by David E. Bloom and Mark Weston
August 25, 2003
Girls’ education is emerging as one of the top priorities of the international development community. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that “educating girls is not an option, it is a necessity,” and the 189 countries that signed up for the Education for All (EFA) initiative in 2000 showed their support by pledging to eliminate gender disparities in education by 2005.
Much progress has been made in recent decades. The number of girls attending school, even in the poorest countries, has grown rapidly in the past 50 years. High-income countries have achieved full equality of access to education, and in the developing regions of Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, almost as many girls as boys now attend school.
In some developing regions, however, millions of girls still receive little or no education. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are far from meeting the EFA target, and progress in Central Asia has slowed in the last decade. Of the more than one hundred million children in the world without access to primary schooling, 60 percent are girls, and in countries like Afghanistan, Niger, Nepal, and Yemen, female literacy is less than half that of males.
These disparities hurt not just girls themselves, but also their families and the societies in which they live. Girls suffer because they miss out on opportunities to socialize, acquire knowledge, and gain the skills and sense of autonomy needed to improve their personal well-being and their lot in life. Each additional year of schooling tends to increase an individual’s earnings by more than 15 percent, and education also improves women’s health and gives them a greater say in how their lives are conducted.
Families suffer, too, if girls are not educated. Mothers with education use the knowledge they have acquired to improve the health of their children and other family members. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa children whose mothers have received secondary schooling are twice as likely to be immunized against major disease as those whose mothers had not been to school. Educated mothers provide better nutrition to their children, too, and their knowledge of health risks protects their families against illness and promotes health-seeking behavior more generally. As a consequence, child mortality rates are much higher in families where the mother lacks education than in families where both parents have attended school. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, children whose mothers have more than seven years of schooling have less than half the under-5 mortality rate of the children of uneducated mothers.
The benefits to societies are also great. Girls’ education is now recognized as a cornerstone of development. Educated mothers invest more in their children’s schooling, thus improving both families’ and societies’ development prospects. They are also likely to have fewer children. For example, in Brazil, women with a secondary education have an average of 2.5 children, whereas illiterate women have an average of 6.5 children. Having fewer children allows families to invest more in the health and education of each child, thereby raising the productivity of future generations.
Of course, leaving women uneducated dramatically reduces the productive capacity of present generations too. Economies that fail to make use of the skills of half their potential workforce are at a huge disadvantage relative to those where everyone is contributing to the best of their ability. World Bank economists David Dollar and Roberta Gatti have studied the effect of girls’ education on economies. The return on investment in girls’ education, they find, is not lower than the return for boys and, particularly in lower-middle-income countries, is often significantly higher. Dollar and Gatti conclude that economies “that have a preference for not investing in girls pay a price for it in terms of slower growth and reduced income.”
Why, then, have some countries failed to close the gap? The main causes are cultural and economic. Schools in some developing countries are insensitive to girls’ needs. Verbal and physical abuse, a lack of sanitation, and long distances between home and school can all make schooling a hazardous experience and deter parents from sending their daughters to school. Certain cultural practices also make sending girls to school less desirable. In many societies, girls are not expected to make economic contributions to their families. Instead, they are expected to care for family members and carry out household chores, tasks for which education is not seen as necessary. Moreover, girls are seen as relatively transitory assets — not worthy of long-term investment — as they leave their parents’ household upon marriage. A vicious cycle is thereby created: Girls are believed to be less worthy of education so they receive less, which diminishes women’s prospects of closing the gap on men in the future.
Even where families are willing to invest in their daughters’ schooling, discrimination in the labor market can make investing in boys before girls a rational economic decision. In developing countries, women earn less than men even if they have the same education and experience, so the economic returns to individuals mean that boys’ schooling is inevitably seen as a better investment. The disparity is magnified by the fact that women tend to have less access to financial capital and less secure claims to financial capital and other assets than men. This perspective does not, of course, take into account the social benefits of girls’ education, but economic gains are a powerful driver of family decisions, particularly in poorer societies.
Promoting girls’ education, therefore, involves changing attitudes across society as well as spending money on increasing the number of school places available to girls. Donors providing funding for education can help by insisting that their funds are used to educate girls as well as boys. New means of engaging policy makers — perhaps through a bottom-up approach, where pressure is applied by civil society, or through better use of evidence to show the benefits of girls’ schooling — may also reap rewards. Religious leaders also need convincing, as do men in general, who are usually the main decision makers within households. Changing cultural attitudes toward women is a slow and difficult process. In those nations that have succeeded, such changes have typically required strong political leadership.
Businesses, too, need to change their ways by providing opportunities to women, since they are likely to benefit from access to both a deeper pool of well-trained labor and the skills and knowledge women bring to a task. The World Bank has found that gender-biased hiring and pay practices are more common in firms that have little or no competition, but as economies open up, employment prospects for women should improve and justify investment in their education.
Even if governments and businesses are persuaded, however, reforming education systems to increase girls’ attendance is no easy task. Those countries with the greatest disparities in access to education, like Afghanistan, India, Ethiopia, and Yemen, are among the poorest countries in the world. Building new schools, improving sanitation in existing schools, reducing costs so that schooling is more affordable for families, and convincing families of the value of girls’ schooling require significant resources. For resource-strapped governments, many of these tasks are out of reach.
