How girls’ education benefits our entire planet

Inspired by her own experience witnessing the Jane Goodall Institute’s work in Uganda, our Africa Programs Manager, Natasha Coutts, shares proven reasons why female education has positive reverberations for our entire planet.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

-Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate


Significant gains in closing the gender gap in education have been made globally over the past 30 years, however regional disparities between the number of years of school completed by boys and girls still persist. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the lower secondary school completion rate for boys is 42 percent compared to 36 percent for girls. A similar difference exists for upper secondary school completion rates, with 29 percent for boys and just 22 percent for girls. Here are eight reasons why bridging the educational gender divide in Sub-Saharan Africa can help save the world


Africa has lost 3.94 million hectares of forest per year since 1990, the highest rate globally.1 These forests, particularly the primary tropical rainforests around the equator, are extremely rich in biodiversity. Their loss and degradation imperils the survival of innumerable plant and animal species, many endemic to these locations. For example, habitat destruction and degradation is a leading threat to endangered chimpanzees.2

Multiple studies have shown traditional fuel consumption to be the greatest driver of deforestation in the region, due to large numbers of poor rural populations living in and around forested areas being reliant on wood fuel and charcoal for cooking.3-5  In addition to energy, many people across rural Sub-Saharan Africa depend on forests for between 30 – 45%  of their total household income.6-9 However, forest dependency tends to decline with more years of education, as it presents alternative livelihood opportunities that are often more profitable than forest extraction activities.10-14

Find out more about our campaign Educate Girls, Change The World >>


Education helps buffer women, their families and the countries that they live in from financial and environmental shocks.15 At the family level, women with more education can better handle economic fluctuations that might impact their ability to provide food and health care to their children. At the national level, female education provides the best return on investment for enhancing a country’s ability to mitigate the impact of natural disasters.16

Predictions suggest Africa will face a number of climate and environment related challenges –  such as decreased food security, water availability and biodiversity loss – over the coming decades. Critical to ensuring vulnerable populations are equipped to deal with these challenges is the education of girls: there is massive untapped potential for them to emerge as leaders in this space. For example, in 2015 women represented only 30% of forestry graduates from the level of technical diploma through to doctoral degrees.17

Closing the gender gap in secondary education will give girls the foundations they need to pursue further education and realise their full potential to gain leadership positions within academia, civic associations, business, and politics.18


Sub-Saharan African countries are among the world’s most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. By decreasing fertility rates and population growth, educating girls can substantially contribute to reducing global carbon emissions.19

Project Drawdown – the world’s leading resource for climate solutions – ranked educating girls the sixth most effective strategy for curbing climate change. Estimations suggest over 51 gigatons of CO2 emissions could be saved if free universal secondary education is implemented globally by 2030.20

How do reusable sanitary towels reduce deforestation? Learn more >>

Population growth

High population growth can be a challenge to increasing standards of living in Income Level 1 & 2 countries. More people means budgets for public services and available resources are spread more thinly. Increasing population size is also strongly associated with greater deforestation.21,22

If all countries prioritised rapid expansion of free universal secondary schooling, the global population will likely be 843 million people fewer in 2050 compared to projections based on current enrollment rates.23, 24 In Sub-Saharan Africa, where most countries are currently at Income Levels 1 & 2 and large gaps in educational attainment between boys and girls still exist, women with secondary education average 3.9 births while those with no education average 6.8 births.25, 26

Future earnings

There is a strong relationship between the number of years of schooling a girl undertakes and her future income. Sub-Saharan African women with primary education are likely to earn between 18 – 30% more than those with no education. The difference increases to between 130 – 165% for secondary education, and a staggering 448 – 567% for tertiary education.27

Education also helps reduce gender income inequality. Ghanian women with secondary education earn 16 percent less than secondary educated men, whereas the gap increases to 57 percent for women and men with no education.28  Because higher incomes help alleviate poverty, which in turn can lower dependence on forests29, educating girls over time contributes to the preservation of natural ecosystems.


