Five grassroots perspectives on the complex link between girls' education and economic empowerment.
These stories from grassroots leaders in the World Pulse network shed light on the roots of global economic disparity between men and women. Persistent inequities often begin for girls long before they enter the workforce: In many places, girls are the first to be pulled out of school for caregiving roles, and last in line for opportunities.
The world has made strides toward fulfilling an important Millennium Development Goal set out in 2000: To achieve gender equality in education by 2015. The UN reports that equality in primary education between girls and boys has been met. However, inequalities remain at higher levels of education. In many countries, women still face discrimination in access to education, work, and participation in decision-making.
The experiences in these stories suggest paths towards women’s economic independence and equal participation. Zoneziwoh from Cameroon writes about the need to end child marriage while R.A Toma in Bangladesh emphasizes family support for girls’ education while. Taban Kamala of Uganda is working on designing culturally relevant education programs while Saren Keangin Cambodia pushes the edges of culture and tradition. And Joy Spencer challenges the conventional wisdom that education always leads to women’s financial success.
Zoneziwoh | Cameroon
“I have huge dreams and won’t allow anyone–no man–to obstruct those dreams.”
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““I refuse to walk in my mum’s shoes,” says Mister, a 14-year-old child bride, explaining how she was forced to marry a man almost three times her age.”
“It all started when Mister left the city and traveled to the village to spend the summer holidays with her grandmother. Mister’s mother had joked about her meeting a husband in the village. She never took the conversation seriously until months later, when she realized her mother’s primary intention of sending her to the village was to marry her off.”
“Mister’s mom was a single mother, a child bride herself who was married off to an old man when she was still a minor. The mother suffered abuse, neglect, and violence in her marriage. Around age 20, she escaped the abusive marriage.”
“But per tradition, the consequences were that she could only re-marry if her “arranged” husband chose to liberate her. Like Mister’s mother, there are many more victims in Bafanji, a northwest region of Cameroon, whose tales remain untold.”
“It was weeks before school resumed and all Mister wanted was to begin the new school year and learn new things while living with her great-grandmother.”
“Weeks into her time in the village, Mister started hearing rumors of a man wanting to marry her cousin. She was astonished and could not believe a middle-aged man would be attracted to a 14 year-old girl.”
““I found it absurd!” she says: “... In my mind, I knew it was wrong and had wished my opinion would matter. Little did I know the whole marriage arrangement was not actually about my cousin but me. My mother went on to arrange my wedding without my knowledge.””
“Mister felt lied to and cheated. “No matter how I tried to explain my passion for education, my mum did not understand,” Mister says. “She kept reminding me of how I have to struggle to score a pass, and how schooling is for those who get good grades so it would be best for me to get married. If I wanted to continue my education, I could do that in my husband’s home.””
“That fall, while some students were working hard to excel in their studies, Mister was fighting for her future life. “It was a big distraction to me,” Mister recalls. “I could not concentrate on my studies the way I had planned.””
“Fearing her mother would disown her, Mister accepted the marriage proposal from the man. In January 2014, in the middle of the academic term, Mister was removed from school and taken to the capital city, Yaoundé, to meet her husband.”
““A few months after the wedding, he wanted me to get pregnant,” says Mister. “And I made him understand that the whole marriage is against my wish and if he wants me to give him kids, he better wait for 2025 because not until then shall I be ready to give birth.””
“The couple fought every night, shouting at the top of their lungs. Her husband would hit her and leave her outside to sleep.”
“Just four months after their wedding, Mister’s husband asked her to leave his house after beating her several times.She was happy to leave tocontinue with her studies.To Mister’s shock, after two weeks back home, her mother made her return to her husband, saying "there is no marriage without a problem.””
“When she returned to her husband, Mister decided to take her life in her hands. “I refused to do anything,” she says. “I knew nothing I did or said would liberate me, so it was better I just sat and saw what life brought each day.””
“This continued for a couple of months, Mister says, and it was not long until she was asked to leave again.“I felt liberated," she says. "Finally, I left!””
“Mister is back to living with her mother, unmarried."I do not ever dream of getting married in such a way again and to such a man,” she says. “Never! My plan is go back to school. I also believe that my mother has learned her lesson and will never support such an idea."”
