By Ellie Reilly
Like many of us, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place where I could receive an education mandated by the government. I wasn’t always treated well at school, nor did I receive the highest quality education available, but I graduated with a basic understanding of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
I, like many other Western feminists before me, didn’t fully appreciate the value of this education until much of my schooling was already complete — the second year of graduate school, to be exact. I used to complain about waking up early, waiting in the cold to catch the bus, and sitting through dreary classes.
To be clear, I still think that many of these things were lame, but I cannot deny that they are part of an institution that has made many of the opportunities that I’ve had in life possible. However, for many women and girls who live in regions where a basic education is not a guarantee — or even a likelihood — the same opportunities are not available. Parts of my life that I take for granted, such as the ability to live independently, get a job, and even make informed decisions about my body are not available to many women and girls throughout the world.
In large part, these things are unavailable precisely because education is not commonplace for many of these women.
Why is Education so Valuable?
Education is prominent in countries where women are estimated to be relatively well-off. While the battle for equality in the Western world is far from over, significant leaps and bounds have been made in the past half century. Women’s education has been walking hand-in-hand with this progress. Greater access to education has helped American women triple their presence in the workforce; 11 percent of professional women in 1970 had a college degree, but today that number is up to 39 percent.
Similar strides can be seen in other Western countries and in countries where women’s education is becoming more available. We know that when young girls are given the opportunity to learn, they will take it.
As to why education makes such a big difference, I can think of two possibilities. First, education gives young girls the tools that they need to succeed. It helps them to understand their potential in the world and to realize that potential. Second, giving young girls the same educational opportunities afforded to their male counterparts teaches young boys to treat girls as equals. Instead of sowing the seeds of sexim at an early age, young boys are raised in an environment where they share the same opportunities and background as girls.
Why is it so Hard to Get?
The reasons why it’s difficult for women and young girls to go to school in many parts of the world are as varied as those women and girls themselves. However, there are a few clear obstacles that girls in the global south face when it comes to receiving an education.
First, and perhaps most obviously to readers of this site, is the fact that educated women are better able to fight against patriarchal power structures. Thus, the heavily male-dominated communities of the world are willing to actively fight against the prospect of an educated female population. This has, sadly, taken the form of violence that prevents women from receiving an education.
Secondly, and less directly, there simply aren’t accessible schools for girls to attend locally. Think about how you would have gotten to school if a school bus hadn’t picked you up; you weren’t able to bum a ride off of friends, or your parents didn’t drive you. On mild days it would, for many students, be a trying hike. On extremely hot or cold days, it could be deadly to walk more than a mile to school. In places like Afghanistan, where educational institutions have been decimated by years of conflict, it’s not always possible for students to find a school to attend.
Finally — for the purposes of this article, anyway — is a simple lack of materials. Those of us who have had to buy our own textbooks at some point in our lives will probably not be surprised to hear that learning materials are expensive. It takes a lot of time and effort to create a complete set of textbooks for a child’s entire primary and secondary school career. And this doesn’t even get us started on how much more it costs to build schoolhouses, fill them with blackboards and desks, and staff them. Ultimately, one of the greatest barriers to education in the global south is financial: there isn’t enough money to pay for all the schooling that’s needed.
What can we do?
For me, being a feminist can sometimes feel awkward. We often find ourselves in the position of knowing what’s wrong with the world while feeling hopeless about fixing such broad and entrenched issues like the pay gap, sexual harassment, and the pink tax all by ourselves.
Fortunately, when it comes to education for girls who haven’t been as lucky as we have, there are things we can do. Earlier, I mentioned that money was a large barrier to education for all women. When solving a problem is as simple as throwing money at it, most of us in the Western world can do something, even if it’s just a little, to help. Even if you’re not in a position to donate yourself, simply raising awareness or volunteering to raise funds can go a long way.
If your approach involves more boots on the ground, so to speak, there’s always a need for more teachers in countries that are trying to improve their educational infrastructure. If you have an interest in traveling for service and you are prepared to accept the risks associated with working in places like the Middle East, then you might look into teaching English there.
Ultimately, education is an institution that only continues to get better once it’s started on the right track. By exposing today’s young girls to schools, we ensure that there will be a next generation of teachers, ready to improve the lives of women and girls in their regions.