Rural Girls: Equal Partners on the Path to Employment1

[I'm] optimistic about getting good jobs and eventually being able to help others because of the education [I'm] getting.

—Adolescent girl, 15 to 19 years, Juba
Girls and young women in low-income rural areas are surprisingly optimistic about their future. For instance, in a large African survey, the vast majority expected their lives to be “better” (39 percent) or even “much better” (56 percent) in five years.2 These expectations may be influenced by increased information through new media about opportunities elsewhere. However, girls are realistic; they dream less ambitiously than boys. For example, a study of rural Ethiopian girls revealed their lower aspirations in terms of future income, assets, and social status compared to boys.3 Rural girls’ trust in future opportunities is frustrated by reality. Consequently, they move on to more urban areas if they can. About 800 million girls aged 5 to 19 years reside in less-developed regions, about half of them in rural areas. They need extensive policy attention and supportive action.
REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
To create opportunities for rural girls, it is crucial to improve their access to education. There is progress. Globally, the number of out-of-school children went down by about 112 million between 2000 and 2014,4 and the proportion of girls enrolled in basic education recently hit a historic high. Yet in most low-income countries (LICs), access to and quality of education is worse in rural than in urban areas.5 This applies also to China despite the nation’s fast economic development.6 Poverty, limited attention to girls’ nutrition, and schools located far away from communities all hamper school attendance and learning.7 When school fees are no longer affordable, girls are usually required to stay home. It is estimated that only 25 percent of the poorest girls in LICs complete primary school.8
Rural girls are often put in charge of household tasks like fetching drinking water, collecting firewood, preparing food, taking care of younger siblings, and cleaning. As a result, girls in rural Ethiopia, for instance, are less likely to attend school full time and are more likely to be full-time child workers compared to boys. They work about 50 percent more than boys, contributing on average 20 hours per week to domestic chores.9 The consequences of child labor on rural girls translate into lower adulthood human capital, aspirations failure, and persistent poverty.
Gender-conscious policy today can indirectly change rural girls’ marginalization. This is demonstrated by the role model effect deriving from reserving leadership positions for women in village councils in India. This practice was found to decrease girls’ time allocated to household chores, reduce the educational gender gap, and increase parents’ occupational aspirations for adolescent girls.10 A much more aggressive approach of mobilization and legal action is needed to overcome violence against women and girls. Rural girls frequently see their mothers beaten and exposed to domestic violence (more than 30 percent of women are affected in many countries in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia). Girls trafficking is still not getting enough attention despite repeated calls to action by Pope Francis.
Almost 75 percent of young women in the Africa youth survey stated that it is difficult to find a job. Thirty-five percent cited better jobs, coupled with better educational opportunities, as essential for making rural areas more attractive places to live and work. The Ethiopia study, which tracked girls and boys from childhood over 14 years, found that almost twice as many girls left their villages compared to boys over those 14 years (45 and 26 percent, respectively). However, the drivers differ: boys migrated to work (65 percent), whereas girls marry away (about 50 percent).11 Apart from primary and secondary schools, training institutions for technical and vocational skills are needed in rural areas to equip girls to become entrepreneurs.
REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

There is evidence from research all over the world, including rural Asia and Africa, that women are as productive farmers as men if they have equal access to means of production, markets, and land rights.

There is evidence from research all over the world, including rural Asia and Africa, that women are as productive farmers as men if they have equal access to means of production, markets, and land rights. But the reality is different, and girls see that their mothers are marginalized in farming. Still, agriculture is not as negatively viewed as its reputation may suggest. While the Africa youth survey shows that many young women would like to work in the public sector (28 percent), agriculture (19 percent) comes in second. Conditions in agriculture will need to change, however, to attract young women to stay in farming. They want improved access to mechanization, access to investment, land rights, information (smartphones), and sufficiently high incomes. While about 3 percent of eight-year-old girls aspire to work in farming, this drops to 0.4 percent when they turn 15. Similarly, in South Africa and Morocco rural girls have lower aspirations of working in agriculture.12 
All the partners willing to join forces with the growing cadre of rural girls ready to take action can look to the Berlin Charter: Creating Opportunities with the Young Generation in the Rural World.13  Prepared for the 2017 G20, the charter sets out a blueprint for sustainable rural development with young people as the driving force. The document was drafted with much youth involvement. It can serve as important political impetus and guidance for decision makers from the worlds of politics, business, and civil society, with a view to boosting their involvement in efforts to foster rural development and youth employment. Programs and policies should not only be designed for rural girls but also with them because children can be strong agents of change.14 In order to guarantee that rural girls’ needs and aspirations are indeed met, it is of utmost importance to base actions on evidence that is obtained in close cooperation with them.
1 The kind research support and background information for this article by Heike Baumüller, Katharina Gallant, Essa Mussa, Oliver Kirui, and Georgina Wambui Njiraini is gratefully acknowledged.
2 The data draws on the results of a text message-based survey of more than 10,000 rural youth in 21 African countries commissioned by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in spring 2017. The results reported here refer to the answers given by young women (18 to 24 years).
3 D.A. Mekonnen and N. Gerber, “The Effect of Aspirations on Agricultural Innovations in Rural Ethiopia” (ZEF-Discussion Papers on Development Policy No. 214, Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn, 2016),
4 UNESCO, “Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All,” Global Education Monitoring Report 2016 (Paris: UNESCO, 2016).
5 S. Desai, World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2018).
6 Scott Rozelle, The Other China, 2018,
7 FAO, “Education for Rural People and Food Security: A Cross-Country Analysis,” ed. P. De Muro and F. Burchi (Rome: FAO, 2007).
8 UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “Education” (Montreal: UNESCO, 2016),
9 Essa Mussa, “Child Labour: An Ethiopian Perspective,” Rural 21 52, no. 3 (2018): 45–47,
10 L. Beaman, E. Duflo, R. Pande, and P. Topalova, “Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India,” Science 335, no. 6068 (2012): 582–86,
11 Essa Mussa, “Child Labour: An Ethiopian Perspective,” Rural 21 52, no. 3 (2018): 45–47,
12 A. Giuliani, S. Mengel, C. Paisley, N. Perkins, I. Flink, O. Oliveros, and M. Wongtschowski, “Realities, Perceptions, Challenges and Aspirations of Rural Youth in Dryland Agriculture in the Midelt Province, Morocco,” Sustainability 9, no. 12 (2017): 871,; A. Kritzinger, “Rural Youth and Risk Society: Future Perceptions and Life Chances of Teenage Girls on South African Farms,” Youth & Society 33, no. 4 (2002): 545–72,
13 BMZ, Berlin Charter: Creating Opportunities with the Young Generation in the Rural World: Joint Call for Action by Science, the Private Sector and Civil Society (Bonn: BMZ, 2017).
14 J. von Braun, “Children as Agents of Change,” in Children and Sustainable Development: Ecological Education in a Globalized World, ed. A.M. Battro, P. Léna, M.S. Sorondo, and J. Von Braun (Cham: Springer International, 2017).