Of the estimated 61 million children deprived of basic education globally, 60 percent are girls. But, that’s just the beginning of a dramatic gender gap. According to the Global Campaign for Education: “An additional 100 million girls worldwide that begin primary school do not finish [school]. The numbers are even starker for secondary education, which is unavailable to more than 200 million children and in which we see even more extreme disparity in enrollment.”
Today, International Women’s Day, a movie called Girl Rising, is being released nationwide. It tells the stories of nine girls from around the world who’ve fought for the right to be educated. This is no small thing in countries where girls fight poverty, unsanitary conditions, homelessness, child marriage, sex slavery and other forms of culturally sanctioned violence against girls and women. In her own right, each one of them, and tens of thousands more, are like Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani education activist who was shot in the head as she rode her bus to school. The girls featured in the film demonstrate the tremendous barriers to girls’ universal education and also what happens when these barriers are overcome.
The film was produced by 10 x 10, a social action project, created by former ABC News journalists who collaborated with The Documentary Group and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions to produce the film. It is one of many organizations working to make sure the world’s girls are educated.
Why focus on girls? When I write about girls’ rights the question I hear most is “What about the boys?” This particular knee-jerk, backlash response against girls equality is old but has a long life. It’s wearisome and wastes a lot of time will don’t really have to waste. No one is suggesting that boys be ignored or hurt. Quite the opposite, as Because I am a Girl: What About The Boys illustrates. The problem is, however, that a boy preference in education, as in other things, hasn’t historically proved to be particularly positive for the other half of humanity, which has an equal right to be educated. Nor has it yielded satisfactory results in terms of national development or international peace and security. I’d add that the boy preference is significantly bad for boys. The fact that boys are more valued and educated in greater measure is a symptom of larger problems that contribute to slavery, poverty, the spread of disease, and pandemic violence. As USAID put it in a report Education from a Gender Equality Perspective, “Educating females and males produces similar increases in their subsequent earnings and expands future opportunities and choices for both boys and girls. However, educating girls produces many additional socio-economic gains that benefit entire societies.”
Educating and empowering girls breaks cycles of generational poverty. Crop yields rise when female farmers are educated. Educated mothers are 50% more likely to seek health care and to immunize their children. And when more girls are educated, HIV rates and malnutrition decline. In addition, educating girls is a security issue. Democracy finds fertile ground where girls are educated and empowered and conditions that cultivate extremism are reduced.
When you educate a girl, as a viral Girl Effect video continues to so compellingly explain, good things happen for the girl, her family, her community. The Girl Effect web site has remarkable resources illustrating the profound impact that empowering girls with education and economic independence can have: personally, socially and globally. And, if you understand the work of the researchers who recently wrote the important and amazing book Sex and World Peace, for their countries and the rest of us.
But, this isn’t only a matter of large-scale organizations like Nike’s Girl Effect or 10 x 10, dedicated to global change. For years remarkable people have, as individuals and in small groups, sought to do what they can to change life for millions.
In 2000, for example, Barbara Lee Shaw started the Masai Girls Education Fund in order to provide scholarships for girls in Kenya, less than 20% of whom were educated. Their goal continues to be educating girls and women so they can gain economic independence. “In 2003, Kenya instituted free public primary school education, and enrollment now has increased to 48 percent for girls,” explains Shaw on their website. “However, only 5 percent of those who enroll will make it to secondary school primarily because of forced marriages, but also because of teen pregnancy, circumcision (female genital mutilation), or HIV/AIDS.” Since its founding, the fund has educated hundred of girls through the dedication and hard work of a handful of people here and in Kenya devoted to this cause.
Shaw, who has been immersed in these issues for decades, makes this correct assessment in describing the primary challenges in closing the education gap: “Since cost is not a factor in primary school enrollment, poverty alone cannot be preventing 52 percent of the school-age population from completing primary school. Poverty and the high cost of secondary school certainly explains the large enrollment drop at that level, but primary enrollment should be much higher. It is our belief that there will be no further advances in education for girls until there is a change in the way the culture values girls and an end to the cultural practices that prevent girls from completing their education.”
To this end, MGEF’s Community Education Program holds community workshops and meetings to discuss the greater economic benefits of educating a daughter than the one-time dowry received from her marriage; the harmful consequences of FGM and teen pregnancy, and how to protect against HIV.
Here are some resources to look into if you are interested in supporting efforts to make education universally available.
- Masai Girls Education Fund
- Florence Nightingale Girls Foundation
- Girls Education Challenge
- Basic Education Coalition
- Aid for Africa Girls Education Fund
- Global Campaign for Education, U.S. Chapter
- The Coalition for Adolescent Girls
- Global Fund for Women
- United Nations Millennium Campaign
- Because I Am A Girl
- UNICEF Country Statistics
- United Nations Girls Education Initiative
- RESULTS’ Education for All
- School Girls Unite