Recent events on Afghanistan have highlighted the challenges and fears that exist around women’s education. Despite many promises, the Taliban did a huge U-turn on March 23rd when it told girls who arrived for school that they had to go home. Girls over 11 years of age appear to have been refused the option of returning to school after the Taliban took over government.
The narrative is confused. Uniform debates and lack of teachers were among the issues that the Taliban said had forced this closure of schools. Not everyone agrees. Some suggest the issue is about internal divisions within the Taliban, while others make a nonsense of the issue of uniforms, stating uniforms for girls are already very conservative.
The higher education of girls is seen as a pointer to development. Many point to the increase in girls education after the earlier fall of the Taliban. UNESCO reported an increase in the number of girls in higher education from 5,000 in 2001 to 90,000 in 2018.
While access to education is one issue highlighted by these recent events, is it the only challenge for women and girls with respect to education? Education is more than completing a course, although enabling girls to complete education cycles remains a challenge in many contexts. Poverty, early marriage, gendered roles, lack of female teachers are just some of the issues that challenge inclusion of girls in education.
Another challenge is that girls are often not equally empowered through education. When I worked in a large South Asian educational institution for girls, many were allowed to complete their education in order to ensure they would get a better class of marriage. This demeaning of education and its outcomes haunts some girls whose education has a purpose other than empowering and enabling her.
Education needs to be part of coherent strategies that address social inequalities in order for girls to really enjoy its benefits. Education also needs to give attention to the challenges girls face and include strategies that not only enable participation but also promote gender equal opportunities in the classroom.
That education of girls has wide-ranging benefits for societies is well documented, however the barriers to achieving equality in education remain high.
A prized rite that every girl must undergo at a young age, the result of poverty, destiny, life’s role … too many young girls are forced to marry too young.
The International Centre for Research on Women gives the following statistics:
- One third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15.
- In 2010, 67 million women 20-24 around the world had been married before the age of 18.
- If present trends continue, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of 14.2 million girls each year.
- While countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are concentrated in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa, due to population size, the largest number of child brides reside in South Asia.
Research indicates that economics plays a significant role in the early marriage with girls from poorer households more than twice as likely to marry young than girls from higher income families. Girls with higher education are also less likely to marry at a younger age. The impact of women’s marginalisation economically and in education has consequences for generations.
For girls who are married young the consequences can be devastating. Girls younger than fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth, with pregnancy being the leading cause of their early death. Violence seems to stalk girls who are married young, with those who marry before eighteen more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. Girls who have been married young show symptoms of sexual abuse and stress that is associated with marital life.
It is not just a question of alleviating poverty, though that is an essential step, nor of increasing educational opportunities for girls, though girls should be given access to education; underlying these issues are questions about attitudes to women. Whereas Ban Ki Moon has urged recognition of child marriages as a key indicator in female empowerment, tackling the roots of female marginalisation is necessary alongside measures to protect young girls who are most vulnerable.
Watch this Video on Child Marriage
Obviously those who want to keep women marginalised fear education. They shot Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who is an advocate for girls education in an area where women live with marginalisation. The Taliban was clear that it shot her for advocating female education. When more than 150 girls fell ill from drinking poisoned water in Afghanistan, they blamed those opposed to women’s education. One of Pakistan’s senior educationists, a woman, Dr Bernadette Dean, decided to leave the country after receiving death threats.
What do they fear? What is the power unleashed by education that these elements fear?
A young Afghani girl said ‘literacy and education is as light, it also gives you power’. Studies on the benefits of education for girls have shown that this is the single most effective strategy to ensure the well-being of the next generation, and for the long-term sustainable development of communities and economies. Educating Girls Matters says there are profound benefits for women that include:
- Reduction of child and maternal mortality
- Improvement of child nutrition and health
- Lower birth rates
- Enhancement of women’s domestic role and their political participation
Is this what they fear? I think their fear is more deep-rooted. Social change will certainly challenge their position, their power, their control over women and the community. But the roots are deeper. Freedom. Education opens the door to choice, enhancing identity and empowering to dream and seek to fulfill those dreams. It brings girls and women together, creates community, breaks isolation.
Quality education and equal opportunity to access it has the potential to bring radical change. However else we tackle women’s marginalization, the fear of education speaks to its power to transform.
 Agenda.weforum.org, How educating girls can transform communities, Accessed 21.05.2015