Quality education is the UN’s fourth sustainable development goal. Gender equity is its fifth. Though they are categorized separately, these goals are deeply intertwined. Indeed, women and girls worldwide have significantly less access to education than their male counterparts – so disproportionately that some 66% of the world’s 774 million illiterate are women. This staggering statistic acutely underlines the global necessity of education for women. So, in honor of International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at five ways that education can improve the lives of all women and girls worldwide.
1. Education Decreases Women’s Poverty
Poverty is sexist. Lamentingly, like most socioeconomic burdens, poverty disproportionately affects women worldwide. Gender stereotypes, unintended pregnancies, lack of access to good jobs, and myriad other factors cause this inequality. According to Global Citizen, just one year of secondary school education can increase a woman’s lifetime earnings by up to 20 percent! Educating the world’s women and girls is clearly the key to transforming the cyclical nature of poverty into a cycle of prosperity.
2. Education Gives Women More Employment Opportunities
Namita Datta of the World Bank once said that women not only need more jobs, but better jobs. Many factors push women into careers they did not choose, such as occupational segregation and illiteracy. Education for women and girls can fix this problem. First, it equips them with more skills and knowledge, thus qualifying them for better jobs. Second, it decreases societal gender stereotypes, which promotes the acceptance of women in higher-earning and decision-making positions. If all women and girls receive a quality education, their employment opportunities will be greatly improved.
3. Education Leads to Fewer Unintended Pregnancies and Delayed Marriage
Pregnancies and marriages are blessings when they are wanted and expected. Unfortunately, this is not the case for a large number of women and girls worldwide. According to a 2014 article by Gilda Sedgh et al., some 40% of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended. That’s roughly 84 million women who unintentionally forfeit their right to choose when to have a child every year. Likewise, according to the NGO Girls Not Brides, one in every five women worldwide is married before the age of 18. The overwhelming majority of these marriages and pregnancies take place in developing regions, where socioeconomic conditions are already strained for women. Educating women and girls poses a solution. A study in the journal Reproductive Health found that educational status is one of the largest determinants of unintended pregnancies, with less-educated women being far more prone to them than those who complete primary or secondary school. Girls Not Brides also found that uneducated women are 3 times more likely to marry before the age of 18 than those who attend secondary school. Education thus empowers women to decide when to become both pregnant and married, leading to an increase in their socioeconomic status.
4. Education Improves Women’s Health
When women and girls are educated, they smarter decisions about their own health. Let’s take sexual health, for example. When public health advocates think of successful HIV cessation measures, they often think of Uganda in the 1990’s. The nation was successful in dramatically decreasing HIV contraction rates in school-age girls. According to an article by Marcella Alsan and David Cutler, the decrease was the direct result of higher secondary school enrollment rates for girls. This strategy should be applied at a global scale – educating women leads to better sexual health, which leads to lower rates of STI contraction. This could be especially useful in Sub-Saharan Africa, where young women are 2 times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than young men.
5. Education Increases Women’s Political Participation
Educating women doesn’t just make for more female politicians. It also means that women care more about participating in elections and political activism. A study out of Gombe State University in Nigeria found that there is a direct relationship between women’s educational attainment and political participation. Women participating in politics means that policies and politicians are not focused solely on the needs and wants of men – female opinions are just as important and participating in the political system ensures that their voices will be heard.
Throughout all five of these reasons, one factor that has not yet been mentioned permeates: rural women have less access to education than others. In Zambia, for example, 27% of rural women have no formal education, in comparison to 18% of men. The gravity of this issue is compounded by the fact that 60% of Zambia’s population lives in rural areas. Clearly, education for rural women and girls is of desperate need in the county.
One of several organizations working to address this inequality is Impact Network, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit working to address this inequality. We believe all students deserve access to quality education and currently serve to over 6,000 students in rural Zambia. Our schools not only cost less than government schools, but bring e-learning to technologically-deprived communities through tablets.
Impact Network is demonstrably devoted to keeping girls in school and gender equity in the classroom. One example of this is our Life Skills and Sexuality curriculum. According to Caroline Chibale, a facilitator for the program, Impact Network educates “children, especially the girl child. With the help of the Life Skills and Sexuality education as part of the curriculum in our schools, we want to help our girls to handle themselves in difficult situations and to get boys to support their peers in different stages of life.” Through programs like this, we hope to empower and educate each girl in the classroom to make life decisions that are best for her.
In short, education for women and girls is the most effective key to the UN’s sustainable development goals of quality education and gender equity. Through education, women are not only empowered to flourish socioeconomically and make better decisions about their health and future, but society in its entirety is bettered by an increased presence of female voices.