The question of how to successfully assist states as they develop has plagued experts and organizations for years. Each state is home to its own set of culturally specific circumstances, meaning that the process of development can not simply be achieved with a substantial wad of cash and a team of enthusiastic aid workers. This degree of cultural nuance demands a more targeted approach, leading development experts to hone in on certain crucial areas, with one in particular standing out as essential to the progress of economic and social development around the world: increasing the rate of educated women and girls.
Today women account for slightly less than half of the global population, yet two-thirds of the world’s near 800 million illiterate individuals are women, as well as 70% of the global poor. Beyond the immediate fact that these figures represent a violation of the basic human right to education, they also symbolize a substantial roadblock in many state’s path to development, as the effect of an uneducated female population has far reaching implications on many aspects of society.
The correlative significance of women’s education and development has been understood for some time. Speaking at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2006, then Secretary General Koffi Annan said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” When we talk about educating women we are indeed discussing the complete empowerment of women. Quantifiably, the more time women spend in school, the more their quality of life increases, as well as their ability to contribute to the lives of their family and broader community. From a national perspective, a report released by the World Bank last year found that the limiting of girls from completing the standard 12 years of education has cost countries an estimated $15 trillion in lifetime productivity and earnings. It is no coincidence that the world’s poorest countries are, on average, the least educated.
Education also creates a range of health benefits, as women are equipped with an improved understanding of family planning, empowering them to make better decisions and impart crucial knowledge to their children. In these regions women often have larger families than they can actually provide for (for example, Niger has an average birth rate of 7.6 children), spiking poverty rates and perpetuating an unhealthy cycle. The United Nations estimates that achieving universal lower secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 would prevent more than 300,000 child deaths annually, as women with improved access to contraception and a more firm understanding of their circumstances are empowered to make better choices.
Already in localized circumstances, innovative solutions are being found to encourage greater rates of education. In Mexico, the governmental social assistance program known as Oportunidades has been working to incentivize regular school attendance. Mothers of children that regularly attend school and visit health clinics are rewarded with cash payments. What started in a singular community has now stretched across the nation, with a quarter of all Mexican families now benefiting from the program, manifesting a 10% increase in male high school attendance, and a 20% female increase. The program has received widespread acclaim, with the International Food Policy Research Institute stating, “Poor Mexican children living in the rural areas where Oportunidades operates have increased their enrollment, have more balanced diets, are receiving more medical attention and are learning that the future can be very different from the past.” Oportunidades provides a pertinent example of a state appropriately regarding education as an investment in human capital, an investment that seeks to not only improve the lives of those directly involved, but also indirectly society as a whole.
It is an unfortunate reality, but it remains the case that in many places issues surrounding education are gendered in nature, and therefore so are the solutions. Many poor families in the developing world simply can’t afford to send all their children to school, leading them to prioritize their sons, due to beliefs that they stand a better chance at employment. In their seminal 2009 work of nonfiction ‘Half The Sky’, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn describe this challenge, “While empowering women is critical to overcoming poverty, it involves tinkering with the culture, religion, and family relations of a society that we often don’t fully understand.”
This is especially the case in Africa, where gender bias, high fertility rates, poverty and conflict coincide to complicate access to education. Organizations such as The Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) provide as clear an example of success in this area as can be found. By employing a grassroots approach that works with local cultures, CAMFED has supported over 3 million girl’s education, with a vast international donorship helping the nongovernmental organization thrive.
The success of CAMFED and Oportunidades is derived from their willingness to directly invest in the potential of education and in the future of women and girls. For mothers and daughters, women and girls, education can be the difference between impoverishment and empowerment. And for the world, the difference between stagnation and prosperity.
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