Vote no to women graduates! Getting education right for women

Education, Gender, Gender & Development Journal

Education is a fundamental human right, but what’s needed to ensure a quality empowering education for all?  Gender & Development editor Caroline Sweetman introduces the Education issue.

If you want to keep a whole segment of society oppressed, best make sure you prevent them getting an education. Less than 150 years ago, the British psychiatrist Henry Maudesley stated: “Vote no to women graduates: mental taxation in a woman can lead to atrophy, mania or worse – leave her incapacitated as a mother. This is not an opinion, it is a fact of nature.”

Shockingly similar prejudices live on today. In the past year, women’s right to education moved to the top of the international policy agenda in the wake of the attack on Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girl who advocated Pakistani girls’ right to education, in October 2012. Currently, an estimated 61 per cent of the 123 million young people who lack basic reading and
writing skills across the world are young women.  

Since 2000, the MDGs and the Education for All (EFA) initiative have challenged the world’s governments to get girls into school. It’s resulted in considerable progress, though (as ever) these global statistics air-brush out a more complicated picture.  From 2000 to 2011, the global primary school enrolment rate grew from 83 per cent to 90 per cent, and the number of out-of-school children dropped by
almost half from 102 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2011.

Girls at school in Nepal. Credit: Aubrey Wade/OxfamBut getting girls into the classroom on the first day of school is the first baby-step to ensuring a quality, empowering education for all. While economic poverty obviously presents families with practical challenges in getting girls into school, it’s not the only issue. Globally, even in the richest households, girls are still more likely to be out of school than boys and
while lack of money makes things worse, the underlying issue is gender inequality and stereotypes about women’s place in the family and society. If there are few jobs waiting for educated girls, and being a mother is still girls’ most important role, it’s hardly surprising money is spent on educating boys instead. And education presents real risks for girls. Mothers fear inappropriate relationships with male teachers, and worry about girls’ safety travelling home. Gender-based violence (GBV) makes school and universities unsafe. 

In the new issue of Gender & Development, co-edited by Nitya Rao, education specialists, development practitioners and feminist activists explore what it takes to make education truly empowering, and share real-life experiences of programmes aiming to do this.  

It’s really important that we support female education because it is right and just to do so
Strategies include tackling gender based violence in schools, working with boys on gender equality, and supporting young women to proceed to higher levels of education, developing integrated programmes that combine gender equality in schools with adult literacy, health and sex
, economic empowerment and women’s rights. Anita Reilly focuses on Plan UK’s work in Sierra Leone in the wake of the end of the civil war in 2002 to improve adolescent girls’ chances of getting to junior secondary school, and staying there long enough to make a difference.

It’s really important that we support female education because it is right and just to do so – not only because we think educated women are likely to behave in ways governments and development organisations would like them to, for instance choosing contraception, or following environmentally-friendly farming methods. 

Female education has often been depicted as a magic bullet to resolve a host of development problems from child and maternal mortality and under-nutrition to addressing poverty and economic growth, but the essence of real empowerment is you get to decide for yourself. And it’s a good start if your schooling emphasises social responsibility and civic education. In their article, Amanda Moll and Lotte Renault share insights from a
CARE project in Honduras, offering non-formal education for out-of-school adolescents and promoting a sense of identity and citizenship rights.

 As the Zambian feminist Sara Hlupekile Longwe said way back in 1998, we need to support education for empowerment, not schooling for subordination

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Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.