Enforcing Girls' Access to Secondary Education: A Human Rights Imperative

"If I like a boy I cannot tell anybody about my choice because I am a girl. I like making friends with boys but being a girl I cannot do that. If somebody harasses me I would like to retaliate but since I am a girl I have to keep quiet. Being a girl, I have to take care of my honour and shame. Being a girl, I should give up my own wishes and expectations. Being a girl, I have to live life like a slave."

- P. 20 (Maharashtra)

This quote is an excerpt from an essay written by a participant in the FXB Center's Champions research project -- a study of Indian girls from low literacy backgrounds who make it to college despite the odds.

The study, like the phenomenally successful Girl Rising Campaign discussed at a recent Harvard School of Public Health Forum on Girls' Health and Education, provides texture and context to the statistics on the far-reaching effects of girls' education. It highlights the critical fact that enabling girls' education is not simply a matter of facilitating economic growth through skill development but of empowering young women with tools to keep their sanity, their dignity and control over their own destiny. Without access to education, impoverished young women from patriarchal backgrounds are destined to be passive spectators to rapid economic development while their better educated peers benefit from rapidly expanding opportunities.

What are girls' alternatives? Often, as the quote suggests, they are the prospect of early marriage, gender violence and domestic servitude. Small wonder then that youth suicide and mental disorders amongst young women are on the rise. Self-harm has now replaced maternal related illness as the leading cause of death amongst young women in India.

How can this moral imperative be realized? The Champions study shows that simply building schools is not the answer. The research demonstrates that the most common denominator of marginalized girls' educational success is the sustained presence of a personal advocate: someone, be it a parent, teacher, or sibling who actively believes in and promotes the girl's worth as a student, a trainee, a potentially productive member of society.

This enabling vision -- a substitute for the limiting view of young girls as simply future brides, mothers and housewives -- can assist young women to navigate familial economic insecurity and an under-resourced education system despite the odds. Societies must carefully generate the social supports needed by young women at the critical crossroads of adolescence, poverty and education to develop their resilience, self-confidence and educational engagement.

School construction, teacher training and scholarship guarantees -- important as they are -- are not enough. The Champions Project shows that girls can break away from oppressive gender norms such as child marriage and arduous household burdens if they are accompanied in their journey by advocates supporting them along the way -- advocates who take on some of the obstacles with the girls and allow them to develop their own resilience. The cost of inaction on this approach to girls' empowerment denies millions of girls who are potential champions access to sustained education and to the productive and rewarding life that they are entitled to.