This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, shared by deserving recipients Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, shines important light on the children of impoverished countries. Through their work on behalf of children’s rights we are reminded of the urgency of now when it comes to girls’ education and to child exploitation for financial gain.
Significantly, the award came as the United Nations marked the International Day of the Girl Child, a day to promote girls’ human rights and to highlight gender inequalities that still lead to various forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by a huge number of the world’s girls. That is not to diminish the painful lives boys lead in many corners of the world. But the issue of girls’ education that Malala speaks to is so critical to a country, a community, a family, a girl, a woman, and her own children that it deserves the special attention a 17-year old activist – the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – has brought to light.
“Extremists have shown what frightens them most,” Malala has said. “It’ a girl with a book.” She is hardly exaggerating. Just think how ISIS and the Taliban and Boka Haram confine females to sexual slavery by way of faux marriages.
Sadly, history is replete with unnamed multitudes of women denied an education. In medieval times, for instance, women who were unmarriageable or considered unruly were shunted off to convents. But there they found a haven free from subservience and perpetual childbearing, a place where they could read, write, discuss ideas – until the men in power realized how dangerous that was, and banned them from such activities in favor of religious devotion and endless embroidery.
Yet, here’s what we know about the value of girls’ education: It is central to a country’s development and improvement. It leads the way out of poverty. And it has a direct, proven impact on child and reproductive health, economic growth, environmental sustainability, national productivity, innovation, democratic values, and social cohesion.
In the World Bank’s new report, Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity, key findings include that “girls with little or no education are far more likely to be married [off] as children, suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own healthcare than better-educated peers; and enhanced education – the ability to make decisions and act on them – is a key reason why children of better educated women are less likely to be stunted; educated mothers have greater autonomy in making decisions and more power to act for their children’s benefit.”
We know that illiteracy is one of the strongest predictors of poverty and that every year of schooling increases individual wages for both men and women. We know that an educated, skilled workforce is one of the foundations of a knowledge-based society and that education makes vital contributions to lowering maternal and child mortality rates, protecting against HIV/AIDS, reducing fertility rates, and enhancing environmental awareness.
But let’s put a human face on this, as CAMFED, a UK-based non-profit organization dedicated to girls’ education, has. Suppose you’re a 12-year old girl, they suggest. You went to primary school, loved learning, and enjoyed interacting with your classmates. But you couldn’t go to secondary school because your family didn’t have the money for school fees, uniforms, or transport. Perhaps they thought it wasn’t safe. Or that your labor was needed at home. You therefore became a financial burden on your family and had to work to contribute money to the household. Young, lonely and sad, you are likely to have a baby before you are 15 or 16, maybe three children by the age of 20. You are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than your former classmates and your children are more likely to be malnourished than women who waited to have families. You have no power – no agency to make decisions – no say whatsoever over your life. And all you wanted to do was stay in school.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 24 million girls like that one. Overall in the world, there are 65 million girls who are not in school.
In poor countries, 60 percent of the present population is under 25 years of age. Without children’s rights, including access to education, how are we going to realize global peace and development? In conflict-ridden areas – proliferating at a staggering rate – how will we stop the violation of children and the continued violence that occurs from one generation to the next?
Thank Heaven for a new generation of young women, and men, symbolized by Malala Yousafzai. “I know I am not alone,” she told reporters on learning of her prize. “I think this is really the beginning. This decision sends a message that all people, regardless of language and religion, should fight for the rights of women, children and every human being.”
That includes policymakers and politicians as well as parents. Would that they had the will to join her quest.