Poverty is sexist: why girls’ education is crucial for development

Lusanda Beauchamp:

Poverty is sexist. It has targeted and entrenched women for centuries, as very few societies in the world allow women to enjoy the same advancing opportunities as men, including the most developed democracies. The most devastating tool of economic apartheid used to keep women impoverished is education, or a lack of access to education.

Girls, especially in rural communities, are taught from a young age to assume menial responsibilities of the household as domestic servants (Davies, 2012). So, instead of attending primary and secondary school, girls in developing countries from Africa to South Asia are involved in subsistence agriculture while having to travel long miles for hours fetching and carrying heavy loads of wood, agricultural produce and water in heavy jugs on their heads and backs, risking sexual assault along the way. This free service can easily lead to forced child labour where access to education is severely limited, freedoms restricted and an increase vulnerability to sexual assault, violence, poor working conditions and poor health. 

Unfortunately, women and girls are typically expected to do the majority of the unpaid work that makes life possible for everyone, like cooking, cleaning and caring for children and relatives. On average, women spend about twice as much time as men on this work. In developing countries, the gap is even bigger.” – Melinda Gates, Philanthropist, Time Magazine, 2016.

Barriers to education: There are several barriers identified that make it difficult for girls to firstly attend and thereby maintain their attendance of school if they overcome the obstacles of going to school in the first place.  

Discrimination and culture

This is the gender bias dilemma haunting girls’ education policy. Many traditional cultures support the idea that women are the domestic servants of the home and therefore sending them to school would result in a loss of labour. It is for this reason that men are pay dowries for marriage in the first place, to compensating for taking away a woman’s labour from another man’s household. Thus supporting girls’ education is still largely see as undermining male patriarchy that needs girls to stay at home and where masculinity is centred and defined by the ability of men to provide for their dependent women and girls.

Another dilemma often overlooked by policymakers is colonialist education. For the most part African education doesn’t exist in Africa as of yet. The legacy of colonialism on the continent is still intact right down to the ideology of the words written on pages that schoolchildren read. Part of the process to decolonise Africa- which is seen as being more important than girl’s education- is to decolonise education. The biggest agenda for education in 2015 in South Africa is to create a transformative pedagogy that includes indigenous thought, knowledge and perspective. African academics, intellectuals and individual activists feel resentful, wary and suspicious of Western education especially of its effects on girls, as this is where many girls encounter the ideology of feminism and different ways of being, which has educationally originated from the West, and has been critisised for disrupting and challenging traditional African patriarchal culture and interfering with African ideas of womanhood.  

This clash is evident by observing just a few of the policies mapped out by UNICEF which appear to be oppositional to traditional cultures. As an example, research conducted by UNICEF claims that women who are more educated are more likely to have fewer children and postpone marriage for when their older, whereas African and South Asian cultures states that women should marry young, even as child brides, as they’re more fertile in youth and are encouraged to have as many children as possible. In the case of the over 200 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria in 2014, these militants operated by this very agenda of removing girls from Western education.

Women’s health and hygiene

Another issue often overlooked by policy is girls’ sanitary healthcare during their schooling. Many developing countries such as India where access to basic sanitary hygiene for poorer rural girls has not been effectively implemented. This is problem was also identified in Africa, even in areas where NGO’s provide access to sanitary hygiene, if girls go to school where no running water or plumbing is present to keep themselves clean during menstruation, they prefer to stay absent from school and can miss up to 60 days of schooling per year, which eventually leads to higher dropout rates as these girls can’t catch-up missed schoolwork and maintain household duties simultaneously.

In addition, a lack of access to reproductive health and supportive education about female sexuality and sexual health is silenced due to the taboo surrounding open dialogue on sexuality. This translates to many girls falling pregnant within their teenage years who are then at a higher risk of contracting HIV and are unlikely to continue their schooling as they face discrimination and social stigma and cannot maintain their health and welfare away from home.    

Conflict and war

In conflict affected countries safety and security of girls is far more compromised.  Rape, sexual violence and sex trafficking are used as mechanisms of psychological warfare to humiliate, demoralize and terrorise oppositions and communities. When the safety of girls cannot be guaranteed when leaving their homes, due to fear of sexual torture, going to school becomes an unnecessary, risky danger. Schooling is also disrupted due to the dysfunction caused by distress and panic during war and the normalization of violence.  

In some cases, the gender disparity is exhibited by extremist views which disallow girl’s education to ever commence in the first place. This is seen by the extreme efforts of Taliban militants who use terrorism to keep girls specifically out of school to the point where Pakistani schoolgirl and girl’s education activist, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head in 2012 for continuing her activism for girls’ education rights despite repeated threats and warnings from the militants.

Why is girls’ education imperative to development?  

In the past decades the enrolment of girls into schools in developing nations rose to over 60% with a significant increase in East Asian and Latin American girls completing secondary school. (UNIFEM, 1991). Factually girls’ education is so important that it has been adopted into development efforts and policies because it serves as an economic benefit for developing nations too. This can be attributed to girl’s benefitting from opportunities that a good education, raised social status and higher incomes afford them to participate in the economy and boost national income.

Tembon and Fort (2008) add that educating girls is not a feminist issue as much as it is a development issue, and a critical one too, as it been identified as the most effective and quickest method to drive development. This could be most effective in countries like South Africa where girls make up the majority of the population and educated girls would build stronger families and transform communities, narrow the gap on inequality whist breaking the cyclical and generational poverty and dysfunctional social systems inherited by the apartheid area.

Therefore in the literal sense, the development of nations is currently resting on the backs of girls carrying heavy labour, and thus freeing or lessening the heavy load of labour from the backs of girls in order for them to attend school, is key to opening up the developing world and women as an untapped source of human capital.   

Additionally, countries with higher literacy rates among women have significantly decreased levels of trafficking women into sex slavery as higher incomes, high level skills, and independence and stability shield women from exploitation. (Stepp, 2015). Women who continue their education make more informed choices about reproduction and have better access to reproductive health, family planning services, and access to contraceptives. This can then be passed down to children who are born to mothers who are less likely to contract HIV, who can then contribute to their overall long term health.

What is being done to improve girls’ education?

Efforts aimed at helping young girls firstly go to school and encourage them to stay and complete their studies and to promote and accommodate them have been outlined by UNICEF and include the following.   

Bringing schools closer to the homes could be effective, although it could pose another potential barrier as many girls who live in rural villages where populations are spread apart by distance and large areas of land would be disadvantaged, what’s more is the safety issue of girls travelling long distances.  

Improving the quality of education and the schooling experience such as introducing sports and active participation of girls in schools is another way to help encourage girls not only to go to school but to continue their education straight through secondary school.

Genderising education and removing material that reinforces gender stereotyping and bias is a way for both teachers and all students to learn to be sensitised about gender and therefore accommodate girls and promote positive self-esteem.  

Subsidising no fee paying schools will encourage girls to stay in education as this will eliminate financial barriers that continue to make education elitist in developing nations. In addition, due to the economic benefit of improving education, funding girls’ education can be seen as an investment in human capital and economic development.  

Lastly, for policy’s sake, it should be remembered that improving girls’ education is also a lesson in cultural understanding, as barriers towards education will always be present and the solution is to work within their native cultures and to set examples for communities who want to succeed and improve by promoting safety, health, understanding, access to reproductive care and allowing and support for young mothers to go back to school.