Achieving equal rights in education for girls has been a centuries-long battle – and continues today.

By Lori Cohen

Compared to when our grandmothers were children, there’s been a remarkable shift in the attitude towards the education of girls. And it’s paid off. Before 1920 only four women had been awarded Nobel Prizes, compared with 22 in the last decade.

But giving brilliant minds the tools they needed to blossom wasn’t a given. Most women who had access to education in the past attended church-funded schools or private schooling. Changing society’s attitudes was an even more significant barrier. In patriarchal societies, the idea of sending a female child to school was considered to be a waste of time and resources. It was as recent as 1979 that the United Nations Human Rights Commission finally got over 100 nations to sign a treaty recognising the equal rights of women to an education.  The battle continues, and according to UNESCO, millions of girls around the world are still denied an education. Two-thirds of the 774 million illiterate people in the world are female, and less than 40% of countries provide girls and boys with equal access to education.

We take a look at trailblazers that brought about progress, and women at the frontline making a change for girls in 2019.


You’ve heard of Montessori schooling? The incredible woman behind the name was an Italian physician called Maria Montessori. Her family valued education and managed to enroll her in a school for boys. She excelled and went on to study medicine, but her passion lay in education, especially in children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She opened a childcare centre in 1907, which taught using a new groundbreaking philosophy. She also advocated for women’s rights to education. There are over 20 000 Montessori schools worldwide today.


The suffragette movement of the 20th century forged the way for women’s right to vote. One of its early members stepped away from the cause to focus on access for women to tertiary education. Emily Davies raised funds to buy a property close to Cambridge University, where she founded a women’s college called Girton College. In 1948 her students were finally allowed full membership of the University of Cambridge.  


Albertina Sisulu was one of the organizers of the historic anti-pass Women’s March in 1956 that we commemorate on Women’s Day in South Africa. But she also earned respect for her work opposing the inferior `Bantu’ education system that the apartheid government introduced in the 1940s. She was jailed several times. In 1994 Albertina served in South Africa’s first democratic parliament.


Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for boarding a school bus in 2012. The Pakistani teenager inadvertently became the global face and voice for a girl’s right to an education. Now a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, she runs a foundation funding a school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon and continues to work for equality in education.