Turns out we were wrong about how many girls miss out on school. Now what?

By December 19, 2017Blog, Challenges
close up image of dozens of raised hands in a crowd

Q: How many girls globally are out of school?
A: Many more than we thought. Many millions more, in fact. Now we know the global reality – what do we do next?

Imagine you had to figure out how many girls around the world are out of school. Not by typing the question into Google, but by actually working it out from scratch.

Where would you start? How would you cope with the sheer size of the job? Or deal with issues of remoteness, language and cultural barriers, refugee populations on the move? Who would you ask? How would you actually collect the information?

Issues like these, and hundreds more, have always made large-scale data collection projects incredibly challenging, and as a result the numbers they produce tend to be a ‘best estimate’ based on available resources.

But technology and other resources keep improving and as that happens, researchers are able to create an increasingly accurate picture of how the world is tracking on a whole range of critical global issues. They’ve been able to show that across a whole range of important indicators, the world continues to get better in so, so many ways.

Unfortunately though, when it comes to girls’ education, the news is not good.

Group shot of nine African children most smiling at the camera

Image by Annie Spratt – Unsplash

Until recently, it was widely reported that more than 60 million girls around the globe were out of school. Many organisations, including ours, referred to these figures in all their messaging.

But now that has to change. It turns out there’s a LOT more than 60 million girls out of school. According to a recent report by UNESCO the true figure is closer to 130 million – more than double what we thought!

It’s not that suddenly millions of girls who were in school are now out of school. It’s just that improvements in technology and research practices have given us a way more accurate picture of the true situation. In other words, reality hasn’t changed. The numbers have always been this high – it’s just that now we know.

How are these huge numbers calculated?

In theory, calculating how many girls are out of school is a simple process. If, for example, you know a community has 100 girls between the ages of 6 and 17 years and you know that 70 of those girls are in school – then you can say that 30 out of 100 (30%) of school-aged girls in that community are out of school. To calculate these figures on a global scale UNESCO uses a combination of existing population data and data gathered from specific surveys such as the Annual Education Survey.

But as you can imagine – it’s an imperfect process. Girls can be enrolled in school but not attending, some families won’t complete surveys, disease, conflicts, and natural disasters can interrupt the collection process. So many factors can affect the quality of the data – and when you multiply these seemingly small inaccuracies over massive global numbers, you get very big inaccuracies.

This also explains why you see such big corrections, like the one recently reported by UNESCO, as more accurate and complete data becomes available.

African woman at a microphone delivering a speech

Image from UN Women – Flickr

The United Nations body – UN Women believes accurate data is so crucial to understanding and improving the lives of women and girls that they’ve launched an initiative called Make Every Woman and Girl Count, and announced that $65 million dollars will be spent over the next five years to gather timely, high-quality, girl-specific information.

The more we know and the more accurate understanding of the global reality for girls – the more equipped we are to actually tackle it.

So… how do we deal with these new numbers?

It’s impossible not to stop and acknowledge the size of these new numbers. They’re huge – literally unimaginable. And it’s devastating to know that every single one of those unimaginable numbers represents a girl going through life with little or no education.

But fixating on the size of the problem – whether it’s 65 or 130 million – can be paralysing. We feel small and powerless, and from that gloomy place it’s so easy to conclude that nothing we do will make any difference. And that’s simply not true.

Small steps, big changes

There’s a lovely story you might know about a writer who goes to the ocean every morning. One day, after a wild storm, he arrives to discover the beach is covered with starfish for as far as he can see. In the distance he notices a young boy walking towards him. Every so often the boy stops to throw something into the water.

As the boy comes closer the man greets him and says: ‘Can I ask what you are doing?’ The boy replies: ‘Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t get back by themselves. When the sun gets high they will die unless I throw them back in the water.’

