This blog was written by Dr Alison Buckler (The Open University, UK) and Dr Faith Mkwananzi (University of the Free State, South Africa). The article is also published on the BAICE website.


Rea is a security guard during the week, and a fruit-seller in her spare time. She earns enough money to run a household and put her son and two siblings through school.

Lebo does manual labour six days a week, despite having a limb disorder and a visual impairment. Her work supports her husband and young children, who also have disabilities.

Winnie lives with her husband and son. She runs a thriving business selling sweets and potato chips at the nearby school.

For the past decade we have been working on a range of research and practitioner initiatives with adolescent and young women in southern Africa. Their lives have been distinct and diverse, with periods of financial comfort and stability as well as poverty and uncertainty. What unites their experiences – across countries and contexts – is that they have been through intermittent periods of formal schooling and were, when we first met them, an age at which they could be enrolled in secondary school. The short-hand in the policy, practitioner, and academic literature to describe them (and we have used this ourselves) is ‘out-of-school girls’ or ‘girls who are out-of-school’. Recently we have been reflecting on whether this is appropriate.

What’s wrong with ‘out-of-school’?

The term ‘out-of-school’ to describe those not engaged with formal education is one-dimensional. It pitches (non-)enrollment status as the defining issue in someone’s life, when we know that when young people are unable to remain in school, it is most often a response to complex challenges rather than the main challenge itself. Rea left school because while she was there, she was unable to protect her siblings from abuse at home. Lebo’s parents sent her siblings to school instead of her because they didn’t see the benefit for a teenager with disabilities. Winnie left school because she and her brother were thrown out of the family home, and she had to care for him full-time.

When the defining label for a person is ‘out-of-school’, it implicitly suggests that enrollment in a formal school is the solution to a complex life. This can lead to narrowly focused policies and campaigns that might not be in the best interests of young women and their families.

While the argument for girls being in school is persuasive, there is also a growing body of literature that highlights the limited impact formal schooling can have on job opportunities and earning potential, especially for female students. Studies also show that schools can create or exacerbate challenges in the lives of girls and young women: gendered discrimination, abuse and the belittling of intellectual abilities can be amplified.

Relatedly, a problem with the pro-school argument is that nearly all data on the benefits of girls’ education comes from girls’ schooling (i.e. school-based learning and outcomes data). There is no comparative body of data for alternative education pathways, which creates a false binary between girls in school and girls not in school. This can lead policy makers to propose formal school as the only ‘visible’ policy solution to being ‘out-of-school’, whether this is what an individual wants or needs.

A recent Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) report confirms that alternative, flexible education pathways are more appealing for many young women and their families especially those of post-primary age. Our own research also shows that full-time attendance at school is often incompatible with family and work commitments.

We asked Rea, Lebo, Winnie and their peers about the label ‘out-of-school’. They felt it implied a desire to return to school, which most didn’t relate to as it had not been a particularly happy or supportive experience. As one said: “often, there is no coaching or mentoring, and the teacher continued to teach despite the fact that I did not understand; they follow those who are more intelligent, and those who do not have intelligence fall further and further behind”.

However, they did recognise the instrumental benefits of the ‘out-of-school’ label: for them it had been a passport to access a skills-training programme. They were of the view that they are better off with entrepreneurial skills such as soap making, candle making, and hairdressing acquired through informal learning, which they saw as more likely to lead to financial independence, than a school certificate. They contrasted this with people they knew with a school certificate, but no job.

Ultimately, while they understood the label ‘out-of-school’ could have a currency, they felt it carried a stigma: the association with not having completed school made them feel ‘unintelligent’ and ‘incomplete’, and therefore – once labelled – less likely to feel comfortable returning to formal school.

What’s wrong with ‘girl’?

Our second issue is the problematic and reductive use of the word ‘girl’, particularly in relation to the label ‘out-of-school’. It can compound the already over-simplified framing of the scale and complexity of challenges in education. Crucially, what is rarely acknowledged is that three quarters of the 129 million ‘out-of-school’ ‘girls’ are secondary school age who are likely to have very different needs to primary age children.

Consider Lebo, Rea and Winnie, for example. They are described as ‘girls’ but are also responsible for their own primary age children. Using the same word to define individuals in such distinct life-stages (that of a mother and her child – a generation apart) masks the nuance of educational needs.

The word ‘girl’ is, by definition, infantilising. Newman’s work highlights how dominant development discourse on ‘child-marriage’ considers those under 18 to have no decision-making capacity. The word, ‘girl’ can depict an individual with little authority or agency: a child who has limited ability to take independent, rationally informed action that can bring about changes they desire in their own lives, let alone the lives of others.

Taking up work to care for family, and juggling their education alongside this work, places Rea, Lebo and Winnie in positions of responsibility, making them accountable to those who depend on them. Such a responsibility requires skills, agency and independence beyond the capacity of a child. But calling them ‘girls’ can make these qualities invisible, reduce their relevance in development agendas and validate normative development power dynamics.

We asked Winnie, Rea, Lebo and their peers about the word ‘girl’ too. Their responses were complex and context-specific. To be called a ‘girl’ by a community or family member, for example, would be an insult. They certainly didn’t see themselves as ‘girls’, but again they were strategic in how they managed their identity around this term and recognised the instrumental benefits of it when interacting with NGOs: as Lebo said “we are sometimes called children, and then we move with the children”. Another said “if an NGO says ‘stand up if you are a girl, you stand up”.

Underpinning the regular calls to listen to the voices of girls in development agendas is the implicit suggestion that this listening may be tokenistic because, after all, they are only children. If young women buy in to this narrative themselves, accepting the term for the benefits it can provide, downplaying their maturity to fit the label, how does this influence the platforms they are given to speak? How does it influence what they say on these platforms? How does it influence how their voices are heard?

What are the alternatives?

We do not have a new all-purpose replacement for the term ‘out-of-school girl’. In our own work we are experimenting with being more descriptive and specific and using phrases like ‘adolescent and young women who are not currently in formal education’ – but we appreciate this can lead to clunky and over-wordy sentences.

We try to refer to Rea, Lebo, Winnie and their peers as young women or youth, because this is more respectful of their maturity and experience and how they told us they see themselves (although some disliked ‘youth’ for its association with political parties). We no longer refer to them as being ‘out-of-school’ because we know that they have many pressing priorities and ambitions, and (especially now they are older), returning to a formal secondary school setting is not one of them.

We recognise that at practitioner level, many programmes do consider the nuance of individuals’ ages and life stages. We also appreciate that simply changing terminology is not enough and can even lead to less respectful and less sensitive work in development hidden behind more progressive terminology. But use of the phrase ‘out-of-school girl’ to represent a group of people spanning generations is showing few signs of abating, and push-back against the term in mainstream global development narratives is minimal.

Rea, Lebo, Winnie and their peers were clear about the tensions between the label of ‘out-of-school girl’ given to them by NGOs and how they saw themselves. They linked this to fears they have about returning to formal school – a setting for children, where they would be treated as children – which was incompatible with their primary identities as parents, wives, business owners and heads of house-holds. They occasionally accepted the label, co-opting dominant narratives, but they did not identify with either element of it.

Therefore, with this blog we add the phrase ‘out-of-school girl’ to the growing list of questionable terminology in an ongoing call for development researchers and practitioners to be conscious of and reflective about the ‘steering effects’ of words and phrases on development relationships, power, ambitions, actions and outcomes.