These Stories Remind Us Why Education For Women Is As Important As Ever
The Debrief: Two-thirds of the 774 million illiterate people across the world are female. Here's why young women everywhere need access to an education.
When I was at school very few of us would ever say we ‘wanted to be there’. It was something we took for granted, resented at times, plotted to bunk off of and couldn’t wait to graduate and be free from. Not because we looked forward to the opportunities and freedoms we would have as a result of it but because we looked forward to breaking free from the tedious authorities who made us wear uniforms and told us what to do.
But we, of course, were lucky. As clichéd as it sounds, we rarely thought about just how lucky we were. What we saw as something which was imposed upon us was actually a right which we were privileged to have, and, one which many women before us had fought for us to have. School differs wildly simply depending on which country you happen to have been born in.
In the UK some sort of formal education is compulsory until the age of 18. According to UNESCO three countries have over a million girls who are not in school. In Nigeria 5 million girls are not receiving a formal education, in Pakistan the same is true for more than 3 million and in Ethiopia over a million. Two-thirds of the 774 million illiterate people across the world are female.
Education is and has always been one of the most important tools for empowering women. Around the world women face inequality because of the difficulties they face in accessing it. According to Unicef, despite progress in recent years, girls continue to be disadvantaged when it comes to education. An estimated 31 million girls of primary school age and 32 million of secondary school age were not in school in 2013.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest proportion of countries with gender parity and South. West Asia have the widest gender gap in terms of the numbers of boys and girls in school – 80 per cent of girls there who are out-of-school are unlikely to ever attend, compared with 16 per cent of boys.
Across the world many countries still don’t have gender equality and access to education is a big part of that. Without it the cycle of poverty cannot be broken; as Unicef point out ‘educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will; likely to die in childbirth; more likely to have healthy babies; and are more likely to send their children to school.’ They are also less vulnerable to disease and more likely to have an increased earning power later in life. When young women have access to a quality education the effects of that are felt by generations to come. Girls who have had an education benefit from family planning information and, as a result, have healthier children who are more likely to remain in education themselves.
Indeed, educating young women makes economic sense. As the World Bank has reported, a young woman who has a secondary school level education could see as much as a 25% increase in earnings compared to one who doesn’t as she gets older.
In Sierra Leona, however, Street Child reports that young girls are simply not being given the opportunity to stay in school. The country is ranked in the world’s lowest 10% when it comes to gender equality.
One of reasons as to why young Sierra Leonean women aren’t being given the opportunity to stay in education is teen pregnancy. Rebecca is 18 years old. Falling pregnant, after the loss of her mother, sister and uncle to Ebola, prevented her from staying in school.
‘I was already feeling like I had little hope’ she said, ‘and then I fell pregnant. And the guy who got me pregnant denied it was him. He’s gone now and I’m left on my own to look after my son by doing small jobs here and there.’ She relies on others to help her because her close family are no longer with her and her father has been left incredibly unwell. ‘People might give me Le3000 [40p] and then I can buy some food…’ she says.
Her story is not an uncommon one. Aminata is 17. She was in school but had to drop out because she could no longer pay her school fees after falling pregnant.
‘Before that I was paying my own school fees by sleeping with men for money. I was living in the streets. That’s how I got pregnant. I don’t know the man whose baby it is’ she says.
She would still like to be at school and finish her education, but has no choice now. ‘I feel bad that I’m no in school anymore but I have no choice. Going to school makes me feel good because I can make myself better. I could help my parents if I learn more, I could help them to enjoy life.’
‘People see me and say I can’t go to school because I’m pregnant. People are mean to you. They do nothing to help. People don’t talk to me well. Neighbours used to give me food. Now they’ve stopped that, saying that I’m pregnant.’
Sierra Leone is not the only country where teen pregnancy and a lack of access to contraception affect young women’s access to education. In Zambia for instance nearly 30% of all teenage girls fall pregnant before their 18th birthday. This is compounded by high rates of child marriage, with 45% of girls already married by 18 and 65% by the age of 20.
As Gloria Steinem once said most women are ‘one man away from welfare’ and that holds true wherever you are in the world if you become pregnant at the wrong time, under the wrong circumstances, with the wrong person. However, in many parts of the world there is no welfare to fall on.
Another reason for the cause of young women not receiving the same education as young men in Sierra Leone is the attitudes of the generations above them towards girls going to school. Mariama is 18 years old. She’s now in her last year of secondary school in Kroo Bay, Sierra Leoone. She has never dropped out of school ‘but’, she says, ‘many of my friends from this area have not been so lucky.’
Why? ‘The main factor is money’, she says. ‘Many of the girls around here won’t have the money for school so they end up on the streets to find means for money. Like going to their boyfriends and asking for money. That can lead to teenage pregnancy. That is why plenty of girls drop out of school in our country.’
‘Another factor is their parents. If girls spend time going out to a nightclub or something instead of studying they might fail that grade. And many girls around here, if they fail once, their parents will not want to invest in them repeating that year.’
‘There are so few girls around here that are able to continue in education. It makes me feel bad. The more girls stay at home away from school, the more it can lead to underdevelopment of the country. So I think if more pupils are in school there will be a better future for girls in this country.’
She says she ‘despairs’ of the situation. ‘I want to advocate to make sure that girls stay in school. If girls and their families are aware that education is important they will have the zeal to make sure they’re in school. People in this community do want to help and people can learn the importance of supporting girls through school. But if we don’t reach out to them for help, if we don’t try to help them change, then it will never happen.’
Similarly Mary, 16 years old from Kinton says a young woman’s access to education in Sierra Leone depends on her parents.
‘It’s been about a year since I was last in school’ she says, ‘now I sell water in the market to help get a little money for me and my family.’
‘I was going to school before but my mother died. My father is in the village and he doesn’t support my schooling. Now I’m being looked after by my granny but she doesn’t support me in school either. Now I go out and sell in the market here just to have a little money. Maybe I can earn a little for myself to buy small things like shoes or clothes.’
‘Education is so good for girls. If I was able to get educated, I could do better things and become a better person. I want to go to school but I just don’t have the chance. When I’m out of school I feel bad. I see my friends going to school and that hurts because I can’t go with them. I see them going out to learn and I just sit here and sell.’
If parents can’t look after their child and help them be in school then girls especially will suffer…If a girl’s family isn’t able to send them to school, if I had the power, I wish I could pay for them myself. I’d give them advice and encourage them to stay there because that’s so important.’
Street Child has counsellors who work with young women, giving them the support they need to stay in or return to education in Sierra Leonne. They site family’s fears about safety following the Ebola crisis and teen pregnancy as the key barriers to education in the country.
In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ‘I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.’ She campaigned tirelessly on the importance of education for women if we were ever to have control over our own futures. She was writing at a time when many women in Britain did not get the chance to go to school and receive an education. Today, around the world where the right of young people to an education is not enshrined in law and funded by the state, this is as true as it ever was.
Street Child's Girls Speak Out appeal aims to ensure that girls' voices are heard and their issues are confronted. Street Child hopes to raise a minimum of £1million to help 20,000 children stay in school and gain a quality education. All donations from now until 17th July 2016 will be doubled by the UK government. Visit www.Street-Child.co.uk to support the appeal.
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