A version of this article appeared in the New Zealand Herald on October 12, 2012.
On Tuesday, Malala Yousufzai, a fourteen year old school-girl and activist was shot in the head and the neck by a Taliban gunman in northwestern Pakistan. According to the New York Times Malala “is a champion of girl’s education and a potent symbol of resistance to militant ideology”. Why was she shot? According to a Taliban spokesman ““She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it.”
Girls are forbidden from attending school in Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Malala’s father ran a school for girls which was shut down by the Taliban in 2009. Malala seems to have survived the attack but is still to regain consciousness. The Taliban has promised to try again.
I am going to leave aside the heart-breaking question of exactly how a society gets to a point where a fourteen year old has to take on the mantle of being a champion of female education and the face of resistance to militancy. I am also going to side-step the question of what kind of theological movement teaches its followers that it is okay to shoot a fourteen year old girl for demanding nothing other than the right to be educated.
For now, I will concentrate on why educating women in under-developed countries is important, something that does not seem to be widely understood. Providing education for women is not only a way of ensuring gender equality but has far more profound implications for the economic development of poor countries.
In fact if I am asked to suggest a single policy intervention that will have the maximum impact on poverty across the world it is this: educate the girls.
Interviews of parents in five states in north India report that as much as 10 percent of them believed that it was not important for girls to be educated, while only up to 1 percent believed the same for boys. Fifty-seven percent wanted their sons to study “as far as possible,” while only 28 percent wanted the same for their daughters.
Clearly, providing education for girls improves their employment prospects and addresses issues of gender equality. This is important and a worthy goal to achieve in and of itself.
But are there other positive fallouts from educating the women? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes.
James Wolfensohn, the former President of the World Bank, points out that education for girls influences literally all aspects of development. It leads to lower child and maternal mortality rates, increased educational levels of their children and better management of natural resources. Collectively all of these are essential pre-conditions for successful economic growth.
More education for girls also enables more women to attain positions of leadership and it has been shown that increased female participation in government leads to reduced corruption.
Other studies have found strong positive correlation between mothers’ education and earnings and child health. Incidentally the correlation for mothers is much stronger than that between father’s education and earning and child health outcomes.
Not only does higher education translate into higher income for women, research suggests in developing countries that income or assets in the hands of women is associated with more money being spent on household nutrients, health and housing and less on things like alcohol and tobacco. This is one reason why, around the world, many micro-finance organizations like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, make their loans exclusively to women.
Closer to home, John Gibson of the University of Waikato studies the relationship between women’s education and stunting in children using data from Papua New Guinea. Stunting refers to short stature on the part of children due to poor living conditions and malnourishment. Gibson finds that mother’s education has three times as large an effect compared to father’s education on reducing the risk of stunting in children, even after making allowances for other factors like overall household wealth and parental health.
The bottom-line is incontrovertible: societies that do a better job of educating their girls experience better overall economic outcomes than those who fail to do so.
As for me when I go home tonight I am going to hug my two girls close to my chest, ignoring their embarrassment at such effusive display of fatherly affection and hope that in their lifetime they will be able to live in a world where no teenage girl is shot simply for demanding the right to education and equal treatment.