PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania — Although we often think of equal education as being symptomatic of access to basic human rights, evidence suggests that access to education actually fosters equality. If schooling is used as a tool against injustice, education and women’s rights become indelibly tied to create a strong line of defense against oppression.
According to UNICEF’s 2013 report on girls’ education, approximately 31 million girls of primary school age were not in school that year, as compared to 27 million boys. Seventeen million of those girls were never expected to enroll.
Even if they did enroll, many female students were forced to drop out before completion. In total, a quarter of all young women between 15 and 24 never finished primary school, which amounted to about 116 million women worldwide.
Perhaps what is most alarming is that roughly 774 million people were illiterate in 2013 and two-thirds of them were women, meaning that there were 516 million women in the world who lacked the basic skills they needed to find work.
Fortunately, many of those concerns regarding equal education were addressed with some success in the developing world by 2015. Per the 2015 Millennium Development Goals Report, guaranteed access to primary education had risen to 91 percent by year’s end.
What followed was an uptick in primary school enrollment for girls. According to the United Nations (UN), developing regions had successfully met Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) regarding access to education and classroom equality.
While this milestone is of immeasurable importance, the relationship between education and women’s rights remains contentious. Although physically getting children into classrooms is critical, keeping them there long enough to develop useful skills is essential.
If education and women’s rights converge in a place where women are given increased opportunity, then primary schooling may not be enough. According to Katarina Tomasevski of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), poverty–which is a hurdle on the road to equality–is largely gendered.
“The main reason for this,” she writes, “is the fact that poverty results from violations of human rights, including the right to education, which disproportionately affects girls and women.”
In order to pave the road away from injustice through education, Tomasevski argues that the system must be structured in such a way that oppressive forces outside of the education sector are dismantled.
Such forces include child marriage, early pregnancy, wage disparity and unpaid domestic work. It is unlikely that keeping a girl in school up to age seven will help her avoid these traps — keeping her enrolled into her teens just might.
In one report, UNESCO pointed out that there would be 14 percent fewer child marriages worldwide if all girls had access to primary education. The number of child marriages would be cut by two-thirds if all girls went to secondary school. Similar trends can be seen in regard to wage disparity and lack of income in nations around the world.
In Jordan, for example, women who receive primary education make approximately 53 percent of what men make. Jordanian women who attend school through the secondary level earn 70 percent of what their male counterparts make.
In Brazil, only three percent of women with no education have access to stable income, as compared to 50 percent who went to primary school and 60 percent who went to secondary school.
Access to any form of education opens doors, but access to secondary education often opens more of them. It is worth noting that primary education in the developed world and primary education in developing nations often yield different results, further emphasizing the need for the prolonged schooling of better quality.
As one representative writes in UNESCO’s 2009 Global Monitoring Report, “There is compelling international evidence that completing six or even nine years of schooling in developing countries does not assure the development of basic cognitive skills or even functional literacy and numeracy.”
Gender equality on a global scale will never be achieved if such educational disparity exists between developed and developing nations.
Because what happens in the education system ultimately has financial and developmental consequences in any given country, it is important that children—and particularly girls—remain in school long enough to gain valuable skills that they can then take into the workforce.
When girls are educated, they develop the cognitive tools they need to participate in society. Participation leads to influence, and the logical end to influence changes within the system. This level of participation is exactly what organizations like Girl Up hope to inspire in young women of secondary school age.
Each year, representatives from Girl Up organize WiSci STEAM Camps that bring together brilliant girls from developing nations. Their goal is to encourage these students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
This year, the camp was held in Peru and it focused on teaching girls about energy diplomacy and innovation.
The primary objective was to place these girls in leadership positions by allowing them to participate in a model UN energy forum. “After the simulation,” camp leader Faith Corneille explained, “one girl said she often felt frustrated by her government, but that the simulation was ‘eye-opening’.” Through this process, she was able to see governance from the other side.
It is certainly not hard to see that equal education and women’s rights are two parts of one very important whole. In Katarina Tomasevski’s words, what leaders must prioritize next is “moving beyond equal access to education and equality in education, to education for equality.” Groups like Girl Up are taking the necessary first steps in making that prioritization possible.
Initiatives like WiSci STEAM Camps help students look at global issues through the eyes of world leaders. When young women are given the chance to visualize leadership through education, they are presented with a more inclusive view of the future.
– Madeline Distasio