This blog is part of a series focused on USAID’s innovative approach to reaching Millennium Development Goal #2: Achieve universal primary education. The theme “Room to Learn” highlights programs and priority countries where access to education is now a reality.

As President Obama said, if a country is educating its girls, if women have equal rights, that country is going to move forward. Education is a silver bullet for empowering women and girls worldwide. When girls are educated, their families are healthier, they have fewer children, they wed later, and they have more opportunities to generate income. One extra year of primary school boosts a girl’s future wage 10 to 20 percent and an extra year of secondary school increases that earning potential by 15 to 25 percent. Education also helps moms take better care of their kids.  According to the World Bank (PDF), each additional year of female education reduces child mortality by 18 per thousand births.

A young female student in Alma Village, southern Ethiopia. Photo credit: Susan Liebold

These are amazing statistics but I’ve also been fortunate enough to see for myself the high returns to investing in education. While in Kabul I met with an incredible group of young women who were educated entirely in post-Taliban Afghanistan. They reminded me how critically important education is to peace, prosperity and empowerment. Those young women represent the future for a country that had virtually no girls in school less than fifteen years ago. Today, Afghan girls are more than a third of the students. I am proud that USAID is supporting community-based schools in Afghanistan and that our literacy effort is playing an instrumental role in ensuring these girls get an education; it is an investment that will pay dividends for generations to come.

Globally, enormous progress has been made in closing the gender gap in primary education over the last twenty years. In most of the world today, a similar percentage of girls and boys attend primary schools. Yet disparities endure—there are 3.6 million more girls out of school compared to boys around the world. Women still comprise the majority (two-thirds) of the illiterate. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, obtaining an education remains particularly tough for women and girls. The World Bank estimates that half of the out-of-school girls in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa and one quarter of them live in South Asia.

But it’s not just about access. Compounding the problem is a lack of quality education. For example, in Malawi robust primary school enrollment and matriculation rates are reported. However, a closer inspection of the educational system reveals that many students finish their schooling without being able to read. Therefore, a focus on both the quality of education and enrollment rates is needed.

We know that educating women and girls has tremendous multiplying effects for families, communities, and societies.  That is why USAID launched five leadership partnerships involving universities in the U.S. and in Armenia, Paraguay, Rwanda and South Sudan to promote gender equality and women’s leadership. These programs will promote and develop curricula and opportunities for women in business, agriculture, and education in order to increase women’s access to higher education and advanced degrees, strengthen institutional capacity in research and education on women’s leadership, and promote women’s leadership through higher education extension and outreach to underserved communities.

We are very excited to be collaborating with academic institutions in the United States and abroad to advance women’s leadership. These partnerships offer a meaningful and important opportunity to ensure women are empowered, ultimately advancing economies and societies globally.