“Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” said the new American president last week at a state-funded religious school in Florida.
You can say that again – grotesque disparities in access to a quality education because of gender, race, ethnicity, religion and income level reflect equally gross disparities in rights. When a girl or boy is denied a good education, she or he is denied the right to grow, learn, earn, engage as an active citizen and realize her or his full human potential.
These factors are interrelated: the confluence of poverty, strife, climate change, and displacement decimates the future prospects for the young. Just look at Syria, Somalia, or South Sudan, where these factors have conspired to steal the future from an entire generation, with no end in sight.
Moreover, as ONE Campaign rightly asserts, poverty itself is sexist. With poverty comes poor infrastructure, poor health, and a poor preparation for the rigors of school; with sexism comes limited opportunity, extreme vulnerability, and the inability to exercise one’s full agency and freedoms, the core of the rights to which the president presumably referred.
Getting these 130 million girls back in school requires an unprecedented focus on the right to education for all – girls, boys, women, men, and marginalized populations. Until everyone is free to learn, think, and move forward, we can never enjoy equality or reap the benefits of those still-elusive rights.
Many groups are unable to exercise their rights these days. Denying women and girls here and abroad control over their own bodies and their reproductive freedoms inhibits their right and access to an education. Denying transgender students their right to use a bathroom consonant with their gender identity is simply cruel, making it almost impossible for this already threatened population to feel sufficiently comfortable at school to be able to learn.
To build a just and productive society, we need to assure quality education for special needs learners, overage students, non-native speakers and prisoners. Diverting public resources to strengthen private and parochial schools, rather than investing in public education, only exacerbates the existing crisis and is dangerously short-sighted.
We must ensure that all curricula are ethical and inclusive. Teaching that reinforces divisive stereotypes rather than ethical, critical thinking creates a wounded, malleable citizenry caught in a phony zero-sum game in which the advancement of ‘the other’ only deepens one’s own sense of loss.
In short, everyone must have access to a robust academic, civic, and ethical education, so that girls can thrive and grow into women capable of raising healthy, educated children and families.
This doesn’t mean that we won’t make a world-rocking difference by helping girls. In fact, as the World Bank president has affirmed, investing in girls is the most efficient development investment there is.
At WomenStrong International, we are helping more than 12,000 girls and women get the education they need to lift themselves out of extreme urban poverty. But this is just the beginning.
When you add in the parents of each of the girls, who now need to worry less about their daughters’ future health, employability, and earning power, the number of people helped by educating these girls jumps to more than 36,000.
As experts attest, each additional year in school delays a girl’s marriage, lowers her risk of dying in pregnancy or in childbirth, and increases her future income by a full 10 percent. When women earn more, they spend more on meeting their families’ needs. Educated women also have fewer children, each of whom is more likely to survive and to go to school. Including the families these girls will create and anchor over the decades to come, we’re talking now about an additional 50,000 people — husbands, children, future earners — whose live will be affected by the girls we educate today. Even without considering other family members likely to be better off when a girl is educated – siblings, grandparents, extended family or friends – more than 86,000 people are being helped. Educating just 1 girl now touches the lives of at least 6 others.
A relatively small investment shows big returns today and for years to come. The impact is clear and the goal achievable: we must recognize that #GirlsCount. In honor of this International Women’s Day, make a proactive investment in a safer, healthier and more humane world by helping a girl stay in school.