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. / Susan Liebold

A young female student in Alma Village, southern Ethiopia. / 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 15 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.

In Afghanistan today, 3 millions girls are enrolled in school. A decade ago, there were none.   / USAID Afghanistan

In Afghanistan today, 3 millions girls are enrolled in school. A decade ago, there were none. / USAID Afghanistan

Globally, enormous progress has been made in closing the gender gap in primary education over the last 20 years. In most of the world today, a similar percentage of girls and boys attend primary schools. Yet disparities endure—there are around 3.6 million more girls out of school compared to boys around the world — in total, that’s 62 million girls who are not realizing their full potential. 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.

That’s why USAID’s Education Strategy focuses on the quality of education – ensuring that all girls and boys leave school with the skills they will need to thrive. Specifically, the strategy focuses on improving reading for children in primary grades, strengthening higher education and workforce development programs, and increasing equitable access to education for children and youth in conflict and crisis.

We know that giving girls a quality education has tremendous multiplying effects for families, communities, societies and the world — for generations.

That’s why the United States is launching Let Girls Learn, a new effort to raise awareness about the importance of allowing all girls to pursue a quality education. In support of the effort, USAID also announced over $230 million for new programs to support primary and secondary education and safe learning in Nigeria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Jordan, as well as support for Guatemala’s ongoing, successful efforts to improve quality of education for under-served populations.

Because an educated girl is a force for change: She is the leader and peacemaker of tomorrow. Because an educated girl has a ripple effect.


Carla Koppell is USAID’s Chief Strategy Officer. She was formerly the Agency’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. You can follow her @CarlaKoppell