Girls’ education and the value of entitlement

Article Date

16 July 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

In case you missed it, Monday was the second-annual “Malala Day,” a celebration designated by the UN to honor Malala Yousafzai, the brave Pakistani teenager targeted by the Taliban for her activism for girls’ education. After surviving being shot on her school bus, Malala has gone on to be an even louder advocate for girls’ education and rights. She has written a book, participated in countless interviews around the world and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. What were you doing at 17?

Admittedly, when I was Malala’s age, I had only just begun to appreciate how valuable an education is, and how uncertain it is for so many people. At 17, I spent part of my summer volunteering in a poor, rural community in El Salvador. That was the first time I was truly exposed to the various challenges children, especially girls, faced when trying to pursue an education. There were girls in the community who stopped going to school because their families couldn’t afford to educate both their sons and daughters. I was outraged to learn this because, drawing from my own experiences, I would’ve been furious if my parents let my brother go to school but not me.

It was through my own continued education in college – I just graduated this May – that I really began to learn about why girls are denied an education. Why is it that when investing in education, families often don’t see the same value and potential in girls that they do in boys?

An event I recently had the pleasure of attending at the Brookings Institution touched on this question. The event, called #GirlsEdu, was hosted by the Center for Universal Education and was meant to create a platform to discuss barriers girls around the world face in terms education. There, panelists addressed steps the international community can and should take to advocate for stronger policies and programs that encourage girls’ education. During the event, Lucy Lake, chief executive officer of Camfed International, posed what I think was one of the most important questions to consider when discussing girls and school: In terms of receiving an education, do girls feel entitled or do they feel indebted?

The reason I think this question is so important is because it addresses how the value placed on a girl can affect her own attitudes and confidence. After hearing this question, I thought about how I’ve been fortunate enough to never doubt that I should be in school. That sense of entitlement has enabled me to advocate for myself throughout my schooling and, in turn, my education has given me the knowledge and confidence necessary to face the world head on.

We must not only address the infrastructural barriers girls face in pursuit of an education—e.g. school buildings, uniforms, and tuition—but also the social barriers that inhibit girls, their families and their communities from recognizing girls’ value. At the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), we study the intersection of experiences in the lives of girls and women, as well as the obstacles they encounter, in order to assess how best to empower them. What we’ve found is that when girls and women are undervalued, those attitudes jeopardize women and girls’ quality of life. This hampers the overall prosperity of societies that don’t give half the world’s population the credit they’re due.

For example, ICRW has long studied the impact of child marriage on girls’ health, education and overall wellbeing. Around the world, when girls are forced to marry, they often lose their right to an education and future economic stability. In India, a groundbreaking government program called “Our Daughter, Our Wealth” – which ICRW evaluated – used cash incentives to encourage families in the state of Haryana to delay marrying off their daughters. We found that families who participated in the program valued their daughters more and, as a result, often kept them in school.

While such efforts are promising, girls still face a number of hurdles, including violence, that limit their ability to reach their potential. Again, this idea of “value” is core; undervaluing the rights, contributions and role of women in society is a key reason violence occurs. In a recently-released ICRW study, “The Making of Sexual Violence: How Does A Boy Grow Up to Commit Rape?” in which researchers analyzed men’s attitudes towards rape in Chile, Croatia, India, Mexico and Rwanda, we found that when men don’t place a high worth on women’s agency or bodies, they are far more likely to commit acts of sexual violence. Additionally, men who held more rigidly masculine attitudes were three times more likely to perpetrate sexual violence than men with equitable views. That is why programs like CARE’s “Young Men’s Initiative” are so promising. ICRW worked with CARE, Promundo, and local partners in evaluating the progressive program designed to encourage adolescent boys to reflect on unhealthy gender norms, violent behaviors and their treatment of women and girls in the Balkans. The program offered boys a safe, supportive place inside and outside of school to question dominant gender norms through interactive workshops and off-site retreats. The curriculum and programming ultimately helped to alter their view of how gender dynamics and narrow understandings of masculinity are harmful to not only women, but men, too. Overall, ICRW’s evaluation of the program found that boys’ attitudes toward women had improved and that they became less tolerant of violence. Our analysis is evidence that boys can—and should—play a key role in shifting attitudes about violence and the value of women.

As ICRW research shows, there are a number of issues facing girls that need to, and can be, addressed in conjunction with education initiatives, including preventing child marriage and gender-based violence. We cannot solve one problem while ignoring a host of others. Women and girls need a seat at the table and they need to know they have every right to be there.

Following in Malala’s footsteps, we must continue working to reaffirm girls’ opportunity to receive an education in a healthy, safe environment for no other reason than because they’re entitled to it.