“The surest way to keep people down is to educate the men and neglect the women. If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation”.
These are the wise words of Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey, an early 20th century missionary, teacher and intellectual from the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), who spent much of his life in the United States, promoting the importance of education.
A hundred years later, you might think that most of the hurdles in accessing education had been tackled. However, with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai hitting recent international headlines for her brave and passionate fight for equality, it’s now even clearer that there’s still a long way to go in achieving women’s equality in access to education.
Empowerment through education
How have we made so little progress? Well, significant improvements have been accomplished, but a lot of work remains to be done. In the infographic below, produced as part of Plan UK’s Because I am a Girl campaign, we can see how far women’s access to education has come.
Beginning with one of the first Indian feminists, Savitribai Phule was an important figure in both social and educational reform in 1800s India. Along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, she stood up against injustice and fought hard for women’s rights, as well as campaigning for widows, rape victims, and caste system untouchables. Phule became a teacher, and in 1848 she founded India’s first women’s school in Bhide Wada in Pune. In addition, she opened a care centre for pregnant rape victims, and a well in her home from which the untouchables could drink.
Zainab Salbi is another key pioneer featured in the infographic, having made serious headway in women’s access to education in recent years. After growing up in war-torn Iraq, she moved to the United States aged 19, and decided to dedicate her adult life to women’s rights and freedom. Four years later, she founded the humanitarian organisation Women for Women International, helping women in countries affected by war and conflict, by offering them the skills, knowledge, and support needed to rebuild their lives.
From primary school through to university and beyond, the dedication of pioneers campaigning around the world has meant that a world of opportunities has been opened up to women. Enabling this access to education provides women with knowledge and empowerment, and leads to countless socio-economic benefits – on both an individual and global scale.
One of the main advantages is the alleviation of poverty for economically marginalised women. Through better education, women have the potential to unlock professional careers with higher salaries – rather than ending up in insecure low-wage jobs. This narrows the pay gap between men and women – for example, in Pakistan, it’s been noted that gaining a secondary education means that women earn 70% of what men earn, compared to only 51% with a primary education. Although still far from perfect, it certainly holds positive ramifications for the economy as a whole, spurring on growth and productivity.
A second advantage is with regards to health and health awareness. Basic health education leads to higher rates of contraceptive usage, in turn leading to a lower level of sexually transmitted infections among women, their partners, and their children. The WHO (World Health Organisation) has highlighted how this is particularly relevant in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Moreover, providing women with basic health education helps to reduce child deaths and maternal death in childbirth, and improves child nutrition – the infant mortality rate of babies whose mothers are illiterate is double that of those whose mothers have attended primary school. According to UNESCO, 1.7 million children could be saved from stunted growth due to malnutrition, if all women had a primary education.
Improving women’s educational levels not only helps women, but their families and communities as well – for example, it’s also been shown to increase political and civic involvement in terms of voting or holding office.
The bigger picture – gender equality
Women’s equality in access to education is evidently a vital “game-changer” for breaking the cycle of disparity and discrimination facing society today, and it affects multiple facets of life.
However, this global struggle is part of a much bigger picture – that of gender equality.
As defined by UN Women (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women), gender equality refers to “the equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys”. It’s about understanding that – despite our differences – our privileges and duties should not depend on our gender.
Since World War II, organisations such as UN Women and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) have made strong forward progress in combating some of the challenges we face in achieving gender equality, but as with access to education, there is still a huge amount more to do. Alongside education, key gender equality human rights issues include violence against women, sexual and reproductive health and rights, freedom of movement, and employment and the workplace.
Achieving equality in the 21st century
So are we any closer to achieving women’s equality in access to education? Looking back at the infographic, it’s clear that the global situation has come a long way thanks to these pioneers campaigning for change. In some countries, for example the United States, there are actually more women in tertiary education than men.
On the other hand, it’s clear that we’re still not quite there. Although the gap between girls and boys enrolling in primary education has closed in most countries, 54% of children not in primary school are girls. Gender equality remains a distant goal for many countries, and women will continue to be denied equal opportunities throughout life until this is achieved. It looks like there’s no rest for our campaigning pioneers just yet.