Education leads to better health outcomes for women and their children. During the peak of the HIV crisis in the 1990s the likelihood of testing positive to the virus was three times less for adolescent rural Ugandans with secondary education than those with no education.30

Across nine Sub-Saharan African countries, the chance of a child contracting malaria – a leading cause of death in the region – is reduced by approximately 27 percent if their mothers have completed at least six years of primary education.31  Child health and nutritional status is most strongly associated with a mothers’ education in rural Uganda.32


Educated women make economies stronger, both locally and nationally. Increasing the number of years of education improves women’s prospects for participating in the formal labour market.33 Estimated labour market returns on education are higher for women at 11.7 percent compared to 9.6 percent for men.34

Sub-Saharan African women are responsible for 75 percent of food produced in the region, yet their average number of years of education is far less than that of men.

When women’s educational attainment levels increase, so too does their productivity. Female farmers with more years of education in Kenya were shown to increase yields by up to 22 percent.35

Child marriage

Cultural norms and poverty force many girls to marry before the age of 18. In most cases, marriage and schooling are mutually exclusive.36 The chance of marriage is reduced by 7.5 percent for every additional year of secondary school completed by girls in 13 African countries.

In a survey of married Ugandan women, 39 percent who married in adulthood enrolled in secondary school, compared to 13 percent who married as a child.37 Programs that focus on increasing educational attainment for girls are one of the most effective strategies for reducing child marriage.38

