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Educating Girls is About Development, Not Domesticity

July 26, 2013

Ottawa Citizen

by JENNIFER ERIN SALAHUB


At a recent international conference in London, gaffe-prone Mayor of London, Boris Johnson quipped that high female university enrollment in Malaysia must be because the women, “have got to find men to marry.” The joke got a couple of laughs, but those were more than drowned out by the subsequent chorus of criticism from every reasonable corner of the media. While it’s relatively easy to dismiss Yet Another Boris Mistake, it’s harder to ignore the inherent sexism of the comment, particularly in relation to developing countries like Malaysia, because it undermines one of the most important lessons from the past thirty or more years of international development: that educating girls and women is the cornerstone of creating sustained human development across a range of social, economic, and political sectors.

Educating girls is the beginning of a virtuous circle that pulls in economic and political activity. Time and again, studies show that every additional year a girl is in school pays disproportionate rewards, not only for herself but also for her community. According to the World Bank, “one additional year of schooling for girls and women increases their wages by at least 10%; reduces infant mortality rates by at least 5%; and translates into children remaining in school for an additional one-third to one-half year.” Girls with more education are more likely to enter the paid workforce, increasing productivity. And, with the social and economic empowerment that attends greater education, so comes the opportunity for greater political empowerment and engagement where they are likely to prioritize interventions like sanitation and water which benefit everyone.

In the economy, too, women have essential roles to play that are greatly facilitated by additional schooling. More than 40% of the world’s workforce is made up of women, though often they spend considerably more time working than their male counterparts when (unpaid) domestic work is included in the calculation. According to the International Center for Research on Women, “where women’s participation in the labour force grew fastest, the economy experienced the largest reduction in poverty rates.” Economic empowerment often means women have a greater say in political decision making in the home and community, giving them resources to put towards the things they are interested in – like children, food, health, and education – which have positive benefits for the community as a whole.

Not only are women important actors in local politics, they are crucial to creating international peace and security. Take international peace agreements as just one example of where women are absent and desperately needed in politics. Despite the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security, women continue to “represent a strikingly low number of negotiators” – less than 10% – and there has been “little appreciable increase since the passage of resolution 1325,” according to a 2012 report from UNWomen. Yet, given that women are universally both involved in and affected by armed conflict in different ways than men, it is essential that they be a part of the agreements that are meant to form the basis for lasting peace. The same holds true at every level of decision making: from the national to the municipal, representation is a founding principle of the democratic process, whether fledgling or established. Ensuring that girls and young women pursue an education instead of leaving to work or marry at a young age is the first step in ensuring that women are able and available to participate in political decision making at every level.

Ultimately, women are too important to the development process to joke about or let comments like Boris Johnson’s pass unchallenged. Women and girls are needed in politics, in grassroots community organizations, in schools (as both teachers and students), and in every other imaginable sector. Their path to these centres of power begins at school.

If Boris Johnson doesn’t get that, maybe it’s time he went back to school.

Jennifer Erin Salahub is a Theme Leader at The North-South Institute, Canada’s leading international development think tank.