In such circumstances, a focus on the bare necessities is likely to pay dividends, and the critical factor in determining whether attending school is a rewarding experience is the quality of teaching. A good education can be delivered without buildings, uniforms, or even books, but it cannot be achieved without good teachers. Training and attracting women teachers should be a high priority for poor countries attempting to educate girls. Women teachers make families more comfortable about sending their daughters to school, and they are more sensitive to girls’ needs. Many developing countries already have high ratios of women to male teachers, but the historic neglect of girls’ education means that many of these women are poorly trained themselves.
Those countries that have lagged in promoting girls’ education have also lagged developmentally. It is expensive — both politically and financially — to eliminate gender gaps in school enrolment. But if developing countries wish to improve their living standards and catch up with the industrialized world, not educating one’s girls to the same extent as boys will surely prove even more expensive.
David Bloom is Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography at Harvard University. He is also a co-principal investigator of an American Academy of Arts and Sciences project on universal basic and secondary education (UBASE). This project has assembled a task force to examine the rationale, means, and consequences of providing a quality education to all the world’s children at the primary and secondary levels. Mark Weston researches and writes on issues of international development, mainly in the areas of governance, health, and education, for a variety of organizations.
Tags:Benin, Brazil, education, India, Japan, Kenya, Romania
The recent Government Summit held in Dubai saw four key female Arab leaders promote and encourage women in the Middle East to become leaders in their respective fields and enter into entrepreneurial roles. As a firm believer in women’s empowerment, the summit was a welcomed event.
Women in the Middle East have often been subject to discrimination regardless whether or not they are oppressed. Many people have failed to realise that historically there were examples of leading women in the Middle East who were liberated and empowered. A significant example would be dated as far back as the Meccan period in Saudi Arabia when the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadija defied traditional stereotypes of women and was a successful and respected businesswoman of her time.
Over a thousand years later, what is the real situation for women in the Middle East and can they really be the mechanism for change? As a woman myself, I sincerely believe with firm conviction that women in the Middle East can contribute positively to country reforms and new political policies that can benefit their respective countries, and use their talents in their professional careers to further excel in society at large.
Throughout the years and more recently, dictatorial governments have often posed challenges to women in the Middle East, such as in Saudi Arabia, where woman are still not allowed to drive. Although governments have exercised their power to restrict women from doing certain activities, social media has been used to pave the way for women to voice their rights. For example, the group of Saudi women who organised the "Women2Drive" campaign encouraged women to disregard the laws and post images and videos of themselves driving on social media to raise awareness of the issue and promote positive change in the law.
If we take a look back at the revolutionary Arab Spring, women were a driving force in expressing their voice through the protests and creating an unprecedented impact to shift the status quo in the Middle East. In the early phase of the Arab Spring, women played a pivotal role in supporting the protests against tyranny and ensuring they played an active part in the protests. However, post-Arab Spring, it has been reported that pre-existing discrimination against women and their gender roles has re-emerged. Therefore there needs to be an investment in the education, entrepreneurship and support for women’s rights so that they can pave the way for a successful future in the Arab world. This can be achieved through the support of initiatives that seek primarily to improve women’s social and legal rights in the Arab world.
Reforms are urgently needed across many regions in the Middle East in a number of areas - from ensuring women’s rights to education and investment resources to equality in the law between men and women.
Secondly, in addition to supporting equality, investment in education would play a pivotal role in bridging gender gaps between men and women. The number of women in the Middle East who are enrolled in educational institutions is still lower than the number of men. Removing the barriers to education for women would play a significant role in helping them obtain the training they need to further achieve their goals.
The UAE Government Summit session entitled "Arab Women: From Vision to Leadership" saw Princess Ameera al-Taweel quite rightly state: “In the Arab world's history, men and women have worked side by side … Behind every great man is a great woman? No. Next to every great man is a great woman.” This is true - women are now taking the lead in various industries from media to activism.
Sheikha Badour, who was also present at the event, said: “Today we need women leaders and role models to deal with the world's social and economic problems.” According to figures from the UN, the Middle East has a low number of female parliamentarians, with only 12 percent, in comparison to the number of female leaders in politics worldwide. The proposed implementation of quotas for women in politics in the Middle East could most definitely help in getting more women on board to voice their views and take up roles in leadership. Badour further stated that “Women in entrepreneurship tend to have a different perspective on product and strategy, which tends to be very valuable.”
Encouraging entrepreneurship is certainly a step in the right direction, but the implementation of such initiatives remains to be seen.
Refreshingly, there is a growing rise of empowered Arab women ensuring their voices are heard, from activists such as Asma Mansour, co-founder of the Tunisian Centre for Entreneurship, to successful Palestinian designer Dana al-Taji, amongst many others. These women are setting the stage for a positive change in political, economic and social reform that can pave the way for empowered women in the Middle East and turn their visions into a reality.
- Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning Freelance Journalist/Writer and Author who has written for a variety of print and online publications including CNN International, Huffington Post, The Muslim News, Your Middle East, Islam Channel and many more.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: According to figures from the UN, the Middle East has a low number of female parliamentarians, with only 12 percent (AFP)