They say if you educate a woman you educate a nation, and yet Fatima Kelleher of the Guardian recently pointed out that over 490 million women are illiterate. The female right to education is an ongoing concern (one of my favourite people, Malala Yousafzai, is making her own efforts to address this issue as I write) despite it being the 21st century. It is startling to think that in this day and age, a large number of girls are not allowed the right to attend school, and are persecuted for doing so; yesterday, Boko Haram kidnapped another sixty women and schoolgirls in Nigeria simply because they believe Western learning should be forbidden.
Why women are not granted this basic freedom is mind-boggling. What exactly is the downside of the educated female? It stands to reason that a literate society will flourish; SIL International has found that, per capita, income in countries that have literacy rates of less than 55% average only 600 USD, whilst the income in countries that have an overall literacy rate of 96% is twenty-one times that figure at 12,600 USD. A country that refuses to offer education to a more-than-competent percentage of its population is only limiting its economic potential.
The general – and less than plausible – response is that women should concentrate on bearing and rearing, in lieu of education. Some may even fall back on the tired and absurd claim that males have a greater intellectual capacity than females and should be the ones to deal the complexities of work and business. Last year, a survey by LV=Insurers found that a cool 41% women earn more than their spouses and the Office for National Statistics has found that 5.3 million women in the UK are working mothers. Is the argument that women should not be involved in business legitimate when – as obvious as it may be – they are not only perfectly capable of succeeding in it, but can do so with a family at home?
Of course, this all assumes that education is important because it guarantees employment, which it does not. Society is still patriarchal; there is no point pushing women’s education rights if, at future job interviews, an equally matched male applicant is favoured over his female counterpart. For this reason, World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim suggests that we should not just educate women, but educate them in finance and on ways to create their own business. He has implied that a reduction in poverty is how one should measure change, not the number of graduates a society produces; Kim’s idea is to focus on women in base and middle social groups and invest in their creation of small businesses. Not only would this make long-term employment more achievable for women, but likely create jobs for others; evidence suggests that the biggest employers are not male, but female Small or Medium Enterprises.
Kim is not saying that education is unimportant; in fact, he is a well-known advocate of widespread education, and supports access to basic and secondary learning to lift women out of poverty. Despite this, he is aware that educational equality does not mean social equality or lead to greater job prospects, and that we should address ways to strengthen female employment. Although the recent illiteracy figure is appalling, one has to question how impactful a focus on schooling will be in a society in which women are still passed over for jobs.
Eliminating female illiteracy will not, unfortunately, solve gender bias. To be honest, neither will Kim’s idea of investing in female small business owners, who still, in the end, earn less than males (according to this Forbes article). However, as Malala would say, education is power, and at least allowing women this privilege is a start.