By Connor J. Wangler
Since the dawn of humanity, boys and girls have been channeled into defined social roles through their educations and upbringings; Boys were taught hunting and fighting and girls were taught cooking and care-taking. As history progressed, the exact topics of education evolved, but the differences remained the same with young boys receiving knowledge that put them above girls in society. These differences, however, are now being challenged both in the developed and the developing world; young girls are now the focus of several initiatives to bridge the gender gap in knowledge. The empowerment of women and girls through education has proven to be vital in combating extreme poverty and elevating half the population towards equality. Through increased literacy and self-awareness, women provide a huge source of labor and innovating to boost a country’s economy. Additionally, educated women usually marry later and have children when they can provide for them; this reduces dependency on government programs to support the children and other associated problems with population densities. The benefits are not limited to economic improvements but also include social advances. Educated women are more likely to participate in social decision making through government and entrepreneurship and, thus, reduce social inequality between genders.
Initiatives focused on the education of women and young girls have been begun by governments, private groups, and combinations of the two. International organizations, such as the UN, have launched global campaigns; one example being the UN Girls’ Education Initiative, which looks at improving the lives of women and children. Individual governments have also made great strides in bringing young girls and women into greater states of knowledge and well-being. The government of Malawi, for example, created the GABLE project, which is aimed at keeping high-achieving girls in school by waiving school fees. One of the countless private groups working to increase access to education for young girls and women is the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). The group uses a multi-pronged approach that focuses on policy and community advocacy to encourage governments to enact gender-responsive education polices proven to work and communities to create supportive contexts in which female empowerment can occur. Here is an interview with Martha Muhwezi, a senior FAWE coordinator, discussing the role of the woman in modern-day Africa:
An interesting insight on this issue can be gained by looking at the policies aimed at improving female empowerment through education enacted by the government in Kenya. Ever since the country became independent in 1963, its governments have been vocal supporters of education as a means to improve economic development. The country is a signatory to multiple international treaties aimed at improving access to education and lessening discrimination for girls, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Since 1963, the country has increased the amount of schools, both primary and secondary, from approximately 6,000 to an estimated 24,000 today. In 2003, the government announced that it would waive primary education fees in order to increase student numbers. In 2011, the government made it illegal to practice female genital mutilation on young girls, which has been linked to health issues affecting female school attendance.
Despite many of the efforts made by the government, however, great disparities in education levels between boys and girls exist, especially on regional levels. In rural regions, social and economic circumstances continue to prevent girls from continuing their education. In order to fight these restraints, the government must invest in critical infrastructure, such as water access; these investments will lessen the responsibilities of girls to the home, such as procuring water. Furthermore, access to loans for higher education is extremely limited, which financially constrains young women from low-income groups. While the policies enacted have helped, such as free primary education, they do not go far enough and still leave women underrepresented in the education system.
While great efforts have been made, it is clear that much progress must still be made in order to achieve greater female empowerment, especially in access to knowledge. This progress will have to come not only from government policies but also from innovations and charitable work of many private groups. Continuing to provide marginalized women and girls access to greater knowledge can and will increase development and reduce extreme poverty. These efforts, however, must continue to be critiqued and reviewed to ensure certain groups do not fall through the cracks of bureaucracy.