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'Girls' education is the global civil rights issue of our time'
As a longtime champion of girls’ rights, I’ve spoken many times about the importance of giving more girls around the world the education they deserve.
And one of the first questions I almost always hear is some variation of “What about the boys?” How, they ask, do we ensure boys’ needs aren’t ignored or diminished when we make special efforts to educate girls? In order to bring about better outcomes for girls, don’t we need to change the minds of boys and men first?
I now have a standard answer. I’ve just spent a lot of time detailing the structural and systematic exclusion of a largely marginalized and often vulnerable population. So why are you still only interested in the empowered group?
I’ll admit that my response is a bit flippant, designed for effect and for shifting the challenge of their question back on them. Further, it doesn’t fully address all the very real and difficult issues bound up in the question “What about the boys?”
During adolescence, the world of girls typically shrinks
But my ultimate answer is that girls’ empowerment initiatives must keep their eyes, first and foremost, on girls. In many societies, the obstacles keeping girls out of school or from realising their full potential are far greater than those faced by boys, and they require a higher level of effort and investment.
Direct economic, social and health investment in girls doesn’t just help girls and women; the evidence is overwhelming and conclusive that, as the wellbeing of girls and women improves, boys and men are better off, too.
During adolescence, the world of girls typically shrinks, while that of the boys expands. In order to engage girls socially and prepare them economically requires a higher level of effort and investment that prepares them to face the social, health and violence risks, as well as the economic challenges, that they uniquely face.
As boys and men see more educated girls in their midst, I believe they will be more likely to abandon their archaic perceptions of women as inferior and mere sexual objects with no meaningful role to play outside the home. Only as we create, so to speak, “facts on the ground” – that is to say, real and tangible change – will we have any chance of moving attitudes and perceptions in a positive direction.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make any effort to give boys a quality education and all the other building blocks of personal development. Indeed, approximately 27 million (or 47%) of the 58 million primary school-aged children out of school today around the globe are boys.
The obstacles keeping them out of school are: conflict and fragility, poverty, geography, disability, ethnic or religious discrimination and, quite simply, lack of local capacity to educate them. The international community has to continue to address those challenges if we are to achieve the goal of education for all.
But, in a world of finite resources, we have to spend more on educating girls and building their skills, especially in adolescence, when girls are faced with far greater social, health and economic risks. We have to account first for that imbalance. When we focus resources directly on girls’ empowerment, beginning with the poorest girls, boys and the rest of society benefit. Whereas “trickle down” doesn’t work, “trickle up and out” often does.
We have to prioritise which girls we should focus on most. Knowing, even among girls, there are distinct and critical differences based on economic status, health and disability, ethnicity, religion and geography, girls’ education efforts must focus on the most marginalised, not just the middle and upper classes.
We have to be conscious and supportive of the girls who need the most and who often are invisible within their communities and to the managers of empowerment programmes. For all these reasons, they require a much more targeted approach.
First-hand experience: my sisters faced challenges I never did
How did I, a young male, born and raised in a fairly conservative country, get so interested and passionate about girls’ empowerment? That’s another common question I am often asked, directly or otherwise. In short, it grew out of two sources: my own personal story and the story of my country.
I was raised in Sierra Leone by a single mother, alongside two sisters in what is one of the worst places in the world to be a girl. My mother separated from my father when I was young and has since then worked as a primary school teacher. She is educated. But the pay for a teacher like her was paltry. Aware of the circumstances for women in Sierra Leone, she had to work hard and use all her energy and ingenuity to make ends meet. To supplement her low pay, she sold everything – bread, cake, palm oil, whatever she could create with her own hands.
She was a teacher with a little bit of education herself, and despite many challenges, including at one point, fleeing the country for our lives, as refugees, she understood the power of learning. That makes me one of the lucky ones. Without my mother’s understanding of the value of education, I would not have received the education I did and would not be where I am today. It’s one small example of how educating a woman has multiple ripple effects for her family and the community around her.
But I was lucky not just to have an enlightened mother. I was fortunate also to be a boy. My two sisters faced challenges I never did: threats of sexual violence, men coming into contact with them and, even when the girls were fairly young, asking them to marry them. As we got older, there were signals from many directions suggesting that their lives seemed to matter less, even though I was always convinced they were smarter than me. In retrospect, I can now see what happened: society spent so much time telling them, and girls like them, that there were higher expectations for me only because I was a boy.
Our society not only treats girls badly, it blames them for their plight
In Sierra Leone, about 90% of girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (or FGM), one of the highest rates in the world. Only 36% of women in Sierra Leone are literate, compared with 52% of men. Furthermore, 18% of girls are married by the age of 15, and 44% by the age of 18. It’s illegal but, with little enforcement of those laws, widespread.
Two out of 10 women aged 20 to 49 report having their first sexual intercourse before they are 15 years old, rising to seven out of 10 by 18. Over their lifetime, if present patterns continue, 75 % of all adolescent girls in Sierra Leone will be a single mother at some point and that figure in Liberia is over 90%. Much of the single motherhood arises from having babies before marriage, unstable marriages, and the absence of male social and economic support.
Fitting into that pattern, many girls I knew in my community who dropped out of school were subjected to FGM and were forced into early marriages. As these girls reached puberty, their social space narrowed as boys’ expanded. It didn’t matter that so many of the girls were smart and showed lots of potential, more than a lot of the boys. It also didn’t seem to matter that the children of uneducated or poorly educated women were most likely to be caught in a continuous downward spiral of poverty, ill health and other challenges.
