RIYADH — Labeled “one of the world’s most restrictive environments for women” by the New York times, Saudi Arabia has been synonymous with the suppression of women and girls for generations. The staunchly Islamic country is notorious for forbidding women to vote, drive and perform daily tasks without the permission of a male relative. The ultra-conservative laws have set up unnecessary barriers for girls in education, but there are still women who are dedicated to breaking them down and realize the importance of education for girls in Saudi Arabia.
Raha Moharak became the first Saudi woman in 2013 to summit the tallest peak in the world, Mt. Everest. Conquering this feat sparked her dedication to girls’ rights in Saudi Arabia. Moharak has toured Saudi Arabia, speaking at schools in order to create momentum for girls in sports. Until last year, it was prohibited for girls to be involved in physical education while attending public schools. This neglect for girl’s physical health can be traced to brittle bones, diabetes and vitamin deficiencies in developing girls.
In addition to physical health, literacy is pivotal to a rounded education and reflects the importance of education for girls in Saudi Arabia. With rates around the world at an all-time high, girls in Saudi Arabia are positively contributing by having a literacy rate of 91 percent.
Literacy rates are the foundation of a solid education system.
The past decade has proven that Saudi Arabia may be following this philosophy. During the 1990s, 118,000 women were illiterate in Saudi Arabia. That number plummeted to a manageable 21,000 in 2014. And in recent years, the literacy rate of women has become comparable to that of men, something that was seemingly unattainable in a persistently conservative country.
With a gap of a mere 0.16 percent, literacy rates between men and women are closer than ever. Literacy rates are the basis of success in education, which in turn is an investment in economic growth. A study of 19 developing countries revealed that the long-term economic growth of a country increases by 3.7 percent for every year that the adult population’s average level of schooling rises.
In addition to this finding, the United Nations Population Fund has announced that countries who choose to make investments in health family planning, and education have a slower population growth and faster economic growth.
A 2014 report revealed that 80 percent of job-seekers in Saudi Arabia were women, and only 23 percent of current workers are women. But Saudi Arabia has committed to increasing the percentage of women in the workforce to 28 percent.
One such program that could foster hope for this promise is the scholarship program set up by King Abdullah in 2005. For the first time in the history of education in Saudi Arabia, women were included in an overseas scholarship program. The program was established to facilitate more Saudi citizens being educated around the world, including women. Currently, 21 percent of the recipients are women.
This scholarship program is pivotal for women because not only does it show that Saudi Arabian officials are realizing the importance of education for girls in Saudi Arabia, but it has created a plethora of opportunities for suppressed women. By supporting education for women, Saudi Arabia will join the ranks of developed superpowers who have long realized the importance of education equality. With an increase in educated women, Saudi Arabia is supporting economic growth domestically and internationally, and moving one step closer to societal gender equality.
– Sophie Casimes