For decades, the United Nations and hundreds of national NGOs have promoted various policies to address issues that disproportionately affect women. One globally agreed upon solution to tackling matters like food insecurity, maternal mortality, poverty and even HIV, has been to improve the educational prospects of women and girls. It is now almost a foregone conclusion that educating a woman = empowering a woman—whatever that means. What follows is the assumption that empowering a woman also serves to solve a whole host of other problems. I think this is a myth.
As a beneficiary of great investments in my own schooling, I do not dispute education’s right to play a central role in development policies—especially if these policies are designed to better the lives of women. In fact I have seen education change the lives of too many women to deny its importance. I think of my aunt who later in life obtained a PhD and earned enough money to build her own home. I also think of a woman who for years sold fish to our family and changed her daughter’s future by saving up enough money to send her to school.
Despite these stories of inspiration, what I find problematic about how we often speak of education is the way in which it is hailed as a panacea to women’s issues. This disturbs me because women’s education simply cannot address all the obstacles that women face. If this were so then educated women would be completely immune from gender-based discrimination. What is more important for a woman to aspire to is achieving and maintaining her economic independence. It is important to make this distinction because, depending on the context, a woman’s economic independence may not be a prize that exists only on the other side of a formal education. There are many women who despite lacking a formal education possess a business acumen that has secured their economic independence.
Different women. Different contexts. Different problems. Different solutions. This reality is what informs my belief that when it comes to education and empowerment, the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Much of formal education is designed to prepare women to develop careers and gain sustenance from a formal workforce. However, through her lifetime a woman’s obligations or other societal barriers may limit her abilities in this area. There are many well-educated women who by choice or circumstance lose their economic advantage or become economically dependent on others. In “The Price of Motherhood“ Ann Crittenden describes this as an earnings loss of more than $1 million dollars for the average US college-educated woman who leaves the workforce for an extended period of time to care for children. In Saudi Arabia, educated women must contend with reluctant employers who interrupt their automatic “education is empowerment” cycle. According to a November 2012 Washington Post article “[o]f Saudis receiving unemployment benefits, 86 percent are women, and 40 percent of those women have college degrees.” While women in both of these contexts are educated, they face obstacles that lead them to the same place—economic dependence and insecurity.
Regardless of their educational level, women must be encouraged to seek and maintain their economic independence. If we tell women and girls that gaining an education automatically means they are empowered then we are only telling one side of the story. By delinking the two concepts we give women permission to become empowered through the varied paths to economic independence that exist. This may be through a formal education and career, it may be through a small business or it may be through an informal trade. It’s not so important how they get there, just that they get there.
When judging how successful our society has been in “empowering” women we should move on from simply asking how many women and girls we have educated. Instead what we should ask is how many women and girls we have shifted from a state of economic dependence into one of economic independence. We should no longer be satisfied with a definition of women’s empowerment that does not demand as evidence of this achievement a woman’s corresponding economic independence.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Op-Eds.