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Insights and Analysis

The Multiplier: Girls’ STEM Education

October 12, 2022

By Arpaporn Winijkulchai and Anuja Patel

As we observe the tenth International Day of the Girl, on October 11, we can measure progress: most Asian nations have reached gender parity in primary education, and literacy has surged among girls and women. In South Asia, long home to the world’s highest incidence of child marriage, marriage rates for girls under 15 have been falling. And many countries in Asia have now legislated protections for children that give girls a legal basis for demanding their rights.

But in many parts of Asia, girls are absent when it comes to secondary education. They drop out because it’s not safe for them to travel to school, or to be in the classroom; they leave due to early marriage or pregnancy; their families prioritize educating their boys over girls. And the pandemic didn’t improve things: UNESCO estimates that another 11 million girls may not return to school as a result of Covid-19.

The Asia Foundation sees an incredible opportunity in the fact that 80 percent of jobs in Asia will require basic digital literacy by 2030. By focusing on getting girls ready to compete for the coming boom in STEM jobs, there is a real chance to fast-track girls into the job pool for these future opportunities.

In Thailand we are partnering with Kamphaeng Phet Rajabhat University, in the culturally and economically diverse Mae Sot district of Tak province on the Thailand-Myanmar border. Women Learning and Leading in Tech in Thailand is a project there increasing the investment in girls’ access to education in engineering, manufacturing, and construction—industries where women in Thailand typically don’t work.

The training and hands-on experience is in brand new fields for women, and covers the “internet of things,” applying information technology in logistics industries and supply chains, developing mobile applications, and engaging in e-sports. Most of these girls didn’t know about these kinds of jobs, even though this work is practical, useful, and available. To keep the momentum going the students then mentored younger, secondary school students in their communities (stage 1 of the Foundation’s lifecycle approach to STEM, cultivating an interest).

Kanun, right, with her mother, used her training in logistics technology and business to expand her family’s pork business (photo: The Asia Foundation).

One of the participants, Kanun, used her training in logistics technology and business to better meet customer needs. She expanded her family’s pork business and increased their income by 25 percent. When we talked to her, Kanun’s mother, she called education “a multiplier”—and the pork business is tangible proof. These examples are anecdotal evidence of a larger trend in the research on girls’ education: when girls are educated, they tend to put that investment back into their communities.

Every girl deserves the opportunity to gain an education and chart her own future. Educating girls leads to their empowerment and reaps benefits for the economy, the community, and families, ultimately promoting more prosperous societies. This year’s International Day of the Girl is an urgent call to action to increase commitments to girls’ education and leadership, especially in STEM. It is a day to remind the world that every girl has the right to be safe, educated, and heard.

Arpaporn Winijkulchai is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Thailand, and Anuja Patel is a program officer for the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Program. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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