16/10/2012 06:15 BST | Updated 15/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Skills for Young Women: Development That Lasts

Travelling through rural areas in countries like Ethiopia, as I did last year, you frequently meet young women who have never been to school. If a young woman in a poor rural area has completed education, you can be sure she will have overcome huge obstacles.


Travelling through rural areas in countries like Ethiopia, as I did last year, you frequently meet young women who have never been to school. If a young woman in a poor rural area has completed education, you can be sure she will have overcome huge obstacles. Early marriage, ensuing childbirth and pressures of running a household can be enough to diminish her opportunities for education and prosperity.

This lack of education and resulting lack of skills affects both girls and boys. Today, the new Education for All Global Monitoring Report shows us that 200 million young people never even completed primary school. This means 20% of young people in developing countries - a large segment of the world's youth population - are ill-equipped to find work.

Young women, however, bear the worst burden of all; one in four are affected, while among young men the ratio is one in six. In countries where fewer overall have been to school, young women make up even larger majorities. This is true even in some middle income countries. In rural areas in Turkey, 65% of young women do not complete lower secondary school, compared with 36% of young men.

Aamina*, a young woman I met during my visit to Ethiopia, explained how the disadvantages felt in accessing an education continue into the labour market: "Usually the work environment as a daily labourer is not comfortable mostly for females. As a result of this, females usually do not get the type of job they want. And to get hired in an office they always require paper and more skills. Otherwise no one will hire you and it will be very difficult. And youth like us who have dropped out of school after grade 8 or 9 can never get any paper. So we don't even try to go to such places and apply for a job."

Rural areas host over 70% of the world's poor. Remoteness, the effects of climate change, and stunted economic opportunities leave many in desperate situations. As the young people I met in Ethiopia lamented, land is being sold off, leaving youth today with farms that are too small to make a living. This is true in other parts of the world too. The average-sized farm in China today can feed just three people in a household, for example. Even in India, farms on average can feed a family of six but no more.

But there is good news for these young people. The EFA Global Monitoring Report this year offers a well-signposted way out. Young women like Aamina can and should get another chance. Although there is a skills deficit now, the report identifies skills development programmes that are succeeding in overcoming even the worst disadvantages.

The non-governmental organization BRAC, for example, helps women living on less than $0.35 a day in countries with widespread rural poverty, such as Bangladesh. The organisation gives rural women assets such as a cow, along with training in business and marketing skills so they can make the most out of their new asset. The combination of skills and micro-finance brought lasting change for those who benefited from the programmes; income per household member nearly tripled between 2002 and 2008.

Other programmes are tackling social stereotypes faced by women directly. In Egypt in 2008, a fifth of rural women aged 17 to 22 had less than two years of schooling. Many are likely to marry young. Ishraq, another NGO, supports these young women with skills training, while educating rural families and local leaders about the needs of women in their communities. Over nine out of ten of the first graduates of these programmes passed their final exams.

For those in agricultural work, farmer field schools can make a concrete difference. In Kenya, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, training in new farming technologies for young women and men helped those who took part increase the value of their crop by over a third; their income increased by 61% on average.

These programmes are proof that, with skills development, even the most remote of rural areas, cut off from markets and punished by climate change, can foster profitable start-ups and engage young entrepreneurs. Even farmers with small plots of land have a chance of producing more crops and the right crops for their climate. They can give young people opportunities that make living in a rural area attractive, avoiding a need for them to migrate to urban parts of the country.

While delivering training in remote rural areas is sometimes hard, technology such as mobile phones, radio and television can help bridge that divide. It can be particularly beneficial for women who are often restricted from attending regularly scheduled classes. In southern India, a programme run by a non-governmental organisation uses mobile phones to train women with limited schooling in how to care for and get the most from their animals.

The barriers that young women like Aamina face can be difficult to overcome. Yet I hope the examples I've offered here will inspire those working to support development in rural areas to make sure skills training is a key part of any their programmes. I also hope that it will inspire governments and aid donors to work together to scale up successful programmes such as these to ensure they reach the 200 million young people in urgent need of such support.

The words of another girl I met in Ethiopia, Almaz*, stayed with me as I wrote our latest EFA Global Monitoring Report: "If someone can give me the skills and the possibility to start work, I know I can achieve my goals".

*names have been changed