I absolutely loved school. I would look forward to open day every single year, when I’d get to tell strangers about how great my school was and how much I loved going there. I moved to California when I was 5, and on one visit back to the UK I bought a blue and white checked summer dress to wear as my own personal uniform to my non-uniform American school to make it feel more like school as I knew it. The phrase “too cool for school” was in fact first used to describe 6 year old me. However, more than 132 million girls are out of school worldwide. Of the 25 million children who will never step foot in a classroom, 15 million are girls. In northern Africa and western Asia, only 77 of the poorest girls for every 100 of the poorest boys attend secondary school. The United Nations millennium development goals aimed to “eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015”. We are falling so far short of delivering the education I loved to the world’s most vulnerable girls, and the church has a vital role to play.
Access to basic education has long been enshrined as a fundamental human right, yet 775 million adults were reported to lack basic literacy skills in 2010, and 64% were women. This figure has not changed over the past 2 decades, according to a UNESCO report of 2012. The number of women who miss out completely on their education is high, and there is no indication that it is coming down. On a national level it can look even more bleak. In India, half of all women are unable to read and write. This totals 187 million people unable to ever reach even a fraction of their potential, or contribute to their society as they should. The church can be instrumental in the restorative work of educating girls and enabling them to become more of who they can be.
Education is a question of valuing someone. It’s seeing what they are, knowing they can be much more, and being willing to invest in it. Christianity teaches that every person has inherent worth that has nothing to do with who they are, and everything to do with who God is. When girls are removed from school, they are being told they are not worth the time, the effort, the expense. In the poorest communities, a girl’s immediate usefulness as a carer for siblings, breadwinner or bride may be deemed more valuable than her education, which is viewed as having uncertain returns. However this is far from the truth. Women in developing countries earn on average 20% more for every year of high school they complete. If girls who are pulled from primary school were to attend for one extra year, it is predicted that maternal and infant death rates in a given country would fall by 10-15%, as educated girls tend to marry later and have fewer children. Child brides are far less likely to receive appropriate healthcare in pregnancy and childbirth, and therefore there is a far higher risk of complications and death for mother and baby. Education is clearly not just about the ability to get a better job later on in life, it literally saves lives.
Women in the poorest communities are often severely undervalued. Social norms and cultural expectations dictate that women are not leaders, and therefore education is wasted on them. The example set by Jesus is one of valuing those who are cast aside, and lifting the oppressed up to their rightful standing. The Bible is full of the most amazing things coming from the least likely people, and this is what we should expect when girls in poor communities are allowed an education. Young girls who are uneducated are among the most vulnerable members of society, and are often married off when they are still incredibly young. In the least developed countries 40% of girls are married before age 18, and 12% of girls are married before age 15. In some countries, girls marry even younger, with 10-15% of girls in Rajasthan, India, married before the age of 10. Child marriage will mark the end of education for the vast majority of girls, and the start of an extremely difficult life. Keeping girls in school gives them more power to marry and have children when they are ready, and enables them to have healthier families when they do.
If women are not educated, how can they contribute to their communities? The church is described as the body of Christ, made up of hands and ears and knees and toes. As Christians we experience firsthand the power that lies in people with completely different abilities and ideas coming together to live as one body. We discover what our gifts are as we learn about ourselves and from each other. Trying to use only half the parts in your body for one day would soon make your life very difficult. When girls are excluded from education, and prevented from developing into the women they can and should be, the same effect ensues. We are never going to see meaningful change in society if only half the population are involved. If all girls around the globe received 12 years of free, safe, quality education, total lifetime earnings of the world’s women would increase by up to $30 trillion. As someone who finds it impossible to estimate how many people are in a room when I can’t count them on my hands, I have no concept of this amount of money but I think it’s a lot. Definitely not an amount to be ignored. Girl’s education is an investment in prosperity, the effects of which would be seen around the world.
If we are seeking to bring reconciliation to places that need it most, working to get vulnerable girls into school is a good place to start. In many cultures, women are almost invisible in their community. When there are no female role models in leadership, girls don’t see the things of which they could be capable. Violence against girls also puts significant limits on girls education, as daughters are prevented from going to school for their own safety. When walking to school risks assault and rape, it is hard to argue that parents should let their children go. Safe environments where girls can learn and grow without fear of the consequences of being so bold as to want to read a book are essential to increasing numbers of girls in school. An educated mother is much more likely to send all her children to school, both male and female. In this lies one of the key outcomes of schooling for girls: the knock on effect. Women who have the confidence and ability to participate fully in their communities and societies can achieve better lives for their families and effect change in the world around them.
If we continue to increase education of girls in the developing world at the same rate as it has been increasing over the past 20 years, it will be 100 years until we live in a world where every girl completes primary school. I really haven’t got that kind of time on my hands, so we’re going to need to do better. We can be praying, raising awareness, and partnering with people who are already doing amazing work to try and tackle the inequality. Organisations such as Compassion run sponsorship programmes, which enable girls who would never have the chance to go to school to receive a full education. In our communities, we can act in a way that values everyone equally, and recognises the potential in everyone. I am far from an expert on this topic, but I am someone who cares about it a lot. I’d recommend taking a look at some of the articles on the websites below if you want to dig deeper and hear from people who know a lot more than me. This is not a problem with a quick and easy solution, but it is a problem that deserves our attention and action. Christians around the world can continue to work to lift up those who are being pushed down, and bring pockets of redemption to the injustice by seeing the world and its people through the eyes of the one who made them.
Katy Lillie | 2nd year @ Trinity
Malala Fund https://www.malala.org/girls-education
UNESCO Data for sustainable development goals http://uis.unesco.org/#en/intro
Girls not Brides https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/
UN Girls education initiative http://www.ungei.org/
Failure to educate girls could cost world $30 trillion: report https://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-women-education/failure-to-educate-girls-could-cost-world-30-trillion-a-year-report-idUSKBN1K131U
World Bank Group Girls education overview https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/girlseducation
Human Rights Council 38: Girls’ Education https://www.gov.uk/government/news/human-rights-council-38-girls-education
Forbes Article: It’s Time To Get Serious About Educating Women Around The World https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2018/09/10/its-time-to-get-serious-about-educating-women-around-the-world-the-economy-will-thank-us/#18dc16766ed9