Child's hand holding a grey starfish

Image by Hoang-Minh – Unsplash 

The man replies: ‘But there are tens of thousands of starfish on the beach. I’m afraid you really won’t be able to make much of a difference.’ The boy bends down to pick up another starfish and throws it out into the ocean, then smiles and says: ‘It made a difference to that one!’

The greatest change makers in history talk about the power of concentrating on what you can do and taking small steps. Mother Teresa, for example, said: ‘I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual … I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person I wouldn’t have picked up 42,000.’

Rows of small trees with African women in background working
Image source: The Green Belt Movement

In June 1977 a group of Kenyan women led by Wangari Maathai decided to do something about the environmental damage being caused by tree clearing. They planted seven trees. And with that very small step launched the Green Belt Movement. Imagine how insignificant it must have felt, digging seven little holes for seven tiny trees, when you’re facing massive problems of land degradation. But they did it anyway.

Today the Green Belt Movement is responsible for planting 51 million trees! And on top of that tens of thousands of women have been trained in everything from forestry to beekeeping; thousands of nurseries and other offshoot businesses have been established; university courses and eco-tourism activities have sprung up; communities have been transformed – and of course the environment has been transformed.

Small steps at One Girl

Our own story is one of small steps. From our co-founders being inspired by a single girl they met who wanted nothing more than to go to school, One Girl has grown into a movement that aims to educate one million girls. We’ve gone from raising a few hundred dollars selling chocolates to friends and family from our co-founder’s living room, to running global campaigns that over the years have raised millions of dollars for our education projects. This year alone our incredible Do It In A Dress community has raised over $850,000!

We talk about changing the world one girl at a time. One girl can seem like a very small step in the face of such large numbers – until you think what an education means to that girl.  She’s back in school instead of being married to a man two, three or four times her age. She’s learning how her body works and how to control pregnancy instead of having children as a teenager. And she’s studying and being equipped with vital life-skills, instead of living a life of domestic drudgery.

Each educated girl is way more likely to go on to raise a smaller, healthier family, earn more and contribute back to her community, and educate her own children, changing the lives of future generations as well.

So changing the life of that one girl – and every girl like her – is actually a very significant step! As our incredible community of passionate change makers continues to grow, so do the numbers of educated and empowered girls, healthier and more stable families, and stronger communities.

Taking your own small steps

Right now there are 130 million girls around the world who are denied an education. That’s our new reality.

If reading those words makes you mad, well, same. One of our favorite #inspiringquotes (but actually) is this one…

“Keep calm and carry on? No thanks, I’d rather raise hell and change the world!”

There are a number of ways you can react to learning about the scale and enormity of the problems we face globally. You can “keep calm and carry on” – ignore it and keep living your life. You can feel paralysed and helpless (we’ve been there too). Or, you can decide to take your own small steps to make a difference. Decide to make the difference you CAN make, rather than focus on the difference you can’t.

If that sounds like you, you sound like us. So join us. Be part of the One Girl movement.

small chalkboard sigh that read: donations go to ONE GIRL

If you want to help fund programs that change the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable girls, you can do that here. You could also fundraise by joining one of our campaigns or by creating your own. Or you can pledge your birthday and tell your loved ones that you don’t want a present but want to help educate girls instead!


If you’re a business owner, you might be inspired by Zoe and Brad’s story. They own Freckleduck Café and donate 10 cents from every coffee and hot drink they sell. Ten cents on its own definitely fits the definition of a small step. Yet in just two years, Freckleduck has already raised over $10,000 – enough to educate a whole classroom of girls!

So if looking for a way to make a difference through your business – get in touch with us. We’d love to chat about how we can work together to educate and empower even more women and girls!

Maybe you have some extra time or special skills and would like to volunteer with us. We’d love that. Add your name to our mailing list and you’ll hear all our latest news, including new job and volunteer opportunities.

We started out helping just one girl. Now a few years on, our programs have reached over 29,000 women and girls through education. And with the support of our community, we will keep going because we’re on a mission to educate one million girls – one girl at a time.

Join our movement – we can’t do it without you.

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