. The gross enrolment ratio for pre-primary education is only 21% for low income countries (as compared to 82% for high income countries), although early childhood education in the home can also ensure that preschool-aged children develop necessary skills.

A number of studies and reviews highlight the high impacts of increasing preschool attendance and early childhood education. For example, tripling preschool attendance in sub-Saharan Africa (from 18% to 59%) is estimated to have very high returns ($37 for every $1 spent) and the benefits of preschool programs are consistently found to outweigh their costs.

For example, a study in Jamaica found that a preschool intervention increased average earnings of graduates by 42%. In Indonesia, reducing the achievement gap between children from richer and poorer backgrounds allowed poorer children to do better in future education. Investments in improved early childhood education can also target education in the home. For example, a program designed to encourage verbal engagement between caregivers and infants in rural Senegal found that children in program villages showed greater improvement in vocabulary and other language outcomes compared to children in comparison villages.

Key Takeaway

Based on the high returns on early childhood education funding, Canada should increase the proportion of its initial education-related international assistance funding in this area (2015/16 funding made up only 0.08% of Canada’s total international assistance and was the second smallest tranche of initial education funding). 2015/16 funding already surpassed FIAP’s gender targeting/integrating targets.

Primary Education

Primary education encompasses schooling for children approximately 6 to 11 years of age. The gender gap between girls and boys in primary education has narrowed considerably over the years (Figure 1). Girls now make up approximately 48% of primary education pupils around the world, with virtually no gender differences between low, middle, and high-income countries. However, there is still a substantial gap in terms of primary completion rate by income (low income countries have a rate of 66% while high income countries have a rate of 99%) and girls are less likely than boys to complete primary education in low income countries (62% versus 68%).

Figure 1: Primary Education, Pupils (% Female)

Source: World Bank

The returns for primary education are reasonably high (although lower than the returns for pre-primary education): overall global returns are over $6 for every $1 spent, with a high of almost $9 in sub-Saharan Africa. Reducing financial barriers to education has proven effective in increasing girls’ enrolment in many parts of the world. For example, fee reductions in Colombia were effective in increasing primary school enrolment for both girls and boys. Conditional cash transfers in Mexico increased school attendance, with larger increases for girls. Within programs that address barriers to school participation and learning faced by children and households, cash transfer programmes resulted in the largest and most consistent improvements in school participation for all children, with positive impacts on school enrolment and drop out and completion rates (although, on average, they do not appear to impact learning outcomes). A systematic review of interventions to universally abolish tuition fees, eliminate tuition fees for targeted groups, or provide free uniforms found that these interventions can have positive overall effects on school enrolment and other educational and non-educational outcomes.

Key Takeaway

Returns to primary education funding are relatively high, but lower than returns to early education. Canada spent roughly 1/3 of its initial education international assistance funding on primary education, so may want to consider shifting some of this funding towards early childhood education instead. 2015/16 funding only had 70% targeting/integrating gender; to increase gender targeting/integrating funding in this area, interventions could focus on further reducing the primary education completion gap between girls and boys, using methods with proven positive impact such as cash transfer programs.

Secondary Education

Similarly to primary school, the gender gap in secondary education has also narrowed considerably over the years, although a small gap persists in low income countries, where girls make up approximately 45% of secondary education pupils (as compared to 49% in high income countries). However, even more than at the primary level, an extreme gap persists in terms of lower secondary completion rate by income (low income countries have a rate of 37% while high income countries are around 93%). Additionally, as girls’ productivity at home gains value, girls begin to drop out of secondary school at higher rates than boys; as a result, girls are less likely than boys to complete secondary education in low income countries (approximately 34% of girls versus 41% of boys).

Increasing secondary school completion is estimated to have moderate returns (approximately $4 for every $1 spent); returns are higher in lower income regions (e.g., a high of $6 for every $1 spent in sub-Saharan Africa). A review of impact evaluations finds that scholarships and stipends for secondary education have improve secondary school enrolment and completion, while a number of other interventions (such as transportation strategies, boarding schools, community engagement, gender-awareness training for teachers, mentoring, tutoring, and peer support for girls) appear promising but lack sufficient evidence to date.

Key Takeaway

Returns to education tend to fall with age, as opportunity cost of education increases. However, very little of Canada’s international assistance focus on secondary education and less than 20% of this small amount of funding targets/integrates gender. To increase gender targeting/integrating funding in this area, interventions should focus on further reducing the secondary education enrolment and completion gap between girls and boys, using proven methods such as cash transfer programs, scholarships, and stipends.

Higher Education

There is limited high-quality global data regarding higher education (enrolment, completion rates etc.). However, the World Bank figures highlight a huge gap for tertiary education enrolment between high and low income countries (74% versus 8% gross enrolment ratio). Women are also half as likely as men to be enrolled in tertiary education in low income countries (5% school enrolment for women versus 10% for men).

Figure 2: Gross enrolment ratio, tertiary, both sexes (%)

Source: World Bank

Higher education has an estimated return of almost $4 for every $1 spent globally, with relatively narrow differences between regions. A review investigating 175 studies on access to and quality of higher education in developing countries found little evidence of differential gender effects of programs and policies. Affirmative action is found to increase enrolment for target groups but can have the unintended effect of displacing non-target, disadvantaged groups, including women. Public support in the form of free university with limited access is found to disproportionately benefit wealthier students. Some studies find that students are willing to pay for quality education (for example, in systems where states provide some free spots and charge fees for the remainder of students). The authors recommend that countries “carefully consider the best combination of public and private institutional supply along with financial aid to enable access”.

Cross-border and transnational provision of higher education is backed by little evidence of effectiveness in increasing access and quality. The limited number of randomized trials regarding vocational training found significant employment and wage gains to lower-income women who participated, although review authors warn that these studies are too limited to warrant generalization without further research.

Key Takeaway

There are big opportunities for Canadian funding to target gender in higher education, as women are half as likely as men to be enrolled in tertiary education in low income countries. Interventions such as scholarships for female students could help increase their access to higher education (especially in male-dominated fields), although attention should be paid to their effects on other disadvantaged groups.


Canadian international assistance should be focusing its precious funding on interventions with proven cost-effectiveness in targeting women and girls. Our review of the latest research on global education funding suggests that returns to education spending are highest for pre-primary education, although all levels of education have returns to spending above $1. To increase enrolment and completion rates, which lag increasingly for girls as education level increases, financial incentives such as cash transfers, scholarships, and stipends are among the most effective interventions. Given limited resources, these interventions may be the most proven cost-effective way to narrow gender enrolment and achievement gaps while promoting gender equality and empowerment at all education levels.

This article is part of a series exploring critical sectors for moving Canada’s feminist international assistance policy forward in light of opportunities to lead at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, QC (June 8-9). The rest of the series is available here::

Part I – A Feminist G7 Agenda 

Part III – Education, Health, and Gender Linkages to Improve Learning Outcomes for Women and Girls

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