Everyday, I wake up and prepare to go to school. I pack my bag with all the books and tools that I’ll need for the day, and I step out into the world to make it happen. I don’t stop to question if I should, I just know that I can. But for women throughout history, that has not always been a guarantee.
I say throughout history, as if every girl and woman has access to education today, but sadly, that is not the case. Conservative attitudes, religious norms, and social and cultural pressures keep some women locked in a cycle of ignorance and poverty that is almost impossible to escape. Things can change, however. Once upon a time, in western culture, women were not allowed to wear pants, but now, if you look carefully you will notice that I am crushing this pair of slacks.
Progress doesn’t happen on its own. So, let’s look into how women’s education is limited and why that matters. According to Women Deliver, approximately 130 million women in the world do not go to school daily, a number greater than the populations of France and Britain combined. If that number were its own country, it would be the 10th largest in the world. On top of that, women make up two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people.
Unfortunately, this massive gap in women's education has a variety of causes. UNICEF states that “The reasons are many. Barriers to girls’ education – like poverty, child marriage and gender-based violence – vary among countries and communities. Poor families often favour boys when investing in education.” One-third of all girls in developing countries are married off before the age of 18, and most of them have children within a few years. And when challenged to provide an education for multiple children with a single income, many poor families struggle, especially in rural areas without public schools or in areas of conflict.
However, according to UN Women, every additional year of primary school increases a girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent worldwide. Education also encourages women to marry later in life and have fewer children, and data from 68 countries shows that a woman's education is a major factor in determining the survival of their children. In Egypt, the children of educated mothers are half as likely to die than the children of uneducated mothers.
Education is the key to lifting individuals and families out of poverty and stimulating economic growth in a community. According to the Borgen Project, educating women reduces poverty by improving the health of women and their children, increasing wages, halting generational poverty, and encouraging women to stay in and invest in their communities. If women are educated, they work harder, earn higher-paying jobs, and improve their livelihoods. They can then use these gains to put money back into their local economies, improving the living standards of everyone in the community.
Across the globe, many organizations have been developed to foster educational opportunities for women. Educate Girls, an organization based in India, works with government schools to improve standards of education, Camfed, short for “Campaign for Female Education” concentrates on rural regions of Africa, and She’s the First, an international organization based in New York, helps to fund girls high school and higher education. Perhaps most notably, the United Nations has a variety of subcommittees dedicated to female education, poverty, and/or female empowerment that have made large strides in improving education for women everywhere.
The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, more commonly known as UNICEF, has made major improvements in Sudan by working with the Sudanese government. Prior to launching the Child-Friendly Community Initiative, Sudan had one of the lowest girl’s net enrolment rates in the world at a huge 42%. Now, 378 communities across the country have taken the lead in building schools, supporting teachers, and monitoring school activities, leading to an overall increase in girl’s attendance and gender equality.
These rehabilitated schools have also encouraged parents to enroll their children, and the expansion of girl’s education has had a “domino effect” on the community. As Maka Al-Dom Ahmed, director of girl’s education in West Darfur, a Sudanese state, puts it: “If one family sees its neighbors push for their daughters’ education, they will also struggle to ensure their daughters’ attendance.” This shift in women’s education has also encouraged girls to have children later in life. Previously, girls in Sudan would give birth as early as 12 years old. But now, because of these efforts, the majority of parents will deny suitors requests until their daughters complete their education.
By encouraging women’s participation in school, UNICEF has aided Sudan on their path to gender equality. In 2012, Freedom House, a non-profit that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, gave Sudan the worst ranking for gender equality possible. While that number has improved leading up to 2020, there are still tons of issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve equality.
If all nations followed the United Nations outlines for improving women’s education, opportunities, and poverty, the world would see significant economic and societal improvements.
It’s entirely possible that the next Einstein, Edison, or Newton is actually a young girl growing up uneducated in an underprivileged country. You probably noticed that those names were all men, and that they were all familiar to you. If I had said Lovelace, Wong-Staal, and Rubin, all women, would you have known who I was talking about? Maybe… But probably not. If we work together to develop women and help them reach their potential, then maybe one day there will be a lot more women who are household names. Helping women reach their potential is not only necessary for equality but for the progress and achievement of all
Madison Dengel (She/Her)
Cabot High School Sophomore