Two thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. That’s 493 million women: more than the populations of the USA and Canada combined or enough people to fill Wembley stadium 5470 times. How depressing is that?
Improving equality in education is severely overlooked by governments who have more ‘pressing’ issues to deal with. Poverty, illness, the economy, overpopulation. Here’s the thing: evidence shows that improving women’s education reduces all these problems.
Educated women earn up 20% more, and have fewer, healthier children who are more likely to stay in education themselves. By teaching a girl to at least primary school level, you are not just improving her self-esteem and well-being, but that of her family as well. And so the cycle continues.
As a result of this, a country can increase their social and economic development significantly. It is clear that female education has an incredible power to transform societies. Unfortunately, this power is often seen as a threat.
Educated, opinionated girls are an extremist’s nightmare. Proof of this fact was given, in the most horrific way, when the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria. The abduction shocked the world and led to an international campaign to ensure the safe return of the children.
The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls started trending on Twitter and within a few weeks the movement had exploded. Since then, over 3.3 million tweets have used this hashtag and celebrities have thrown themselves behind the cause. Michelle Obama, Alicia Keys, Angelina Jolie and David Cameron ensured that this was the story on everyone’s lips.
But that was months ago and 219 girls are still missing. It is feared that many have been sold into slavery or forced marriages. Small groups have escaped from Boko Haram but the rest remain imprisoned over 100 days later. The story has dropped off mainstream news and you could be forgiven for thinking that the world has forgotten the Chibok girls; I know it seemed like that to me.
However, while news channels have moved on to other crises in other countries, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai is ensuring that the girls are not forgotten. Since being shot by the Taliban for speaking up about girls’ education, Malala has become one of the most prominent figures in the fight for gender equal schooling. After the Chibok kidnappings, she helped to spread the #BringBackOurGirls message and has visited Nigeria to meet the families of students who are still missing.
I am the same age as Malala and she is a personal hero of mine. Two weeks ago she was encouraging Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to contact the families of the missing girls. I’m pretty sure my greatest achievement that same week was managing to get out of bed before 10am. Not quite the same really…
The following quote is from Malala’s speech at the United Nations in 2013. It really resonated with me as it emphasised how simple it can be to completely transform the life of a child for the better – these are inspirational words.
“So let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.” – Malala Yousafzai
Malala survived her bullet wound after being airlifted to the UK, where she now lives. I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly proud to live in a country that is home to one of the most inspiring young voices in the world and the winner of an EU human rights award. She is still consistently campaigning for the right for all girls to go to school, as well as being a student herself. Now that’s impressive.
I am guilty, like many people my age, of forgetting how lucky I am to receive the education that I do – at 7 o’clock on a Monday morning there is nothing I would like more than to not go to college! I take it for granted that I can go to school and study anything that I want to without fearing for my life. A lot of girls my age do not have that privilege. Many are still too scared to walk to school because of the risk it poses – abductions and hate crimes towards schoolchildren are all too common. The fact that many girls continue to attend lessons shows just how determined they are to make a better life for themselves.
All the research points to one thing: educating girls can only have positive outcomes. Yet this is not enough to guarantee the schooling that is so desperately desired by many. It’s going to be a long fight to change attitudes and academic systems so that female education is brought up to the level that is needed – but I can’t think of anything I’d rather fight for.