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The simple reason you are richer than 493 million women

At least one in ten people around the world cannot read or write. Of the 774 million illiterate adults, approximately two thirds are women. The vast majority of them are living in developing countries.

That means that if you have read this far, you are richer than close to half a billion women.

Poverty isn’t just about money. It’s about your opportunities, and how these are influenced by the availability – or otherwise – of education, healthcare and a secure source of food and income.

Literacy and numeracy are often the difference between being able to participate fully in society or not.

We know that to achieve a truly gender equal global society, positions of power and influence must be filled by men and women in a balanced way. But for already marginalised women, the inability to read or write throws up an additional barrier to participating in decision-making roles.

There are many factors that lead to girls getting less education – including child marriage, traditional gender roles for females that prioritise domestic and caring work, as well as traditions that limit freedoms from the onset of puberty, such as being isolated during menstruation.

Educate girls, empower women

Ensure that girls get a good standard of education, and the result is women who stand a better chance of empowering themselves. This crucial link between equality in education and status later in life is the reason why many of VSO’s education programmes have a gender focus.

What has been done?

Huge efforts have been made in the last decades to get to a stage where as many girls as boys are enrolled in primary school – all developing regions have achieved, or are close to achieving this milestone.

A thornier challenge now exists in increasing the attendance and engagement of all children, particularly those already marginalised in some way, like girls. Together with a range of committed local partners, VSO is approaching the challenge of girls’ education in a number of ways.

Reaching out-of-school girls through ‘big sisters’

In Nepal, our Sisters for Sisters project provides out-of-school girls with strong female role models – ‘big sisters’ who can help families explore the reasons for missing out on education and mentor girls back into the classroom.

In a country where 42.6% of women are illiterate and the average woman has less than a year of schooling behind her, the support of a volunteer mentor can be life-changing to a girl.

So far, Sisters for Sisters is running in 48 schools across six districts that host 10 of the 22 ethnic groups identified as extremely marginalised. Some Big Sisters have produced digital stories to explain what they do in their own words.

Letting girls tell us what they need

The pressures that led many of today’s women to miss out on their schooling are often hidden away.

It is vital to let the girls speak for themselves now so that we can learn how to make education more child-friendly and inclusive.

Since 2009, VSO has also been encouraging the formation of gender clubs in Northern Ghana through the Tackling Education Needs Inclusively (TENI) programme – so far more than 12,000 girls have taken part.

Gender clubs provide a forum for girls to discuss the reasons they miss school and the issues and pressures they are up against outside of the classroom. For many of the girls, it will be the first time they have been invited to speak up.

Parents, teachers and other community members are also involved and able to learn from the girls at the clubs. Their lessons are being put into practice – 24 by-laws have been introduced that aim to reduce practices that negatively impact girls’ educational outcomes such as child marriage.

VSO volunteers train teachers and facilitators to run the clubs, which not only provide support to girls but also provide educators with knowledge on how to deliver lessons that better engage children through more involved teaching styles.

Help girls write their own futures

Things are getting better for girls, though there is a resistance to these changes.

A new UN report shows that retaliation attacks against girls accessing education are occurring with “increasing regularity”.

Our vision is of a world where everyone, man or woman, has equal access to the tools that will allow for a dignified life and hope for the future – including education.

Stand with us and make it happen by donating £5 now. Or join our Women in Power campaign and stand up for the right of every woman to have a voice this International Women’s Day.