Learn how JGI helps girls stay in school to protect chimps >>



  • FAO and UNEP. 2020. The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people. Rome.
  • Plumptre, A., Hart, J.A., Hicks, T.C., Nixon, S., Piel, A.K. & Pintea, L. 2016. Pan troglodytes ssp. schweinfurthii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15937A102329417.
  • Bawa, K. S. and Dayanandan, S. (1997). Socioeconomic factors and tropical deforestation. Nature, 386, 562 – 563.
  • Hosonuma, N., Herold, M., De Sy,V., De Fries, R. S., Brockhaus, M., Verchot, L., Angelsen, A., and Romijn, E. (2012). An assessment of deforestation and forest degradation drivers in developing countries. Environmental Research Letters, 7, 044009.
  • Mulenga, B. P., Tembo, S. T., and Richardson, R. B. (2019). Electricity access and charcoal consumption among urban households in Zambia. Development Southern Africa, 36 (5), 585 – 599. 
  • Garekae, H., Thakadu, O. T., and Lepetu, J. (2017). Socio-economic factors influencing household forest dependency in Chobe enclave, Botswana. Ecological Processes, 6 (1).
  • Mamo, G., Sjaastad, E., Vedeld, P. (2007). Economic dependence on forest resources: a case from Dendi District, Ethiopia. Forest Policy Economics, 9 (8), 916 – 927.
  • Appiah, M., Blay, D., Damnyag, L., Dwomoh, F. K., Pappinen, A., and Luukkanen, O. (2009). Dependence on forest resources and tropical deforestation in Ghana. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 11, 471 – 487.
  • Kalaba, F. K, Quinn, C.H., Dougill, A.J. (2013). Contribution of forest provisioning ecosystem services to rural livelihoods in the Miombo woodlands of Zambia. Population and Environment, 35 (2), 159 – 182.
  • Adhikari, B., Di Falco, S., and Lovett, J. C. (2004). Household characteristics and forest dependency: evidence from common property forest management in Nepal. Ecological Economics, 48, 245 – 257.
  • Gunatilake, H. (1998). The role of rural development in protecting tropical rainforests: evidence from Sri Lanka. Journal of Environmental Management, 53, 273 – 292.
  • Panta, M., Kim, K., Lee, C. (2009). Households’ characteristics, forest resources dependency and forest availability in central Terai of Nepal. Journal of Korean Forest Society, 98 (5), 548 – 557.
  • Fonta, W. M., and Ayuk, E. T. (2013). Measuring the role of forest income in mitigating poverty and inequality: evidence from south-eastern Nigeria. Forests, Trees, and Livelihoods 22 (2), 86 – 105.
  • Masozera, M. K., and Alavalapati, J. R. R. (2004). Forest dependency and its implications for protected areas management: a case study from the Nyungwe Forest Reserve, Rwanda. Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research 19 (4), 85–92.
  • King, E., and Winthrop,  R. (2015). Today’s Challenges for Girls’ Education. Brookings Institution, Washington.
  • Streissnig, E., Lutz, W., and Patt, A. (2013). Effects of Educational Attainment on Climate Risk Vulnerability. Ecology and Society, 18 (1), 16.
  • FAO. (2020). Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020: Main report. Rome.
  • O’Neil, T., Plank, G., and Domingo, P. (2015). Support to Women and Girls’ Leadership: A Rapid Review of the Evidence. Overseas Development Institute, London.
  • O’Neill, B.C., Dalton, M., Fuchs, R., Jiang, L., Pachauri, S., and Zigova, K. (2010). Global demographic trends and future carbon emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (41), 17521-17526. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1004581107.
  • UNESCO. (2020). Global Education Monitoring Report 2020: Inclusion and education: All means all. UNESCO, Paris.
  • Busch, J., and Ferretti-Gallon, K. (2017). What Drives Deforestation and What Stops It? A Meta-Analysis. Review of environmental economics and policy, 11(1) 3-23.
  • Uusivuori, J., Lehto, E. and Palo, M. (2002). Population, income and ecological conditions as determinants of forest area variation in the tropics. Global Environmental Change, 12, 313-323.
  • UNESCO. (2014). Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All – EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4. UNESCO, Paris.
  • Lutz, W., and Samir., K. C.  (2011). Global Human Capital: Integrating Education and Population. Science, 333 (6042), 587–92.
  • UNPD. (2011). World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision. UNPD, New York.
  • 26.ICF International. STATcompiler: Building Tables with DHS Data. (2012) ICF International, Calverton. Available at
  • Wodon, Q., C., Nguyen, M. H., and Onagoruwa, A. (2018). Educating Girls and Ending Child Marriage: A Priority for Africa. The Cost of Not Educating Girls Notes Series. The World Bank, Washington, DC.
  • Kolev, A., and Sirven, N. (2010). Gender Disparities in Africa’s Labor Market: A Cross-Country Comparison Using Standardized Survey Data. In Gender Disparities in Africa’s Labor Market. Editors Arbache, J. S., Kolev, A., and Filipiak, E. World Bank, Washington.
  • FAO and UNEP. (2020). The State of the World’s Forests 2020 – Forests, biodiversity and people. FAO and UNEP, Rome.
  • De Walque, D. (2004). How Does Educational Attainment Affect the Risk of Being Infected by HIV/AIDS? Evidence from a General Population Cohort in Rural Uganda. World Bank Development Research Group Working Paper. World Bank, Washington.
  • Siri, J. G. (2014). Independent Associations of Maternal Education and Household Wealth with Malaria Risk in Children. Ecology and Society, 19 (1), 33.
  • Wamani, H., Tylleskär, T., Astrøm, A. N., Tumwine, J. K., and Peterson, S. (2004). Mothers’ Education but Not Fathers’ Education, Household Assets or Land Ownership is the Best Predictor of Child Health Inequalities in Rural Uganda. International Journal for Equity in Health, 3 (1), 9.
  • Patrinos, H., and Montenegro, C. E. (2014). Comparable Estimates of Returns to Schooling Around the World. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 7020. World Bank, Washington.
  • Sperling, G. B., Winthrop, R. and Kwauk, C. (2016). What Works in Girls’ Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Economy. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, USA.
  • Quisumbing, A. (1996). Male – Female Differences in Agricultural Productivity: Methodological Issues and Empirical Evidence. World Development, 24 (10), 1579 – 1595.
  • Wodon, Q., Nguyen, M. C., and Tsimpo, C. (2016). Child Marriage, Education, and Agency in Uganda. Feminist Economics, 22 (1), 54 – 79. doi:10.1080/13545701.2015.1102020.
  • Wodon, Q., Montenegro, C., Nguyen, H., and Onagoruwa, A. (2018). Educating Girls and Ending Child Marriage: A Priority for Africa. The Cost of Not Educating Girls Notes Series. The World Bank, Washington.
  • Botea, I., Chakravarty, S., Haddock, S., and Wodon, Q. (2017). Interventions Improving Sexual and Reproductive Health Outcomes and Delaying Child Marriage and Childbearing for Adolescent Girls. Ending Child Marriage Notes Series. The World Bank, Washington.
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