Remember those days when you were woken up early and told to put on the clothes that mom laid out for you, then to make sure you came to the kitchen to have a bowl of cereal or a banana because a ‘hardy breakfast is a healthy breakfast’ or whatever it is they used to say to make you eat the thing they placed in front of you? We took part in some routine of this nature before we hopped on our bus, rode our bike, or had our parents drive us to school – oh the dreaded school – where you were stripped of your video games and television sets and whatever else you may have had that occupied your time in a non-productive manner. But was it really that bad?
School is the place where we went to learn to read and do math, where we finally strung together ’Spot the dog ran’, where we contemplated scientific theories, and where we enhanced social aptitude and made friends. As we progressed through school we changed little by little, and eventually our awareness grew as well as our abilities to make decisions for ourselves. We began to grow up and mature intellectually, and with this we began to find a role in our community. School is a place that fosters growth, and that in itself is an invaluable trait that school has to offer. Now think about a life without that school or that center for education, and imagine where you would stand today?
If we ask ourselves this question and try to envisage where we fall, it becomes a little bit easier to understand the power of an education. What exactly does an education from a primary level through secondary or even higher levels grant you? To answer that directly would be misguiding, but I can comfortably say that I have an idea of what a lack of education provides you – and that is a lack of awareness, knowledge, and thus power.
This realization isn’t necessary of a PhD in Education, as can be seen in a recent global poll of everyday people on development priorities. “A good education” is the top priority across the world according to over one million men and women of all ages from over 190 countries. Education is powerful, and it is easy to link to progress and development, as the poll indicates.
According to the Secretary-General of the UN, education is the major driving-force for human development. It opens doors to the job market, combats inequality, improves maternal health, reduces child mortality, fosters solidarity, and promotes environmental stewardship. Education empowers people with the knowledge, skills and values they need to build a better world.
With that in mind, we should then ask ourselves why many places in the world marginalize roughly 50% of their population – that being the female population. Gender discrimination is a glaring issue across many areas dealing with human rights, but it is blatant in regard to education. In the Global Monitoring Reports from Education For All (EFA) in 2012, it was reported that there are some 34 million adolescent females out of school globally. The difference in the gender gap between primary school and secondary school becomes even worse when you look further into the report’s data. A decent reflection of this can be seen if looking at literacy rates across the adult population with 775 million illiterate adults across the globe, and over 500 million of those are women (EFA 2012). Many disparities can be seen on the EFA’s World Inequality Database for Education (WIDE), which highlights the influence of certain circumstances that play an important role in shaping people’s opportunities for education and life.
Females face some obstacles that influence this disparity, such as complications related to child labor, early marriage, early pregnancy, and expectations related to domestic labor. This list does’t include other obstacles that affect many children, boys and girls alike, such as conflict-ridden areas, strenuous walking distances and the lack of sanitary facilities at school (Education First Initiative – UN 2012).
This knowledge is devastating in its own right, but the devastation is exacerbated when taking into account the costs of not educating the women and girls. Research has shown that initiatives and investments in decreasing the gender gap in education have profound effects on communities well beyond the classroom (Global Campaign for Education). Referring back to what the Secretary-General of the UN said, these investments not only generate more knowledge capital and increase job opportunities, but they strengthen families and lift them from poverty, saves children’s lives, improve communal health, and increase the strength of the female voice which empowers them to have an impact in making communal decisions(Global Campaign for Education).
But the real question is what picture does this data really paint and how are we to interpret it? Is it right for us to look at these numbers and simply see blatant discrepancy in gender, thus, in order to boost the enrollment figures and decrease parity, we go and build more schools, find new teachers, and provide school supplies and uniforms? Or does the real issue lie elsewhere – such as cultural perceptions of the female gender role, teacher attitudes and bias, or patriarchy? If so, how do we promote change in these perceptions? Is the answer more education?
I don’t have an answer to the questions, but I know the issue is more complex than simple parity and enrollment figures. I am not saying that it is bad to build schools and recruit/train teachers, but I believe we must look further. If the issues we attempt to address are complex and not easily measurable, progress is difficult to see; therefore it cannot be as easily used to justify supporting initiatives that move beyond getting children to go to school. It is the other commitments though that are most likely to address the underlying basis for inequality – for example, challenging stereotypes and improving curricula.
The potential for women to assist in the development in their communities is limitless. Just think of some of the great women in history, such as Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, Eva Peron, and Rosa Parks. There are so many more women that are lesser known for their leadership and humanitarian efforts I’m sure, but these women made significant differences and changed the world. To continue to marginalize those who could be great artists, philosophers, engineers, scientist, politicians, or leaders is incongruous.
When I travel around the world, I think in terms of the kids I see running around the slums of Botswana or South Africa or Brazil or Peru and I think about how we make sure they have the best possible opportunity to do well in life. I want to introduce this notion – let’s share in the stories of being woken up, eating our obscure breakfast and heading off to school. Let’s share the stories of progressing from year to year and our childhood memories from primary and secondary school. Let’s relive our significant life moments and revelations in this conversation with one another. Most importantly, I don’t want to share these stories with just a few people – I want every person to have a story to tell in relation to education. So finally, let’s share the task of challenging stereotypes, combating inequality and bettering education for every child.