““I have huge dreams and won’t allow anyone–no man–to obstruct those dreams,” she says.”
R.A Toma | Bangladesh
“Thanks to my family’s support, I have been able to graduate from an international university. Now I dare to dream of a life of my own.”
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“My father once told me about one of my aunts who was forced to drop out of school in order to get married. She was a brilliant student with a strong desire to continue her studies; however, her family and society believed the ultimate goal of a woman’s life was to marry.”
“Through marriage, her family believed the traditional roles of a woman, such as cooking and staying home to take care of family, would be preserved. They believed that education had no value for a woman because in a patriarchal society, a woman is bound to play a role that the society expects of her even if she is educated. Guided by these ideas, the community did not consider my aunt’s wish for higher education, and she was forced to marry.”
“This family story presents a picture of a society with customs and practices that subordinate and disrespect women, perpetuating gender inequality. Even though the incident occurred 37 years ago in a Bangladeshi community, the recent condition of women in this particular region has not changed much compared to other places. These barriers to education still exist, in which many young girls are deprived of education or higher education because of societal customs and practices.”
“It is also important to stress that there are numerous women who were and are able to overcome the barriers; however, the number of women such as my aunt who are unable to challenge these barriers cannot be ignored. The imposed restrictions not only disregard these women’s right to education, but cause communities to miss out on the potential contributions of women that could play a significant role in their development.”
“My aunt’s experience motivated my father in making education accessible to his children. His voice against my aunt’s marriage was not heard, so he promised himself he would leave the community for the sake of his daughters’ future. In the new community, with the help of my parents, my two sisters and I have received many opportunities to become educated and self-reliant. My parents have played significant roles in recognizing our talents and allowing us to discover ourselves.”
“Thanks to my family’s support, I have been able to graduate from an international university. Now I dare to dream of a life of my own. A family plays an important role in shaping a woman’s life and future. In Bangladesh, children are highly dependent on their parents and almost all decisions are made by their parents. It also means that women’s access to education largely depends on their families.”
“I believe that if families become aware of the importance of women’s education, societies will automatically become influenced and more supportive toward it. Therefore, I think that along with the steps to ensure accessibility to education for women, awareness programs should be developed for their families to underscore the importance of their education. Facilitated effectively, such programs could break barriers to education for women.”
TABAN ASEGA KAMALA| UGANDA
“Our objective was to ensure Muslim women who had lagged behind in education would get an opportunity to study in their own school.”
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“I am a 38-year-old Ugandan man. As a child, I saw girls in our community failing to advance to a higher level of education. In the 1980s, it was the males who remained in school. My own sister could not complete primary school. Since she wasn’t in school, she eventually got married ahead of me. She was infected with HIV and now lives HIV- positive.”
“Later I learned through interactions that parents did not trust their daughters to study, as they imagined the daughters would get married before completing a higher level of education and therefore the investment in their education was perceived as a waste of resources.”
“Most of our elders were forced to renounce their religion of Islam before being accepted into schools. This led to many Muslim parents looking at secular education as coercive and abusive of their rights. As Islam encourages early marriages, many parents saw investment in a girl’s education as non-beneficial. Other parents thought that if such girls got married, it would be their in-laws who would benefit from the education—not their family.”
“Because many parents in our area also stopped their education in primary school, a cycle of primary school dropouts marrying other primary school dropouts continues.”
“Many of our community members are polygamous, with an average of six to seven children. Many of our people are not formally employed but work as casual laborers.”
“When I grew up, in 2001, we started a primary school called Noor Islamic Primary School in Moyo District, Uganda. This school was started by the efforts of the parents, who put up two classrooms. I started as a volunteer teacher with other friends. After about eight months, I became the Chairperson of the School Management Committee and worked until December 2012.”
“Our objective was to ensure Muslim women who had lagged behind in education would get an opportunity to study in their own school where they felt safe, and the terms of the education could be modified in such a way that it suited the locals.”
“We handed the school to the government in 2002 but retained oversight so that what is done in the school is in line with the aspirations of the parents. The school enrolls both Muslim and Christian pupils under the Universal Primary Education Policy of the Government of Uganda, in which the government employs teachers and pays their salaries.”
“Our approach has helped keep many girls in school. Since the school’s inception, female students have outnumbered the boys.”