The more I saw this pattern, the more I sensed something was not right. Our society not only treated girls badly, it then blamed them for their plight, saying they weren’t smart or hard-working enough to learn. And when they were sexually abused, it was somehow their fault. That, at least, was how many men, and the boys these men influenced, saw it.
In my mid-teens, I befriended a small group of other boys who talked about education, and who all knew that improving the odds for girls to get schooling was important – not only to those girls but to us, too.
When we were between 15 and 18, we started a campaign, through the Children’s Forum Network, that helped change the laws to deal with child marriage, codify sexual violence laws in the country and ensure compulsory primary education for girls. I was the first child to testify about this to the national Truth Commission, and I collected similar testimonies from others. One of our recommendations was to pass the Child Rights Act, which was finally enacted in 2007.
We were motivated by justice and human rights. We were raising our voices and created a platform to talk about girls’ rights. We still took a lot of flak from friends and some relatives, who didn’t understand what we were doing and accused us of being too influenced by the west or of lacking a grasp of reality.
I wish I could say that, over the last decade since we fought for girls’ rights in Sierra Leone, we dramatically transformed how men there view educating and empowering girls. The truth is that, while there has been some change, it has been much less than we would have hoped. It’s still a work in progress.
And that is not limited to Sierra Leone. There are far too many places around the world where it is difficult to be a girl. My own personal story is emblematic of what is happening elsewhere. Approximately 15 million girls worldwide are forced into marriage every year and in 27 countries there are large districts where at least 15% of girls are married before age 15.
According to the International Center for Research on Women, one-third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18, and one in nine are married before the age of 15. Unesco data shows that “nearly 1% of the world’s adult population is still not literate; two-thirds of them are women”. Those empirical numbers confirm what I’ve seen anecdotally from my experiences across the continent and what I’ve read about.
Engaging boys: ending poverty helps us all
I have personally designed and implemented programmes in several African nations aimed at encouraging boys to understand the value of girls’ education, so I’m certainly not against spending some of the valuable girls’ education resources on boys.
In Ethiopia, I helped to lead an innovative initiative, supported by Girl Hub, called Yegna (which means “ours” in Amharic) aimed at inspiring girls to believe in themselves and to change boys’ and society’s minds about the value of girls in society.
We created clubs, radio dramas, talk shows and a documentary on the topic. Those are useful and can work when paired with a more targeted, girl-centric programmatic approach. We worked with local groups and, in some cases, religious institutions to get their help spreading the gospel, if you will, of girls’ education.
The medium of engagement matters. I worked with a group of boys in Ethiopia who told me they cared about equality issues but would feel emasculated if they were seen as promoting girls’ issues. Creating the right platforms and the right messages reinforces incentives for all and aims to make it cool to be part of male gender clubs. In Liberia, we came up with the idea of being G-Positive (a play on gangsta, but standing really for gender).
In Ethiopia, we created clubs for boys and girls with T-shirts that identified them publicly and proudly as part of a growing group dedicated to promoting girls. Delivering messages through mass media alone doesn’t work. They must be reinforced with small social groups, which make it easier for boys, who essentially become positive deviants, to have their behaviour approved by their peers.
These approaches also have to answer the question: what’s in it for the boys? They have to show that ending poverty benefits us all and eases the burden men may feel they have to provide solely for their families. As Plan International has pointed out, educating girls has enormous economic, health and social benefits across a society, which shows up in decreased under-five mortality, greater agricultural productivity, improved nutrition, increases in per-capita income and GDP growth, lower fertility rates, and much more.
There are civil society benefits to educating girls, as well. Investing in girls can diminish the pipeline of boys who might end up in groups such as Boko Haram, the Taliban or al-Shabaab. In response to these groups’ efforts to, in part, keep girls out of school by terrorising them, many people call for focusing primarily on boys, the recruits for these extremist movements.
But the answer to this difficult challenge is to double down on efforts to keep girls in school, to defy them, as Malala Yousafzai and other courageous girls have done. We know that when the parents – especially mothers – of young boys who are vulnerable to recruitment are educated, they will be much less likely to allow their sons to go to Boko Haram or the Taliban. That’s why valiant efforts today to keep schools safe from violence are so critical to the future.
I believe girls’ education is the global civil rights issue of our time. Girls’ education and empowerment initiatives must also appeal to boys’ and men’s sense of justice, because even as those boys and men have bought into and perpetuate cultures that devalue girls and women, they do care about injustice. We need to show them that it’s more fashionable and even masculine to join the fight against injustice and do something about it. We need to show them that it’s about our sisters, mothers and daughters. We have to make it personal.
The best way to level the playing field is not to use finite resources meant for gender equality on boys and men, but to empower girls and women directly. For everyone’s good, we need to get them in school, learning, growing and, ultimately, transforming their communities.
This piece is part of child rights organisation Plan International’s 2015 State of the World’s Girls Report Unfinished Business of Girls’ Rights. The organisation has been publishing the annual series since 2007 with the objective of marking progress and analysing the barriers that still stand in the way of gender equality. The reports are part of Plan International’s Because I am a Girl global campaign dedicated to girls’ rights.
An advocate for global education, a girl champion and former refugee from Sierra Leone, Chernor Bah is an associate at the Population Council, leading a collaborative initiative to provide solutions to young women affected by the Ebola outbreak.