Saren Keang | Cambodia
“Both the elders and youth should be pushed to think differently.”
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“When I was in seventh grade, I met a passionate girl who desperately wanted to continue her education. We were selling some snacks during a religious ceremony in a pagoda. When no one happened to be buying our food, we discussed school. Tears fell down her cheeks as she shared her story. I could not help but cry as well.”
““Oh… I could have seen you again at the high school, you know, if I were to continue my studies,” she said, her eyes turning red. I knew something was wrong.”
““What grade are you in now?” I asked.”
““Sixth,” she answered. “But I won’t be going to high school because my parents have already decided that I have to quit."”
““I have two other brothers who are in grade five now. I need to help my parents earning money to support their education. We will have to buy them bicycles and new clothes for the next year.””
““But why not for you as well?” I asked.”
““They don’t have money,” she replied. “I’m the eldest sister. I’m responsible for my younger siblings. I have to sacrifice for them.””
“After the Khmer Rouge killed many men in Cambodia, and landmine accidents left others disabled or crippled, numerous wives became responsible for their families’ welfare. If you go to a market in Cambodia, you see mostly girls or women selling items. The general perception is that female sellers attract more customers.”
“As the result, middle and lower class families who face financial crisis often elect their daughters to quit school and earn money.”
“In the past, only boys were educated at pagodas with monks as tutors. In this modern time, there are schools for both boys and girls, but not everyone thinks girls should receive higher education. Yet, there is this strong burden placed on them to be responsible for their families’ welfare, especially when the girls are the eldest children.”
“Generally, people believe that girls do not need higher education because they will not stray far from the domestic sphere. A girl’s future is as a wife of a man who will take care of her. Before that, she should just help her parents earn money.”
“Both the elders and youth should be pushed to think differently. For youth, this could be done at schools and universities; for the elders, this could be done through small community discussions. We need to change the perception that boys should train to become doctors or engineers and girls should be limited to running shops and becoming wives.”
“If there were more women working in higher leadership positions, parents would start to see the value of continuing education. We need institutions similar to my university, the Asian University for Women, where girls and women are encouraged to think outside of the box. We want to let all women and girls recognize that they too have a capacity to pursue different political and societal roles—not just as a shopkeeper and a man's wife.”
Joy Spencer | US/Sierra Leone
“I find it problematic how we often hail education as a panacea to women’s issues.”
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For decades, the United Nations and hundreds of NGOs have promoted policies addressing issues that disproportionately affect women. One globally agreed-upon solution to tackling matters such as food insecurity, maternal mortality, poverty, and even HIV has been improving the educational prospects of women and girls. It is now almost a foregone conclusion that educating a woman equates to empowering a woman. The assumption is that empowering a woman will also solve a host of other problems.
As someone who benefited from educational investments, I do not dispute education plays a central role in development policies. I think of my aunt who obtained a PhD later in life 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 inspiring stories, I find it problematic how we often hail education as a panacea to women’s issues. This disturbs me because education simply cannot address all the obstacles that women face. If this were so, educated women would be immune from gender-based discrimination. Despite lacking a formal education, many women possess business acumen that has secured their economic independence. This is an important aspiration for women.
When it comes to education and empowerment, the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Different women. Different contexts. Different problems. Different solutions. Much of formal education is designed to prepare women for careers and gain sustenance in a formal workplace; however, throughout her lifetime a woman’s obligations or other societal barriers may limit her opportunities. There are many well-educated women who by choice or circumstance lose their economic advantage or become economically dependent on others.
InThe Price of MotherhoodAnn 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. Educated women in Saudi Arabia must contend with reluctant employers who interrupt the education to empowerment cycle. According to a November 2012 Washington Post article, “Of Saudis receiving unemployment benefits, 86% are women, and 40% of those women have college degrees.” While women in both of these scenarios are educated, they face obstacles that lead them to the same place—economic dependence and insecurity.
Women must be encouraged to seek and maintain their economic independence, regardless of their education level. 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 separating the two concepts we give women permission to become empowered through varied paths to economic independence—whether it is a formal education and career, a small business, or an informal trade. It is not so important how they get there, just that they can 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 we should ask how many women and girls have shifted from a state of economic dependence into independence. We should no longer be satisfied with a definition of women’s empowerment that does not take this into account.